When did you learn to pray?
Did someone teach you? Or was it a kind of instinctive thing?
For me, my first ‘prayer’ wasn’t really a prayer in the traditional sense. I remember, when I was small, sitting in the hallway of my home and realising that God was there. I didn’t say anything but it was my first conscious communion with Him – a kind of ‘hello I’m here’ from Him to me and back again.
Later I was taught to pray, by my parents but also by my primary school.
I went to a Church of England school. Most primary schools like to create a sense of routine for their littler students. They want to give them a sense of security so that they start each school day knowing what to expect. My school did that with prayer.
We prayed when we arrived at school.
We prayed before we ate.
We prayed in assemblies.
We prayed before we went home.
We memorised these prayers and chanted these prayers and even now I can draw snippets of them to mind … as well as the feelings of comfort and familiarity that accompanied them as my mouth stumbled over each line.
One characteristic of people who regard themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the fact that they often don’t take part in religious ritual. Much of the time, prayer gets lumped into this category. (For more on being ‘spiritual vs religious’ take a look at this post). I want to show you that prayer isn’t some stale, musty old ritual without any spiritual life. Instead, it’s a spiritually invigorating and improving practice.
One of the best examples I can give to show you this, is through one of my favourite children’s books … Anne of Green Gables.
Anne of Green Gables: Some Background Information
Haven’t read this beautiful, Canadian children’s classic or watched the TV series? Let me give you some background information.
Anne is an orphan girl with bright red hair. She’s imaginative and creative but has had a pretty love-starved life. When she’s 11 years old she arrives at the home of middle-aged brother and sister Matthew and Marilla. They had asked for a boy from the orphan asylum to help Matthew with the farm work. Because of a mix-up, they send Anne instead.
Matthew is the first to become enchanted with this chatty, sensitive but deeply vulnerable young girl. He does so as he rides her back home from the train station just after meeting her. Marilla takes a little longer to come around but eventually agrees to keep her – even though she’s not a boy.
Anne benefits massively from the stable, no-nonsense environment that Marilla and Matthew’s home offers. She gets a decent education with them and the love and support of two parental figures. She also receives religious training from Marilla and others in the local Christian community.
Anne: Spiritual But Not Religious
At the start of the book, Anne is clearly a ‘spiritual but not religious’ type. She’s received hardly any religious instruction, snatching bits and pieces here and there during her tumultuous upbringing. Yet she has a deep sense of spirituality. This usually shows up when she sees beautiful landscapes or nature in general. Paul talks about this kind of spirituality in Romans when he refers to people who are able to see God through what He has made even if they haven’t heard the Gospel (Romans 1:20). Anne can definitely do this … and what’s more, her instinctive reaction on seeing glimpses of God in the nature around her is to worship and adore (Chapter 2 paragraph 52.).
When she first meets Anne, Marilla is quick to see her love of nature and the spirituality that it displays. But she also predicts that little good will come of it:
“Oh, isn’t it wonderful?” she [Anne] said, waving her hand comprehensively at the good world outside.
“It’s a big tree,” said Marilla, “and it blooms great, but the fruit don’t amount to much never – small and wormy.”Chapter 4 paragraphs 13 and 14.
Here, Marilla isn’t really speaking about the tree outside. Instead she’s talking about Anne’s undisciplined spirituality. Marilla knows that whilst Anne’s spirituality will likely look impressive to an outsider – it will ‘bloom great’ – she needs guidance and discipline for the spiritual fruit to come of anything. Let’s take a look at why she thinks that.
Marilla: Deeply Religious But Not Very Spiritual
Marilla is a regular church attender who prides herself on keeping her head well out of the clouds. She listens to what she’s taught in church and feels a sense of security from sticking to what her minister tells her. In many ways, a guardian like this is exactly what Anne needs – who tends to run away with her imagination.
The collisions between Anne’s fanciful imaginings and Marilla’s brutal matter-of-factness are many … and often hilarious. One of my favourites is when Anne asks Marilla to call her ‘Cordelia’ on first arriving at Green Gables. Marilla quickly discovers that this isn’t her real name and is left seriously confused. Why would anyone want people to call them something not their name because it sounded more ‘romantic’? (Chapter 3 paragraphs 14-24.)
