13th-century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style
More often than not, I pray out of desperation.
I’ve reached the end of my rope. I summon all my resources, and they come up short. My emotions have taken possession of me, body and spirit. I’m angry at someone else and disgusted with myself. I’m drowning in depression, overcome by anxiety, paralyzed by fear. I throw myself into God’s lap, bury my face in God’s shoulder, and cry out, “Help me, Father, for I cannot help myself” or “Get me the hell out of here!”—words to that effect.
I usually refer to God as “Mother-Father” when invoking God-as-parent, but in the throes of hopelessness, Father is often the appellation from my heart. I don’t know what that says about my family of origin—both Mom and Dad were always there for us to lean on. Probably it stems from my earliest prayers, from the time I first understood that I could present my ugliest, most self-absorbed, least honorable self to the Creator and be embraced with unconditional love and limitless compassion—and in the 1950s, in my Christian community, we prayed to God the Father.
Sometimes, however, I need a supernatural mother. Though I wasn’t raised Catholic, I turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, when I’m suffering parental pain. In extremity, I don’t worry about whether my prayer is theologically correct or if I’m committing sacrilege.
In fact, praying is the one thing I do without wondering if I’m doing it wrong. All I need when I show up is honesty. I can pray in my pajamas. I can use unholy language. I can blame and curse and carry on. I can think, as Anne Lamott puts it, “such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”
Anne Lamott has written much on how our brokenness allows God to heal us. “On the spiritual path,” she writes, “all the dreck and misery is transformed, maybe not that same day, but still transformed into spiritual fuel or insight.” There’s a great deal of dreck on my spiritual path.
I pray to confess and repent.
In the safety of God’s presence and the assurance of God’s forgiveness, I open the closets where the skeletons and monsters are. I bring them into the open and give them a once-over. When I know what they look like, I can steer clear of them. They are not “me.”
I pray for stuff.
I’m not ashamed to say that I come to God with wish lists. I pray for prosperity but also for compassion. I pray for healing—for myself and for others—but I also pray for the greater blessing. I might want a motorcycle. God might want me to have a pickup truck. I’ll take the pickup truck if it’s offered, trusting that I’ll know the reasons for it down the road.
I pray not so much to change God’s mind as to keep tabs on my own. I lay my petitions before God in order to remember what I want, which is ultimately who I am. Following the path of least resistance won’t take me to my destination. Left to chance and circumstance, my hopes and dreams will get lost in the distractions and emergencies of day-to-day living. They’ll succumb to entropy and gravity if I don’t tend to them. Pretty soon, I’ll forget where I meant to go in the beginning. It’s okay if my goals change and my passions evolve. I just don’t want it to happen because I lost track of them.
I make a ritual of love.
Jan Havicksz Steen, The Prayer before the Meal
Out of love and compassion, I offer prayers of intercession. Where I feel less than loving, I pray that my hostility and fear will be transformed.
Any number of physicians now agree with Dr. Larry Dossey that to exclude prayer from their practices is as negligent as to withhold medicine. Some believe in the power of thought to heal or to harm. Prayer, they say, is a form of thought that heals, whereas hate and fear are unhealthy for the bodies that hold those feelings and for those around them. Whatever the scientific rationale, one study reports that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe in the power of prayer to improve the course of illness. When I pray out of love, I am certain that in some way I bring sacred energy to the situation. Because my love is tainted with distrust and insecurity, I ask God to filter out the toxins and pollutants. Hate can’t keep its footing in the honest intention to shine more brightly in the world.
Thus, when I pray, I cultivate a spirit of gratitude. I practice thankfulness as I once practiced the piano—to form a habit that is more dependable with every repetition. I make gratitude a ritual—deliberately bringing joy into my field of awareness until it’s all but effortless. I believe in ritual. Some find it tedious. For me, it brings both comfort and inspiration.
