Andy Troska ’17, University Choir Senior Secretary, speaks at Morning Prayers. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
Good morning. I have to admit, it is a slightly strange and intimidating task to stand here and speak to all of you today, instead of sitting and listening from the safety of the choir stalls.
Although this is a space with which I am intimately familiar, and although I have sung for many of you on mornings when my voice was at its worst or when I felt under-rehearsed – apologies for innumerable cracks and squeaks over the past four years – today, this feels different. I am now the person whose thoughts I will compare to those of all the other morning prayers speakers I have seen, the person whose ideas I will critique on the walk back downstairs to the choir room after the service. And I’ll be giving myself a lot to work with, because today I have decided to talk about prayer, at Morning Prayers. To begin, I would like to share with you one of A. R. Ammons’ Really Short Poems called “Figuring Belief”.
Praying answers prayer:
in the deep spells
of inquiry and hope,
enabled to rise again
to the compromises
and the shattering caring
The Memorial Church has been at the center of my Harvard experience from the very beginning. Here, I found one the most fulfilling musical experiences of my entire life in the first weeks of my freshman year; here, I met some of my closest college friends; here, fueled by free coffee, I wrote pretty much all of my senior thesis, much closer to the deadline than I would like to admit. When I add all of the time I have spent in the church basement performing my numerous duties as choir secretary, it becomes clear that the Memorial Church is not just significant for the number of experiences it has afforded me but for its huge physical presence in my day to day life.
However, even though I have spent more time here than almost anywhere else on campus, and even though I feel welcomed, supported, and appreciated by everyone in the Mem Church community, I have never felt completely comfortable in this space. This is not the fault of anyone here; it’s because I do not believe in God. I have spent much of my time over the last four years attempting to clarify and negotiate my complicated feelings about religious belief, organized religion, and going to church. After many services’ worth of reflection, I am still left feeling somewhat ambivalent. I love passing the peace and singing “We Gather Together”, but during Lent I gloss over the somber and penitential words of the hymns and focus on the harmony instead. I find the prayers of the church, carefully crafted and full of eloquent calls for peace and justice, to be inspiring and heartening, but I do not like the notion of confessing my sins in a public way, or of following a standard, scripted prayer to do so. And of course, although I find so much about singing in church so moving (just yesterday, my eyes welled up with tears as we sang Steven Paulus’s Pilgrims’ Hymn), I still cannot understand or accept for myself the role of a higher power in all of this.
But instead of focusing on the details that continue to confound me, cherry-picking my likes while ignoring my dislikes, I would like to turn again to prayer, a practice that my time at the Memorial Church has led me to seriously reconsider. Without a God to whom I could direct my prayer, I once found the idea of praying strange and nonsensical. As I have already mentioned, I do not enjoy or find much meaning in set prayers, since they often focus on ideas of repentance, profession of belief, or on the praise of a higher power. In general, I do not recite them, as I do not want to take away from the meaning they hold for others by saying them without conviction or intention. However, as I have also mentioned, I find the prayers written by our ministers and seminarians specially for the congregation or specifically for this moment in our troubled world to be very moving and profound. It is in these prayers that I see what Ammonds’ poem is getting at: the idea that in the “deep spells of inquiry and hope” that prayer requires, we are able to find ourselves and strengthen ourselves to face “the compromises and shattering caring forms” that define and complicate our everyday life. This in itself is both a prayer and an answer to a prayer, whether a higher power is listening or not.