You know the signs, pale blue paint on distressed wood, neon pink on black vinyl, affirming and uplifting:
Dance like nobody’s watching, Love like you’ll never get hurt …
There are many variations on the theme (paraphrased from a country song by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, “Come from the Heart”, according to quoteinvestigator.com).
So if we are free to play along, how about, “Pray as though nobody’s listening”?
As Lent began, we read from the Gospel according to Matthew the advice to, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). In his book, The Word is Very Near You, Martin L. Smith discusses this strange instruction to secrecy, and concludes that,
“Prayer in private is prayer which can give God undivided attention and in which we can be wholly ourselves without the inhibitions imposed by the presence of others. … If we cry the tears may flow without disconcerting others or arousing their curiosity. … Privacy makes undistracted stillness possible and encourages exuberant expressiveness meant for God’s ears and eyes alone.” (Smith, 72)
Oh, but what about those things that “our Father who is in secret” will see? And what will be their just reward? What is behind that other door, the one within our hearts and souls, which attempts to guard my guilt and my ungraceful, unpaintable, distressed and unfading mantras even from the sight of God, let alone myself?
To pray as though no one is listening is not, I am suggesting, to pray without hope, but to pray without fear. To pray as though there will be no judgement, since mercy is too often beyond imagination. To pray as though there will be no memory, since we cannot face the regret. To pray as honestly and unreservedly, uncensored, as though there will be no answer, but only the blessed silence of that still, small voice; the unspoken, unseen, unanswerable glory that drowns out my feeble cries, translates them into the Spirit’s sighs, breathed away into eternity, so that their echoes no longer haunt me, and I am free to look into the mirror again, without a stranger looking back.
Martin L. Smith, The Word Is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture (Cowley Publications, 1989)
The Revd Rosalind C Hughes is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio, a contributing editor at the Episcopal Cafe, and the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, April 2020). Her blog, over the water, is at rosalindhughes.com