Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
“Groanings Which Cannot Be Uttered”
[p.58] When I was a missionary, I often fell asleep during my own prayers at night. Even though my prayers may have been boring (does God ever yawn at what we say?), that wasn’t the cause; I was just bone-tired from hiking up apartment steps every day while tracting. Then I’d wake up at about 2:00 a.m. and find myself slumped over on the bed, my knee joints painfully locked in the kneeling position. I think I started to grow calluses on my knees, like in the apocryphal story about James, the first bishop of Jerusalem and brother of Jesus, who prayed so much his knees looked like a camel’s.
As far as I know, God is the only person who knew I [p.59] sometimes fell asleep during prayers, until my public confession now. I was almost caught once, though, by a companion. We were saying evening prayers together, and I was the voice. Within a couple of minutes of saying the prayer, I must have fallen asleep in mid-sentence, only to wake up at about 12:00 a.m. As soon as I realized what had happened, I turned around to see if my companion was in bed, but he had fallen asleep on his knees too. Not knowing the proper etiquette for this awkward situation, I bowed my head again and said, my voice increasing gradually in loudness, “in Jesus’ name,” and then resoundingly, “AMEN.” My companion awoke, mumbled “amen,” and crawled into his bed. He never knew.
I used this incident as a part of my short story entitled “Evening Prayers” published in the now defunct Latter-day Digest. In fact, it was in the very last issue of Latter-day Digest, which makes you wonder if this contribution to Mormon letters somehow caused its demise. Prayers recorded in Mormon fiction seem to be acceptable, but we get nervous when someone records an actual ordinance or a prayer on video or audio—in fact, I believe it’s against current church policy. But I’ve wondered what Joseph Smith might think about our concerns, given his puzzlement over the attitude of some of the early Saints who were offended that Joseph [p.60] read the dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland temple from a prepared, although inspired, text. Certainly they wouldn’t have felt that way about the Book of Psalms, which consists of many prayers written as poems and repeated from memory by Israelites, including Jesus. While I’m not sure why we’re anxious about some forms of recorded prayers, I suspect it may have to do with literary types like me. Perhaps if we reduce prayers to a fixed form, we’ll analyze them to the point where they are no longer meaningful. I believe the opposite may be true as well, that by the unexamined routinization of the language of prayer, we are often no different from people who walk in their sleep when we pray, at least publicly.
I was asked once to teach an elder’s quorum class on how to pray, grammatically that is. The person who requested the lesson remarked to me that he never hesitated asking me to give a prayer because he knew I would get my “thees, thous, and wouldsts straight.” I dutifully taught the class, but felt compelled to make the point that if you avoided using “thou” (as in, “we ask thee” rather than, “we ask that thou wouldst”), you’d never have to conjugate Elizabethan verb forms. It was a handy shortcut, I thought. Some of the brethren even took notes on this point. I was then tempted to give the class a list of vain repetitions to avoid (“most [p.61] glorious, eternal, sublime; magnificent, etc.”) or weighty synonyms better left alone (like “edifice” instead of “church”), but fearing someone might take notes and remember these points as recommendations, I instead opted for a story to illustrate how prayers should come from the heart, regardless of their eloquence. When my sister Robin was about four years old, she was given two rabbits as pets. Every night in her prayers she said at the end, “and please bless the rabbits.” The next week my mother, with my sister in tow, was asked to give the closing prayer in a Relief Society meeting. When she got to the end of her prayer, she felt Robin tugging at her dress. “Don’t forget to bless the rabbits,” Robin whispered. Mom tried to ignore her. “Don’t forget to bless the rabbits,” Robin repeated, no longer whispering. My mother continued ignoring her. “MOMMY, DON’T FORGET THE RABBITS.” Mom suffered from no stupor of thought when she added, “and please bless the rabbits.” Everyone was satisfied.