What was my first prayer? As far as I can remember, it was this, taught (I must suppose) by a parent:
Now I lay me down to sleep,A funny sort of prayer to teach a child, a bogeyman sort of prayer, suffused with the ominous possibility of death, and perhaps worse.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
It was the first of many formulaic prayers I would learn from parents or teachers. There was a brief period, as I recall, when, under the influence of Father Patrick Peyton and his Family Rosary Crusade, Dad and Mom and me and Anne knelt in our parents' bedroom each evening and recited the Rosary. (Anne, am I remembering correctly?) I don't recall that this episode of family piety lasted long -– the Rosary is a terribly tedious prayer and my father was an antsy man -– but it established a pattern of life on one's knees mumbling words that meant nothing other than that they were supposed to please God.
My teenage years were a history of ejaculations (of the brief rote prayer kind) and Acts of Contrition, all supposing that a Deity was listening who was pleased and appeased by mumbled, essentially meaningless words.
Then, at age 19, Thomas Merton fell into my life, first his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, then, as time passed, his other works, such as Thoughts In Solitude:
When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer…Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.What a revelation! That God didn't speak English. That he wasn't up there somewhere listening to make sure that I got the words right. That whatever grand and glorious mystery infused the world with grace was here, now, all around me. That prayer was not paying formulaic obeisance, but paying attention.