Anne finally learns the importance of reigning in her imagination in a chapter called ‘A Good Imagination Gone Wrong’. Anne and her best friend Diana have been imagining up horror stories about a wood they live nearby. The trouble is, the stories become so real to them, they can’t bear to walk through it. Anne later makes a connection between this experience and the effect it could have on Christian faith. Remembering a minister who tried out for the church she attends, she criticises him (shock and surprise) for having too much imagination: ‘he let it run away with him just as I did mine in the matter of the Haunted Wood’ (Chapter 21 paragraph 6.). Without guidance, Anne’s spirituality too is at the mercy of her imagination which has the habit of playing tricks on her.
This being so, Marilla is quick to give Anne some religious instruction. The very first thing she teaches her to do … is to pray.
Why Anne Doesn’t Say Her Prayers
Marilla is, of course, horrified to hear that Anne has never said her prayers before in the chapter ‘Anne Says Her Prayers’. Yet there are many reasons for it. Perhaps some might seem familiar to you? I know I definitely use number 2 as an excuse sometimes.
- Nobody has taught Anne to pray.
- Before the orphan asylum she had lived with a family with twins and had had to look after them. By the end of the day, she was always too ‘tired at night to bother saying prayers’.
- She has some grudges against God and some wrong ideas about His character. The mother in the family she lived with before the orphan asylum told her that God made her hair red on purpose and she’s: ‘never cared about Him since’.
- If she were to pray, her style of being spiritual but not religious would mean she would do it entirely differently to Marilla – who insists on Anne following a set structure when she prays (kneel down, thank God for your blessings and humbly ask for what you want). For Anne, this ritualism is totally unnecessary. She would much rather pray by going into ‘a great big field’ or into the ‘deep, deep woods’. Looking up into the deep blue sky, Anne would just ‘feel a prayer’.
The Good Things and Bad Things About Anne’s First Prayer
Anne’s sincerity is the best thing about her style of being spiritual but not religious. She never does anything she doesn’t mean. Yet without the guidance of mature Christians around her she faces a big problem. How can she distinguish which of her sincerely felt feelings should be cultivated and which should be nipped in the bud?
This problem is very evident in the first prayer that she does. In this prayer she thanks God for the beautiful flowers, trees and lakes that she has seen recently and does so with her characteristic deep sincerity. When moving to the things she wants (which she claims to be far more than those she is thankful for) she tries to keep it short and snappy by just mentioning the two most important.
Her first request ‘to stay at Green Gables’ is a very suitable one to include amongst the ‘two most important’ things she wants. Her second request ‘to be good-looking when I grow up’ is, well … a much less suitable request to take this position. Of course, how could Anne know any better? Nobody’s ever shown her the dangers of vanity and so she has no reason to work on curbing it. As a result, she unashamedly includes it as one of her most urgent anxieties.
Why Marilla Teaches Anne to Pray Like She Does
Now that she’s under Marilla’s roof, Marilla fully intends to make sure Anne does know better. She does this by giving her the tools to cultivate and discipline her spirituality. The formulaic approach to praying that Marilla offers, isn’t as pointless as Anne thinks. In fact, it broadly follows the order of the Lord’s prayer which Jesus gave as a model: expressing gratitude or praise and then requesting things (for more on how the Bible teaches us to pray and why – take a look at this post). By praying in this form Marilla is encouraging Anne to pray as Jesus taught us to pray … she is encouraging Anne to become more like Jesus. The ritual isn’t pointless.
Anne and Marilla: Their Different Forms of Wisdom
Marilla might be better informed and more experienced than Anne when it comes to religious topics. That definitely doesn’t mean she has all the wisdom between the two of them though. Marilla’s religiosity is a little on the rigid and dead side. Anne, as a vibrant spiritual but not religious type, most definitely isn’t that.
