Why I Pray

13th century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style

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

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.

Fra_Angelico,_Fra_Filippo_Lippi,_The_Adoration_of_the_Magi

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

Virgin Mary in prayer, by Sassoferrato, 17th century

WHY I PRAY
Act One

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.

Mary Campbell
April 2, 2016

 

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The Mysteries

Was Mary a Virgin?

The Annunciation, by Fra' Filippo Lippi, 1443

The Annunciation, by Fra' Filippo Lippi, 1443

Sometimes when I ask Sister Alma Rose a question and she doesn’t want to answer, or (rarely) she doesn’t know the answer, she says, “Honey, it’s one of the Mysteries.” Usually it’s a question about God or the Afterlife. If it’s a scientific question, like why did God make cockroaches, Sister Alma Rose might take me to the library and we both learn about The Cockroach’s Place in the Ecosystem, and, even after I understand, I still think cockroaches were one of God’s Mistakes, like Muffy Shea, who picks her nose and eats her boogers ALL the TIME, even in French class.

Marine ecosystem near Hawaii, U.S. NOAA

Marine ecosystem near Hawaii, U.S. NOAA

Back when Pablo and I were 7 or 8 years old and we were playing Uno with Sister Alma Rose on her big wraparound porch with the grass-green floor and the grass-green wicker table and chairs, Pablo tells Sister Alma Rose that his mama and daddy have had a great big fight and they are not speaking to each other because Pablo’s daddy believes that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, exactly like it says in the Bible, and Pablo’s mama believes that Mary was absolutely not a virgin and that the Holy Spirit did not impregnate her, and the whole idea, Pablo’s mama says, is “sick and wrong,” and Pablo says it is getting so he hates the Christmas season because every year his mama and daddy don’t speak from the beginning of Advent until after Epiphany.

Adoration of the Magi, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio)

Epiphany: Adoration of the Magi, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio)

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. —Luke 1:26-28

The Annunciation, from a mural in Ubisi, Georgia

The Annunciation, from a mural in Ubisi, Georgia

“Jesus wept!” says Sister Alma Rose in her Exasperated voice. “Honey, why can’t y’all’s mama and papa argue about money, like NORMAL people?”

She shuffles the Uno cards, making them bridge and then fall neatly into place with that snapping sound, which neither Pablo nor I can do and which we greatly admire.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

The week before, Pablo had asked Sister Alma Rose if Santa Claus was real. “Honey, ain’t nothin’ much realer’n Santa Claus,” she answers. But Pablo is not going to be put off with that. He has been hanging with the Wrong Crowd, which is to say, kids who don’t GET Santa Claus.

In fact, tears are welling up in Pablo’s eyes, and I have never seen Pablo cry, never, not even when he fell out of a tree and ruptured his spleen. “But Sister Alma Rose,” he persists, “who puts the Christmas presents under the tree and in our stockings?” He has noticed that the writing on the Santa gift tags looks exactly like his mama’s writing, plus last year she got careless and wrapped the Santa presents in the same wrapping paper she used for Pablo’s present for his teacher, Mrs. Blount, which was a cube of personalized sticky notes, the present, I mean, not Mrs. Blount.

santa_1881_thomas_nast

An 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, with Clement Clarke Moore, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus

“Honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “Santa Claus is one of the Mysteries. Do y’all want to take the mystery out of Christmas?”

Well, by now the tears have escaped and are coursing down Pablo’s face, making runnels in the dust that coats little boys’ faces when they have been playing outside. “No,” he sobs. “But someday I’m gonna grow up and get married and have children, and it’s gonna come Christmas Eve, and I’m not gonna know if I’m supposed to do anything or not!”

Sister Alma Rose promises Pablo that the Santa Claus Mystery will have been Revealed to him by that time, and Sister Alma’s promises are sacrosanct, so Pablo dries his eyes and we go to play in the dirt some more.

Many kinds of truth

But the following week, when we are playing Uno and Pablo is telling us about his mama and daddy’s annual argument, and Sister Alma Rose says, “Jesus wept!” and so forth, Pablo just looks at her and says, “So, Sister Alma Rose, who’s saying the truth, my mama or my daddy?”

“Honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “there are many kinds of truth. Let’s say y’all called up your sister Helen on the phone right now — she’s still living in Connecticut, right? — and y’all asked her what time it is. What would she say?”

“Well,” Pablo says, “it’s one hour later there than it is here. What time is it here?”

“It’s ten-fifteen in the morning,” says Mr. Truman Lafollette, who is setting down a tray of spiced apple cider instead of his usual crisp, tangy lemonade, because it is cool outdoors and the sun hasn’t yet made its way over the porch.

“Then I guess it’s eleven-fifteen in Connecticut,” I say, stirring my cider with a cinnamon stick.

“Well, then, honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “who is telling the truth: Helen, who would say it’s eleven-fifteen, or y’all, who’d say it’s ten-fifteen?”

“We’d both be right,” says Pablo, “but it’s because we’re in different places.”

Cinnamon sticks

Cinnamon sticks

“So, maybe,” says Sister Alma Rose, sipping her cider, which is still very hot, “y’all’s mama and papa are both right. They’re in different places, too, and speaking different languages.

“There’s story truth, you see, and there’s empirical truth, the kind you can prove in a laboratory. ‘Story truth’ is spiritually true, just as Jesus explained to the Pharisee named Nicodemus. Spiritual truth is eternal and everlasting and no matter how hard scientists try, they will never catch up with it.”

Some believe that Nicodemus was among those who removed the nails and took Jesus down from the cross; painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Some believe that Nicodemus was among those who removed the nails and took Jesus down from the cross; painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11 “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” —John 3:1-12

“Sister Alma Rose,” Pablo says, longsuffering, “you haven’t answered my question. Was Mary a virgin or wasn’t she?”

“Well, honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “that’s one of the Mysteries, ain’t it? But if scientists could prove in a laboratory that Joseph of Nazareth was the biological father of Jesus, would it matter? Would it shake y’all’s faith? Would it make the Good News — that God came to earth and lived among us and revealed himself as Life and Love, and continues to do so, and, because he loves us, pays the price for our mistakes, so that we might, at any time and as often as we choose to claim his promise, be new and innocent again — would that Good News be tarnished and our joy be diminished? Not mine, to be sure; not mine.”

victorian_calendarsanta

“Cinnamon sticks” from a photo © Luc Viatour, GFDL CC

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