By Linda Ryan
I was shopping in the grocery store not long ago, and something occurred to me. I suddenly noticed that I slowed down when approaching an intersection with another aisle. Then I looked both ways to make sure nobody turned toward my cart or crossed my aisle to another.
I found I do the same thing in buildings with hallways. When crossing intersections, I check out what’s happening in the walkways to my right and left. I suppose this habit comes from driving, where constantly watching for other drivers is not only necessary but a safety requirement. Looking both ways is imperative while driving but pretty much an automatic response in different situations.
I’ve been thinking about other things I do automatically. Walking to the refrigerator to get a pitcher of iced tea may be a conscious thing, but I don’t have to direct my hand to grasp the handle and lift it.
I don’t have to tell my lungs to work harder and faster when walking and getting out of breath. They do it as a response to my heart pushing blood and my brain keeping track of how much oxygen that blood is moving to the rest of the body. I stumble, and my inner ears tell the labyrinth to respond to attempt to keep me upright — at least, most of the time.
What else do I do subconsciously? I trip over something and subconsciously reach out for something to grab onto to keep me upright. The cat knocks something off the desk, and I reach to catch it (the cat usually wins).
I put toothpaste on my brush and begin brushing my teeth. I don’t have to consciously direct my hand to move around my mouth, getting my gums, my teeth, and all the crevices between. I do many things without thinking a lot about it, things I do every day or many times a day. Is it a habit? Subconscious thought? Or something else?
Some years ago, I had an automobile accident where a ladder run over by an 18-wheeler in front of me on the freeway hit the side of my car. I found myself in a sliding skid, foot on the brake pedal (where it shouldn’t have been) and saying, “Jesus, help me!”
It worked; I wasn’t hurt except for a bit of whiplash and a very slight concussion. At that time, it wasn’t a conscious prayer, although I remember saying it and meaning every word.
There have been other times when I have consciously prayed, such as when I heard the news of disasters, illnesses, deaths, or dangerous situations. Sometimes it was an arrow prayer to St. Anthony to help me find things like my glasses, keys, or something else I had lost.
Usually, my conscious prayers are directed to Jesus, although I often write prayers to God when reflecting on something. I wonder, why don’t I pray to the Holy Spirit?
Then I have to wonder, do I ever pray subconsciously, without verbalizing or even thinking of prayer? I know I have considered things I do as a wordless prayer, such as knitting a prayer shawl or scarf for someone in particular, but what about those I knit without anyone special in mind?
My mind can wander once I have a pattern in my fingers and don’t have to pay close attention to it. Does it still count as a prayer shawl if I’m not actively praying at the time?
I know that I have subconsciously prayed as I walked in particularly familiar or breathtaking places. I have also prayed when hearing or even participated in making music, particularly religious music. I never wanted to be a soloist, but small or large groups seem to magnify my prayers’ strength and sincerity.
But my mind goes back to subconscious prayer. I think of places like monasteries and convents where people deliberately enter to devote themselves to lives of prayer and service, a form of prayer in action.
People go into churches at all hours to pray and seek comfort, and very possibly some go in just to sit in a quiet, dry, warm place. But who can say that as they sit, they aren’t in some kind of prayer, even if they aren’t really familiar with what prayer is?
Come to think of it, how familiar are any of us with prayer? Is it a habit reserved for Thanksgiving dinner or “Now I lay me down to sleep”? Is it like an arrow being shot toward heaven to get us out of trouble or ask for something we need urgently? Is “Our Father, who art in heaven” the only prayer we can say when we feel we need to pray? Do we have particular Psalms or verses that we use when we are in distress? Do we consider those prayers, whether conscious or unconscious? Do objects like rosaries or strings of beads help focus our prayers or become almost subconscious as the beads slip through our fingers like water over rocks in a stream?
Do we feel we have to kneel to pray? Can we do it sitting or even lying down? Can we do it when we’re moving around, or must we stand still? Must we do it aloud, or can it simply come from the voice of our hearts and minds? Can we sing it? Can we even dance to it as David danced before the altar?
How do you pray? What do you get from it? How do you feel when you pray? Does just sitting and meditating feel prayerful? When you do or make something for another person, do you also offer it to God as a prayer?
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. This article was first published at Episcopal Café. https://www.episcopalcafe.com/prayer-conscious-and-subconscious/