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July 28, 2011
Originally posted 17 October 2007…
In his public talk on Sunday, the Dalai Lama mentioned prayer briefly. I was a bit surprised by what he said, which was essentially that prayer wouldn’t change anything. It was said in the context of the war in Iraq and I believe he was referring to the need for action and not only passive prayer. It would be a mistake to only pray and wait for God to do something. H.H.’s point was well taken by this listener but it got me thinking about prayer. I began to wonder – do most people pray because it makes them feel better or do most people pray because they truly believe that God listens to and answers prayers?
I grew up in a house heavy on religion, light on spirituality. Prayer was a huge part of my life growing up. I had to pray before every meal (before a morsel of food touched my lips!, my mother would say) before bed, before during and after our weekly meetings, when I woke up, when I was anxious, scared, or sad, when I was happy or thankful. I was taught to pray continuously and to “persevere in prayer”, as our good friend Paul wrote to the Romans. Not only did I have to spend almost every waking minute speaking to God in fervent prayer, but I had to be original. We were taught that it was sinful to repeat prayers. The Lord’s Prayer was simply a model and not meant to be recited over and over again. Prayers had to be genuine and heartfelt. I spent many sleepless nights as a child and young adolescent worrying if perhaps the prayer I had just said was too much like the one I’d said the night before. Would God consider it a repeat? Shit! Maybe I’ll only ask Him to take care of the widows and orphans every other prayer.
It was a lot of pressure. Imagine having to be interesting all the time. And not just interesting to your friends or family, but to, you know, God. Surely he was getting bored of my prayers. And sometimes, I just didn’t know what to say. I have a fear of flying. Well, not the actual flying bit, just the landing and taking off bits. Two necessary bits of flying, I admit, but not the speeding through the air at high altitudes bit. Well, back when I used to pray incessantly, flying seemed like a good time to pray and beg God not to let me die. What I wanted to pray every time was, “please don’t let me die, please don’t let this plane crash on landing or takeoff, please don’t let me die, I don’t want to die in a plane crash”. But, as you know, I had to be original. That prayer only worked the first time. Every other time I got on an airplane, I had to come up with more original ways to beg God not to let me die. I didn’t want to offend him by repeating my original plea – especially not when my very safety depending on him wanting to answer my prayer.
And so it was that prayer came to be for me an obligation. It was like eating, only less enjoyable. If I wanted to live, I had to pray. The issue was not whether or not I believed in God. I did. The issue was, why couldn’t I just say what I was honestly feeling each time I approached him? What if my desires, wishes, hopes, feelings hadn’t changed during the day, and so my morning prayer and evening prayer were the same? Or what if I didn’t know what to say? What if I just wanted to pray to feel close to God? Why couldn’t I recite a prayer in these moments when I couldn’t find the words? Why did he create me to find comfort in ritual and routine, and then demand that my prayers to him belie those things?
The religion in which I had been raised kicked me out when I started asking questions like these. It was then that I realized that perhaps the world-view I’d been taught, including all my ideas about God and prayer – it was all probably a big stinking pile of mumbo-jumbo. I didn’t pray for years. Belief in the existence of a Creator became a distant memory – a memory that was laughable and almost quaint. I started condescending to my former self – awww… isn’t that cute? We used to believe in God. How silly and irrational we were.
The good times couldn’t last, though. At some point, about two years ago, my mind started revisiting this maddening and provoking issue of “god”. Two years later, this issue still falls under the category of Things I Don’t Know, and under the sub-category of Things I Don’t Know That Make Me Crazy. I do believe in some thing. I don’t know what form this being takes. Is it Love? Is it Nature? Is it Us?
Without having an answer to those questions, I’ve managed to configure a spiritual practice that is both refreshing and satisfying. No small feat given where I’ve come from. My daily meditations are a type of prayer, I suppose, though they resemble in no way the prayers of my childhood. A few months ago I caught myself praying a familiar prayer. I was on a plane – it was my birthday – and I was saying, “please don’t let me die in a plane crash on my birthday, please don’t let me die in a plane crash on my birthday …”. It was unexpected, though not surprising, as by that time I had already determined that the prayers of my past were all about making me feel better. I knew God wasn’t going to keep my plane aloft just because I asked him to. Surely the prayers of the people suffering from hunger and war and poverty were more urgent than mine. But I prayed then because it made me feel safe – the act of praying was a ritual in which I found comfort, if not the prayer itself.
So, to answer my own question – I think prayer serves the purpose of consoling us. It is easier to ask an all-knowing and powerful being for help than it is to ask ourselves and to tap into and to trust our own power. This is what I think. I, of course, don’t know.
What do you think, dear readers? What is the purpose of prayer, and why do people do it?
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