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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Catholic Things

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Father Dooley's temporary church

Father Dooley's temporary church

Religious Differences

Sister Alma Rose is not a Roman Catholic, but she is telling Father Dooley and me that she used to want to be a nun “in the worst way.” (Ha ha.)

“Oh?” Father Dooley says interestedly, raising one eyebrow, which, I don’t know HOW he does that, but of course I don’t know how to whistle, either, though I can do cartwheels one-handed. “What changed your mind?”

I have made Father Dooley promise to always keep me informed of his whereabouts, if one of us moves out of Hilltop, so that when the Pope allows priests to get married I can get to his city on the next plane. Father Dooley's, not the Pope's

I have made Father Dooley promise to always keep me informed of his whereabouts, if one of us moves out of Hilltop, so that when the Pope allows priests to get married I can jet to his city on the next plane. Father Dooley's, not the Pope's

“The wardrobe,” Sister Alma Rose says, “because, really, can y’all picture what I’d look like in one of them outfits? A giant beetle, is what I’d look like.”

Father Dooley laughs and says that many nuns just wear regular street clothes these days, and Sister Alma Rose says that would take all the fun out of it. Like, why be a doctor if you’re not going to wear a white lab coat and a stethoscope?

Father Dooley is spending a lot of time sitting on Sister Alma Rose’s porch this fall because his church, Saints Peter and Paul, had a bad fire and no one can go into the building.

They are having church, or, whaddayacallit, Mass, and, I guess, Confession and Catechism and the Inquisition and the other stuff that Catholics do, in an empty warehouse that used to be Hilltop Elementary School when Mama and Daddy were kids.

But Father Dooley’s paper files and computer and desk, et cetera, all got burnt to a Frito, and he has this lackey priest-in-waiting who is taking care of that little administrative problem while he, Father Dooley, sits on Sister Alma Rose’s porch and drinks Mr. Truman LaFollette’s indescribable lemonade.

The Catechism Lesson, Jules-Alexis Muenier 1890

The Catechism Lesson, by Jules-Alexis Muenier 1890

But Father Dooley is not slacking off, oh, no, he is here on church business, because we are talking about Catholic things, two in particular: (1) the execution of heretics by means of setting fire to them, and (2) the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), which, unlike Father Dooley’s office, is extant.

Transubstantiation is NOT “a way for commuters to get to work”

Lady Jane Grey (above) and Queen Mary each believed that the other's soul was damned. And they MEANT it! The Reformers had piled up a lot of grievances over the centuries during which the Roman Catholic Church had amassed power, money, and land. It was the rule rather than the exception for popes and cardinals to have mistresses, if not secret wives and children. Priests lined their pockets with "indulgences" — money from their Flocks for the wiping away of sins.

Lady Jane Grey (above, looking a bit peaked) and Queen Mary each believed that the other's soul was damned. And they MEANT it! The Reformers had piled up a lot of grievances over the centuries during which the Roman Catholic Church had amassed power, money, and land. It was the rule rather than the exception for popes and cardinals to have mistresses, if not secret wives and children. Priests lined their pockets with "indulgences" — money from their Flocks for the wiping away of sins.

Father Dooley and I have been debating the following question:

Why did Lady Jane Grey have to die?

And the short answer, we agree, is that Lady Jane, a Protestant, made quite a point of NOT believing in transubstantiation and a few other points of Roman Catholic doctrine at a time when a VERY Catholic queen, Mary I, was on the throne in England. (That’s “Mary the First,” not “Mary Eye.”)

Transubstantiation is the alleged changing of the bread and wine served at holy communion into the actual body and blood of Christ.

NOW: It’s not like Catholics believe that the bread turns into, like, skin and fingers and toes and the wine gets all thick and red and has little platelets swimming around in it. Father Dooley says that the substance of the “host” and the wine changes but not their their appearance or texture.

I, personally, do not care, and neither does Sister Alma Rose, who dislikes discussing doctrinal issues.

She says that we all believe in the same God, who created the universe as an expression of divine love, and that God knows and cares about us each individually, and that God makes his love known to us through grace… and if we can agree on that, why aren’t we having a big ecumenical party and celebrating instead of arguing about minor details?

