Sometimes, when I’m praying with a small group — say, the ladies at Morning Prayer whom I have mentioned before — I stop speaking aloud and listen instead. Starting with the woman closest to me, I try to pick out each voice.
Our Father, who art in heaven, she begins. Her voice is measured, calm, the sound of warm milk being poured into a glass for a child who can’t fall asleep. Hallowed be thy name. I imagine her voice checking off ingredients as she pulls baking powder and brown sugar from her cupboard. Her apron has a floury hand print below the pocket, into which she replaces the battered heirloom of a recipe card. I can taste the flaky crust of her apple pie.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. I shift my focus to the dear heart across the aisle. Her voice is honey and love, the sound of grass on a hillside when you’re having a picnic and have to weigh down the napkins with the salt and pepper shakers. On earth as it is in heaven. I imagine her voice reading Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to laughing children who sit cross-legged on mats and never want naptime to come. At the end of each page, she makes sure all of the children have seen the pictures. I laugh, too, when the airplane drops confetti near the end of ” And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street.”
Give us this day our daily bread. I strain to hear the woman next to her. Her voice is soft but durable, the sound of late afternoon rain watering patchwork fields and seeping into the clay. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. I imagine her speaking comfort in the ICU, her words keeping time with the pinging heart monitor. She holds a frail hand in both of hers, careful not to disturb the needle and tape and gauze and drip-drip of the IV bag. I stand in the doorway with my stomach in my throat and watch her care.
And lead us not into temptation. The last lady is easy to pick out because she is always a few words ahead of everyone else. Her voice is crystal, weightless, the sound of water splashing out of a bucket as it is rises haltingly from the depths of a stone-lined well. But deliver us from evil. I imagine her voice distributing presents on Christmas morning after all the adults have gotten coffee and hot-cross buns. She thanks her grandchildren for their gifts of pipe cleaner and popsicle stick ornaments. I wait for her to call my name and shake a present in my direction.
My focus dissipates, and I join the four woman for the conclusion. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Our voices mix into one voice — warm milk and rain, windswept grass and splashing water, and my voice, which always sounds strange to me when I hear it on a recording. We raise that voice as one to the One that gave us voice. And after our Amen we fall silent.
And we listen.