When my friend Bev asked me if I wanted to be prayer partners, I stared at her.
"What does that mean?" I asked her.
"We pray together every week," she said. "We each write down our prayers, then read them aloud to each other."
"Read them aloud?" I repeated. That seemed like some sort of heresy-blithely stating my deepest spiritual thought to another mortal.
"It's quite powerful," Bev assured me. "It adds energy to your prayers." My palms were wet, my mouth was dry. I was both scared and curious. Bev and I held different religious doctrines: hers was Catholic and mine was Jewish. We would be directing our prayers to different names-Bev to her Jesus, me to my God. Bev was used to praying with others; but I had never done so. What would it be like to pray together? How could I reveal even to a friend my very private conversations with God? Yet I had been reading about the power of collective prayer and the idea intrigued me. I agreed to try it.
We met a week later, early in the morning, before work. Our chapel was a coffee shop. Our spiritual music was supplied by the espresso machine. Bev had a short list of nondenominational responsive readings as a warm-up. How odd, to sit over a cup of coffee and read, "I surrender. I know that I need God's help." How unusual to sit among the bagels and pastries and ask out loud for help and forgiveness.
"Now, think of things you usually pray for and write them down," Bev instructed. My mind went blank. Though I prayed every night, those prayers seemed too childish and mundane to write down.
I smoothed my paper and fiddled with my pen. The cash register clanged. The red-cheeked baby across from me threw her pacifier on the floor. It tumbled near my feet. I picked it up and handed it to her mom. Behind me a newspaper rattled as a woman with wild gray hair turned to the features section. "You're not listening," a blond woman told a silver-haired man two tables over. Usually when I prayed, the world stopped or at least seemed to. But this time my prayers were not cloistered and hallowed; they were just another conversation in this busy coffee shop.
I picked up the pen and wrote "I pray for self-love." I took a deep breath. "I pray for more fun," I wrote. "I pray for meaningful work." I forced myself to put at least five prayers on my list. Was that too many, too greedy? I wondered.
I nodded, my voice in hiding.
"Want me to go first?" Bev asked. I nodded again. Bev read, "I thank God for my blessings. I pray to check in with God throughout the day and to listen to God's guidance."
As I wrote down her words, I savored the prayer. What a good idea, checking in with God. I had never thought to make that desire so intentional. Then I wondered, was there a copyright on prayers? How would Bev feel if I added that prayer to my list? She read another prayer: "I want to embrace beauty and order and release clutter with ease and grace." I thought of my kitchen, my garage, my basement-teaming with clutter. Yes, that too. I was practically bouncing in my seat as I read Bev's prayers back to her.
When it was my turn to read my own prayers it took me three tries to get the first sentence out. Bev wrote it down. I stumbled over the second sentence and marched my way through the third. I felt I had conquered something large when I finished reading her my list. It was quite remarkable, listening to her read aloud my sacred secret prayers as though they were already true.
"I love your prayer for a more compassionate world," she said. "I'm going to add that to my prayers."
I smiled, as if I'd just landed on my feet after a triple somersault.
We were just finishing when Carol, one of my coworkers, walked up to our table, to-go sack in hand, newspaper tucked under one arm, laptop slung over the other. "Hey, you seem pretty intent. What are you doing, cramming for an exam or something?"
I felt as if I'd just been caught peeling off my panty hose in public. I put my arm over my list of prayers and thought of saying, "We're just talking." But telling even a little lie during a prayer time seemed ill advised.
"Well," I said, looking at Bev for guidance, "we're, uh, praying." I watched Carol's face carefully.
"Good for you. I used to pray with a group on Saturday mornings. I really miss that," Carol said and walked away.
"Want to meet again next week?" Bev asked, putting her papers in her briefcase.
I nodded. I was already thinking of all the prayers I was going to add, real-life stuff that I wanted help and support for.
Bev and I have now been praying together for nine years. I still love silent prayer and I still do a lot of it. But I also love the vulnerability and openness of sharing my prayers. Writing down my prayers makes them more real for me. Saying them aloud makes me feel closer to God. Hearing Bev echo back my deepest spiritual desires makes me feel like they are already coming true.
Beyond the individual prayers, I like our intention: a Jew and a Catholic, gathering to make a "joyful noise unto the Lord," praying for ourselves and for a kinder, more compassionate world.