A medieval Mass being celebrated by a bishop

A medieval Mass being celebrated by a bishop

Father Dooley says several things in response, which I will summarize:

  1. Everybody DOESN’T agree with that, what Sister Alma Rose says, and in fact some of it could be considered “doctrine.” (Sister Alma Rose snorts.)
  2. Our actions have consequences: Like, if you stick your hand in a pot of boiling water, your hand will burn.
  3. We are all screwing up (Father Dooley’s words) all the time, acting in unloving ways. Love is a miracle, a gift of grace, and cannot be deserved. If we always got what we deserved, we would be crackers.
  4. Jesus’ life and teachings, death, and resurrection are proof of a higher law, which is that God’s love is greater than the law of consequences; or, rather, that God, through Jesus, paid the piper so that we wouldn’t have to go around weighed down by guilt and anxiety. This only works if we admit we behaved badly (confession) and want very much not to keep behaving badly (repentance), and if we accept the sacrifice (communion) and are grateful for it. That is the freedom Jesus promised; that is the Good News.
  5. We are likely to take communion more to heart — to be blown away by the liberating acceptance of God’s sacrifice for our sakes — if we believe that the bread is Jesus’ body and the wine is his blood, than if we are just eating stale bread crumbs and drinking grape juice.
  6. This is not all just a matter of collecting chits for the Afterlife. Salvation is here and now, overcoming sickness and all manner of other here-and-now penalties for less-than-perfect behavior.

Well, I say to Father Dooley, this is all fine and good, but I still don’t think it’s worth having your head chopped off over. Transubstantiation is not even in the Bible, after all. Jesus said, at the Last Supper, “This is my body, broken for you,” but he was always speaking metaphorically, saying stuff like, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” et cetera.

The  Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1498

The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci 1498

The Nine Days’ Queen

King Edward VI of England, William Scrots, c. 1550

King Edward VI of England, by William Scrots c. 1550

Lady Jane Grey was the Queen of England for nine days in 1553, after Edward VI and before Mary I, “Bloody Mary,” as she came to be called. (For more information, see “Historical Background,” below.)

Lady Jane did not want to be queen. She was only sixteen, and she was indeed a staunch Protestant, but a group of greedy grownups, including her own parents, made her marry this awful man, Lord Guilford Dudley, and then persuaded the ruling council to name her queen, and so queen she was, for nine days, until Mary Tudor swept down upon London with several thousand of the faithful, and, voila, Mary was queen and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London, convicted of high treason, and sentenced to death.

Mary and Jane were cousins, and Mary really did not want to execute Jane, knowing that Jane was made queen over her own objections. Mary told Jane she would let her off the hook if Jane would just convert to the True Faith, Roman Catholicism, and to tell you the truth, if I’d been Jane, I would have said, fine, okay, but I would have had my fingers crossed and then I would have gone back to my cozy life of studying Protestant doctrine and having my servants do my laundry and cook my meals. But Jane, a better woman than I, or a more stubborn one, refused.

A 15th-century representation of the Tower of London. Shown is the White Tower, begun by William the Conquerer in 1078. The White Tower still stands, but it is now part of a large complex of buildings that comprise "The Tower"

A 15th-century representation of the Tower of London. Shown is the White Tower, begun by William the Conquerer in 1078. The White Tower still stands, but it is now part of a large complex of buildings that comprise "The Tower"

Jane was mostly concerned with doctrinal issues. She could not accept the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation — plus, she had an illegal English translation of the Bible, and she was studying Greek and Hebrew so that she could read the original biblical texts rather than translations. The Catholic Church didn’t want lay persons reading the Bible at all, because if they read it than they would begin to interpret it.

Verdict: A sad waste of a young life

My debate with Father Dooley is no debate at all, as it turns out, because we pretty much agree about Lady Jane.

“Two things,” says Father Dooley, holding up two fingers so I won’t forget that he has two points to make.

“First, it’s hard for our modern ecumenical way of thinking to understand how radical it was to depart in any way from Catholic doctrine. For centuries, the Catholic church had been the ONLY Christian church, and it was not used to being disagreed with. In fact, when Henry VIII broke with the church, the Pope excommunicated him, and all of England with him. Heaven, according to the church, was not available to those who had been excommunicated.

Death by burning

Death by burning

“Second, even in the context of her time, and I believe she was beheaded in the 1550s, Lady Jane could have saved herself in good conscience. As brilliant a scholar as she was, she was also very young and very new to the heady freedom of Protestant thinking. Even her Protestant teachers warned her that she was excessively dogmatic. It’s very sad, really, especially since Elizabeth would be queen within a few years, and the policy of her reign was one of tolerance.”

Mary Tudor — Queen Mary I, or “Bloody Mary,” as she has become known — was merciful to her cousin Jane in having her beheaded. Before the end of Mary’s reign, almost three hundred “heretics” would be burned on street corners, in full view of the populace.

Eternal damnation

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science

Mary seems to have sincerely believed that her reign of terror was saving souls from eternal damnation — not the souls of those being burned, it was too late for them — but the souls of those who looked on, who heard the screams and smelled the charred flesh.