I love the idea of the Rosary: the intention to pray announced with the sign of the cross; the tactile familiarity of the beads; the well-known phrases—“Give us this day our daily bread…. Hail, Mary, full of grace… pray for us sinners…. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end….” Orthodox Jews recite approximately a hundred benedictions every day. There are worse ways to spend one’s time than these.
I pray to invoke all that is sacred, regardless of where it resides.
The Adoration of the Magi, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi
Some sincerely spiritual people believe that each of us embodies all holiness. Whether or not it’s true, to me it feels lonely. My primordial self believes in mystical forces and sacred powers that come only when they are called. It is said that angels will not violate our free will. Maybe it’s my dinosaur intelligence speaking, or maybe I’m hedging my bets, just in case Michael really is the angel of protection or of my life’s purpose, as Doreen Virtue claims.
I am a monotheist. I believe in one God, whose essence is love. How God dispatches helpers or emissaries transcends my human understanding. In fact, almost everything about the Divine is beyond my ken. Knowing, to the extent such things can be known, that God is love and God is supreme, I consider it not only possible but likely that God sends angels and other benign spirits to guide and protect us.
I pray to rest my spirit.
Prayer is not meditation, whose benefits are well documented. Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and the risk of heart attack and stroke, and to improve creative thinking, compassion, and emotional well-being. I promote meditation at every opportunity, and I meditate regularly.
Prayer is a different practice, though I bring elements of meditation into my time of prayer. I try not to make praying a mental exercise with discrete steps and a checklist. When I’m troubled, I might literally pray without ceasing. When I feel fear or antipathy, or when someone says, “Pray for me,” I pray right then and there. When I sit down with my prayer list, I begin mechanically—prayer is, among other things, a discipline—but at some point I let go. I pray to enter the collective unconscious, to immerse myself in life’s mighty ocean. I let the prayer be bigger than I am. I lean back on the the universe, as one leans on the water when learning to swim, and trust that it will always hold me up.
In the mystical communion that is prayer, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve prayed for five minutes or an hour, whether I’ve prayed daily since childhood or I’ve never consciously uttered a prayer in my entire life. My spirit rests and is refreshed, and it arises pure and new. Love cleanses me and fills me, and I am indestructible. This is why I pray: To invoke the mystery of transformation; to love as God loves; and to walk in the world with fearlessness and grace.
Virgin Mary in prayer, by Sassoferrato, 17th century
WHY I PRAY
I pray for many reasons. Let me say at once: I’m
not above presenting God with this and that
request. But better yet, because it never fails: I
pray to give my mind a rest. The second I’m
awake—before I even make the bed—it races off
without premeditation. Where to go, and for
what purpose? Whom to benefit? It doesn’t
care. To be in motion is its sine qua non. If it
hopes in passing for a map to manifest, or for
some audible advice on navigation—”Stop”; ”Go
right”; “Go left”—that must suffice for caution,
and for prayer. At length it pauses, takes a
breath because it must (exhaustion trumps
intemperance) and—thus deactivated, and
belatedly remembering that haste makes
wreckage, cringing at the thought and
wondering what finer things it might have
done with less velocity and more compassion—
makes a small apology to Heaven.
“God,” it says,
“I did my best. Please fix it.” Then it doubts,
regrets its course, and promises thenceforth to
be more circumspect and not to ever leap
before it looks again. And this is when I catch
up and my mind pretends it hasn’t wasted an
entire day behaving like a cocker spaniel
wearing roller skates and never mind the frail
old gentlemen and soft-pink roses, daddies
walking babies safe in sturdy strollers; never
mind the halt, the lame, the twilight, and the
stolen kiss it passed because it couldn’t stop in
flight to pray. Look what you’ve done, I say. See
what you didn’t do? My mind and I survey the
damage. It’s… not awful. Not by half. Expecting
a calamity, we got a gift. While we were out
attacking entropy, we might have missed the
chance to be delighted by the shadows and the
rabbits and the white moon fading in the west,
but we did more than just not die today. We
lived, and it was effortless.
April 2, 2016