'Gravity': Movie astronaut Ryan Stone never 'learned' to pray

'Gravity,' the science fiction thriller, raises an unexpected question: Is the ability to pray inborn or is it something that must be taught?

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP/File
'Gravity,' the space adventure film starring Sandra Bullock as astronaut Ryan Stone, raises a good question for family's to contemplate: Prayer and discernment.

The sci-fi hit Gravity was bumped off its orbit this weekend, after spending three weeks leading at the box office. But the thriller’s questions linger. Perhaps its most poignant moment comes when character Ryan Stone laments that she doesn’t know how to pray, that nobody ever taught her. Which raises the question: Is the ability to pray inborn? Is it something everyone has? Or is it something that must be learned? Taught?

The Rev. Carole Crumley is an Episcopal priest and program director at the ecumenical Shalem Institute, which for 40 years has offered support and training programs for Christian contemplative living. She differentiates formal prayer, which must be learned, from a more loosely structured encounter with the divine.

“I always look at the scriptures,” where, she points out, “the disciples say to Jesus ‘teach us to pray.’ ” Having grown up Jewish within the life of the synagogue, they surely knew the structured prayer, she says, but they saw that Jesus often went off alone to pray in silence. They wanted to learn this more open, direct, responsive way, and people today often want the same.

But while prayers can be taught, Rev. Crumley believes the yearning for God is innate. “We could say that people are born with this desire – that God has planted that desire in us and that our hearts are restless until we are caught by God. Many people experience that connection in an unmediated way,” through nature, for instance. No matter what their faith, adults can help themselves and their children foster that connection, simply by setting off like Jesus did for some regular quiet.

Like many spiritual directors, she suggests people take at least 20 minutes a day – maybe more, maybe less (“there’s nothing magical about 20 minutes”), and be silent, with the intention of simply being open to God. Scriptures, other sacred readings specific to one’s faith, even a candle, icon, or prayer word, can help the focus return to the intention when distraction inevitably strikes.

There’s no need to expect any outcome from your 20 minutes, she says. “Simply trust that God is at work within you and in your life.” In Christian tradition, Jesus “is the pioneer opener of the pathway” to God, she says, while in another faith tradition, there will be another way. The kind of community available in a prayerful church is essential, she says. 

For kids, the focus on God can come in pint-sized moments – during naturally occurring times throughout the day, and perhaps with whatever faith helps a family might like – a bell, a word of explanation, a little prayer. Dinnertimes give the opportunity for a bit of structured attention to God. And while at bedtime an adult might examine the day with a mind to when God may have felt close or distant that day, kids don’t necessarily need such analysis. Natural questions – such as, what was the best part of your day? The worst? – set the pattern of discernment in motion.

“Kids are natural contemplatives. They are just awed by the world – thunderstruck,” says the priest. So are grownups, sometimes, even when an experience doesn’t seem like prayer. “The sunset can be a mystical experience over and over again for someone,” she says. “Sometimes words are unnecessary.”

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