Sister Alma Rose has no patience with preachers of hellfire and damnation. She believes that we grow spiritually over a succession of earthly incarnations. Thus she does not believe that ANY souls are consigned eternally to hell. She likes to quote Mary Baker Eddy on the subject:

Does Divine Love commit a fraud on humanity by making man inclined to sin, and then punishing him for it? …In common justice, we must admit that God will not punish man for doing what he created man capable of doing, and knew from the outset that man would do. God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil.”  —Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, 356:25 ff.

To be continued… Praying the Hours (the Divine Office)

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Historical Background — The Man Who Would Be Pope

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, was beheaded May 19, 1536, at the Tower of London

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, was beheaded May 19, 1536, at the Tower of London

I have been reading a lot of historical fiction about England (c. 1150 – 1600) lately, and I’ve read, like, five books in a row about Anne Boleyn

—because it’s so much fun to find out which authors think that

  • (a) Anne Boleyn was a world-class B-word (Daddy won’t let me say or spell the B-word that rhymes with witch, but then he also didn’t think that I should be reading about Anne Boleyn because if he had his way I’d still be reading Thomas the Tank Engine and playing with Barbies, which, excuse me, are way more obscene than Anne Boleyn), and (b) Henry VIII the longsuffering husband, as opposed to those authors who think that
  • (a) Anne Boleyn was June Cleaver in tights — no, wait, it was Henry who wore tights — and (b) Henry was a cruel tyrant.
Henry VIII, King of England, born 1491, reigned 1509-1547

Henry VIII, King of England, born 1491, reigned 1509-1547

The truth is that Henry was a spoiled baby, and spoiled babies are often tyrants. But because he was the King of England and not an ACTUAL baby, his tyrannical acts had lasting and tragic consequences, inasmuch as there was no one with the authority to send him to bed without his supper.

Henry established the Church of England, as separate from the Roman Catholic Church, with himself as the Supreme Head.

He’d been waiting six years for the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and make her queen and force her by intimidation and other methods that hardly ever work to have healthy baby boys.

Finally, tired of waiting for the Pope, he said, in effect, “I’ll just make up my OWN church and marry Anne and dissolve the wealthy monasteries and seize all their stuff.”

But he, Henry, did not mean for church doctrine or worship to change at all. He was not in sympathy with reformers such as Martin Luther. The English Reformation, however, got away from him. Once started, it couldn’t be stopped.

* * *

The Succession

Tudor_succession_diagram(2)

Jane Seymour, Queen Consort of England 1536-1537

Jane Seymour, Queen Consort of England 1536-1537

When Henry died, AT LONG LAST, his only legitimate son, Edward Tudor, became Edward VI, King of England.

Edward, whose mother was Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife; she died a few weeks after giving birth), was only nine years old and he didn’t really run the country… a bunch of greedy grownups made all the political decisions.

But Edward was a committed Protestant and so while he was king the real Reformers in England were more active.

At age fifteen, after he had been king for only six years, Edward died of a lung disease (probably tuberculosis).

Then all hell broke loose.

Henry’s elder daughter Mary Tudor was next in line in the Succession (the list of who gets to be in charge of England when the current ruler dies; see diagram above), but everybody knew that she would restore Catholic rule and persecute Protestants, of whom there were growing numbers.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, daughter of Henry VII of England, sister of Henry VIII, wife of Louis XII of France and then of Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk; Mary and Charles were the maternal grandparents of Lady Jane Grey

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, daughter of Henry VII of England, sister of Henry VIII, wife of Louis XII of France and then of Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk; Mary and Charles were the maternal grandparents of Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Henry’s sister Mary, and she (Jane) had a legitimate claim to the throne if you took the position that Mary Tudor and Elizabeth, who was next on the list after Mary, were bastards (sorry, Daddy), which, technically, they were since Henry’s marriages to their mothers had been annulled.

As explained above, Lady Jane was basically manhandled to the throne by the evil John Dudley, First Duke of Northumberland, the father of Guilford Dudley, whom Jane was forced to marry. When the time of reckoning came, father and son were executed along with Lady Jane, though I doubt whether Queen Mary had many regrets about ridding the kingdom of those two.

Guilford’s brother Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leicester, was cut from different cloth. He was a man of intelligence and character (the rumors that he killed his first wife, Mary, have been judged by history to be false). He and Queen Elizabeth had been childhood friends, and it is generally believed that they had a lifelong love affair that was never consummated.

Eventually he married Lettice Knollys, a granddaughter of Lady Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister.

I, Fanny

I, Fanny