"So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally."When Joseph Smith read James' invitation to ask God for help when we lack wisdom, he felt open invitation to pray vocally. (See Joseph Smith History 1:14-15.) In my life I believe I have prayed hundreds of times vocally, however there is one unique thing the next verse illustrates.
"After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God."There was something unique about this experience, and I suppose it was not necessarily that this was Joseph's first spoken prayer. I struggle to imagine him not ever praying, and perhaps that is the truth, but it seems that this prayer was unique in that it contained vocal desires of his heart.
Praying vocally can be very superficial, in my experience. We are taught from a young age the important parts of prayer, almost like we are taught in school the important parts of composing a letter.
We address the letter: "Dear Father,"
Then we fill in the body, which in Mormonism is like this: "Thank you for this day." We then instruct to fill in more blanks, like "Thank you for this food..."
To develop the body of the prayer we are taught to ask for things. Like "Please bless this chocolate cake to nourish and strengthen our bodies." ;)
Then, just like in a letter, we close with an ending. Letters often end with "Sincerely," but in prayer we are taught to close "In the name of Jesus Christ," as though Jesus were conveying these words in agreement to the Father.
Joseph didn't have any of this structure requirements when he went to pray. He simply felt the invitation strongly to pray in a place where he could have some privacy to not feel like a buffoon for anyone witnessing his first vocal, heartfelt prayer.
He previously planned where he would pray. It was a safe and sacred space for him, which he surely anticipated would allow a safe space to vent his emotions in prayer.
He also knew what he wanted to ask. It was something important to him, and he had pondered and mulled through it greatly.
Then he pulled his desires out of his heart and offered it up to God.
"I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart..."Unique to this prayer vs many of my own was the demonstration of vocal chords. It took both the physical effort as well as the heart connection. It also contained thoughtful pondering.
In verse 25 of Joseph's personal history he observes, "I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation."
The fascinating part of this is that Joseph's prayer was physical in every way. We have the location, and the vocal, recordable nature of it. We know he knelt down too. But yet the vision which unfolds is described as a "vision". It is otherworldly. Two Personages appear to him, light brighter than the sun (vs 16), and whose brightness and glory defy all description. And they stood in the air, which mortals don't do. Why were they standing in the air? Why did Jesus look up to heaven when he prayed? Perhaps because the Father prefers that we look up.
In the book, "The Slight Edge," Jeff Olson discusses some insights regarding effects of the simple act of looking down vs up.
Thinking of Joseph's prayer alongside this experiment, I find it wonderful to consider what it might look like to pray vocally with my heart, while looking up, eyes open as Jesus demonstrated. If looking up lends to considering the future, it seems complimentary that Joseph received instruction about his future. There was much more which he wasn't able to report from this experience, (vs.20) which would be fun to ask God about. But one more thing that I note is that looking up requires faith. We spend so much time looking down to watch our step, our surroundings and to pick up things that are set down, that it is rare to simply look up at the clouds, the roof, the trees, the universe. To look up while walking requires faith and trust that the path is safe, that the body knows how to carry on forward without tripping over itself, and that one will not fall into a ditch by so doing. I suggest the same attitude is applicable in prayer."Take a comfortable, seated position and look down at the floor. Then, without changing position, take the next five minutes to think about your life. Anything and everything, whatever that means to you, just think about your life.Go ahead and do that now...Now, clear your mind, walk around a minute, then come back and do the second half: Take the same comfortable, seated position, only this time tilt your head up so you're looking at the ceiling. Spend the next five minutes thinking about your life. Anything and everything, whatever that means to you, just think about your life.Go ahead and do that now...I don't know what results you had, but here's what most people find: when looking down, it's pretty hard not to start thinking about the past. When gazing upward, it's pretty hard not to start thinking about the future." (p.149)
What would the skeleton look like of a soul who spends a lifetime looking up?