For Anne, it’s very difficult for her to do or say anything she doesn’t mean. This can be seen when Marilla casually says ‘good night’ to Anne at the end of Anne’s tumultuous first day (Chapter 3 paragraphs 48-50). Anne has already told Marilla that she is in the ‘depths of despair’ because of the news that Marilla and Matthew were expecting a boy instead of her. This being so, she cannot understand why Marilla would say ‘good night’ when it definitely isn’t a ‘good night’. For Marilla, of course, she was just taking part in a social custom. She thought nothing of it – which is exactly the danger of her style of religiosity. Too often very religious people can say and do things, including religious rituals and prayer, just because it has become a custom to them. They don’t always mean it.
When Marilla’s Religiosity Goes Too Far
Marilla’s heavy-handed religiosity almost taints the purity of Anne’s sincerity in the chapter ‘Anne’s Confession’. In this chapter, Marilla loses the amethyst brooch which she always wears to church. Anne was the last person to see it and so Marilla believes that Anne must have lost it. Even though Anne says she didn’t, Marilla doesn’t believe her so she tells Anne that she can’t go to the church picnic until she confesses. Anne has been looking forward to that picnic for a long time and is so desperate to go that she eventually makes the decision to confess – even though she didn’t lose the brooch.
Things go from bad to worse when Marilla hears Anne’s confession. Instead of being softened by Anne’s willingness to obey her, she feels really angry with her. How could Anne be so thoughtless as to lose her precious brooch? Anne still can’t go to the picnic after all … which of course Anne thinks is very unfair.
Then suddenly, on the day of the picnic, Marilla finds the brooch and realises that she pressured Anne into a false confession. She feels terrible and lets Anne go to the picnic.
This episode highlights the dangers of heavy-handed religiosity. If the person taking part in a religious practice (like ‘confession’) doesn’t really mean it, then it is dishonesty. Anne wisely sums this point up when in Chapter 10 (second to last paragraph) she says: “Saying one’s prayers isn’t exactly the same thing as praying”.
Anne and Marilla: A Meeting in the Middle on the Religious vs Spiritual Spectrum
In the course of the book, Anne and Marilla learn a lot from each other and begin to meet each other half-way on the religious vs spiritual spectrum.
Marilla ‘mellows’ and Anne’s influence injects her religiosity with more sincerity and joy. (Chapter 38 paragraph 47.)
Meanwhile, Anne learns to combine her vibrant spirituality with the disciplines provided by the traditions and rituals of ‘religion’. This is never more evident than when Anne prays the night after hearing she passed the exam to Queen’s Academy. When she first hears the news, she says to her best friend Diana that she is ‘dazzled inside’ and:
I want to say a hundred things, and I can’t find the words to say them in.(Chapter 32 paragraph 41.)
Later, when she is alone, praying turns out to be the language she best finds voice for these ‘hundred things’. When she does pray, her always sincere spirituality has matured through prayer and other religious disciplines Marilla introduced her to. This being so, the vanity that horrified Marilla in Anne’s first prayer takes on the more positive form of ‘aspiration’ when she utters a ‘sweet’ prayer: ‘of gratitude and aspiration that came straight from her heart’. (Chapter 32 final paragraph.)
Why Do We Pray?
We can answer this question by contrasting the good reasons for praying in Anne of Green Gables, with the bad reasons.
- Because we genuinely feel gratitude towards God and want to express it.
- To ask for worthwhile things.
- Prayer can cultivate our spirituality e.g. by modelling our prayers on Jesus’ teachings on prayer we can discipline ourselves to become more like Him.
- We’re pressured into it.
- It’s a kind of habit that doesn’t really mean anything.
Prompts for thought
What reasons do you have for praying? Can you think of any others not included in this discussion of Anne of Green Gables?
Like Anne when she was taking care of twins, do you sometimes find it difficult to find time to pray? How do you motivate yourself? Do you usually feel the benefit after praying and are glad you did it?
Whose style of praying do you identify more with? Marilla’s highly structured form of praying or Anne’s more spontaneous outflow of prayer?