(continued from yesterday--and from 35 years ago.)
But I'm older now, and today l think I know even more. For instance, I think I know that my parents were wrong, in a way, for making me bow my head in a dimly lit tavern. For me, as long as such a practice was awkward or embarrassing or out-of-place, such a practice was mere exhibitionism. It wasn’t prayer at all.
And what I whispered during those suppers reflected the banality of the exercise: I would chug through a sort of ritual litany of blesses, a childhood memory prayer that included my grandparents – “bless – mamma – and -a daddy – and Judy – and – Gail – and Grandpa – and – Grandma” years after my grandparents had passed on to a place where they had no need of further blessing. Put your head down, quickly get out the words, jerk your head up again—then watch your mother smile. It wasn’t prayer, really.
Today I think I know more about prayer. Those ditties I rifled through over a plate of perch were not really prayers; I wasn't really speaking to God, I was fulfilling an obligation to my parents. Prayer is, of course, nothing more or less than talking with God, and one cannot really sacramentalize prayer with folded hands and bowed heads, as if the occasion were some formal affair of our Sunday-best.
And today, I'm old enough to learn from no less a heretic than D.H. Lawrence that such natural communication between God and man exists only in a heart attuned to God. Belief, he says (and so have many others), comes only from the Holy Ghost within. So while such public prayers may well have been natural for my parents, they were not for me-not at ten, or fifteen, or twenty.
And the problem is, there's more to worry about when you're a father. All this knowledge one accumulates chasing through life's experiences gets to be a burden at times. While I'm convinced that forcing them, as I was forced, to bow their heads in public will not ensure that real prayer takes place, I am committed to doing whatever I can to ensure that their sweet kid's hearts become attuned to God. I want the Holy Ghost to dwell in those darling little temples. And I know-as I am sure my parents knew that the only way God may come to dwell within them is if they ask Him. And I know--as I am sure my parents knew--that one asks Him to dwell within, only through prayer.
I wonder sometimes how God receives all our prayers, even those shot-from-the-hip-the prayers mustered up as much from a sense of duty as from a real heartfelt desire. I can't help but think they're recorded anyway-even if no sweat or blood certifies the efforts. He is, after all, our Father, and if anyone will understand our silly foibles, surely He will, our great grace-giver. We have, I know, His promise to listen, even when our efforts are soiled by conditioning or coercion.
Sincere desire prompted my father's bowed-head testimony; it was a sincere desire that all of us remember, especially in a bar, whose children we really were. I'm sure God smiles on that kind of devotion.
So I suppose today I too should look over the table with that same furrowed-brow look my father gave me when I was a boy, and use it to convince my children to bow their heads. And silently we'll pray, sitting there rather uncomfortably. And then we'll eat lake perch. I love lake perch.
Today half the county comes out to their favorite tavern for fish dinner on Friday nights. Years ago, the perch were taken right from the big lake down the road; some fishlovers ate perch on Fridays to support local industry. Years ago, the county's Roman Catholics had to eat fish on Fridays; some fish-lovers ate perch to fulfill ecclesiastical law. But today, the perch are Canadian, probably flown in; years ago already the Pope freed Roman Catholics from a special Friday diet.
So today there are only two good reasons why all these folks wait in a line along the bar for fried lake perch on Friday nights: custom (they've been doing it for years) and pure desire (they love perch). And really, those two reasons are inseparable; they love perch-at least partially-because they've loved it for years.
In that way, Friday night perch is like a prayer, I guess. Prayer—real prayer—is a natural function of a heart attuned to God. But atonement comes only by prayer, and one learns to pray by praying. Thus custom builds desire. Thus desire builds custom.
That’s what my father thought, I suppose. And that’s why I’ll carry on that tradition, even into the tavern.