A few days ago, a poet friend of mine posted on Facebook a prayer from the late Brian Doyle’s book A Book of Uncommon Prayers, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Actually I’ve been thinking and writing about prayer for a while now, so it’s no wonder that Doyle’s prayer struck me, or stirred my soul as my Grandma Ross used to say.
For a long time now, I’ve not used the word prayer. I somehow conflated prayer itself with the religion I was born into, and when I moved beyond that belief system I thought I needed to let go of prayer. But prayer is not something that can be co-opted by any particular church. No one entity has ownership of prayer, and so I’m free to figure out what it means to me.
Back in the day, I prayed to God or Jesus. The God I prayed to in my imagination was like the storybook images I’d seen—a burly bearded white male with white hair in the clouds residing over the entire human race. The image I prayed to when I prayed to Jesus was a younger, gentler version of the God in the clouds—a bearded white male in a robe holding a staff but with darker hair and with a less severe look about him. You all know the images I’m talking about.
I’ve changed, and my ideas of God have changed, but I’m finding that there is still a place for prayer in my life. In fact I can’t really imagine not praying because it’s a part of how I cope with the overwhelming nature of the world. I can only do so much with my limited time and energy and means, and prayer is for the infinite number of things that are beyond my ability to change with direct action. In other words, prayer is really about surrender. I can’t change the world, so I send out these thoughts, these wishes, these worries, and these hopes that are bubbling over inside me because there is simply nothing else I can do.
Who do I pray to? Not a father figure in heaven anymore. If God exists and is omnipotent and everywhere, then God is beyond my imagination and is certainly not limited to gender or race or to the human form. I also can’t pray to the idea of a God who would allow suffering and war and turmoil to the degree that it exists on Earth. So I pray to the imageless unknown—call it energy or the universe. Maybe I’m just praying to the air. Honestly though, the entity to which I direct my prayers doesn’t need a name.
What good does prayer do? There is no measure. If my prayers were answered the way I’d hope they’d be, humankind would be doing everything it could do to keep the Earth habitable for future living beings, millions of innocent people wouldn’t be facing starvation in Yemen, and our president wouldn’t be using my tax dollars to hold creepy pep rallies for himself across the country. If my prayers had the impact I wish they had, a particular young man I’ve seen around town would have kicked his addiction by now and the kiddo I see looking so sad at the library every day wouldn’t look so sad. But part of prayer for me is letting go of the idea that everything makes sense or that supernatural intervention can swoop in and make everything better. I don’t pray because it’s the sensible thing to do. I pray because what else can I do? I pray with the hope of being given an idea of what I can do.
There might not be a way we can save us from ourselves. There might not be an end to human suffering. But I have this inherent desire to swing the pendulum toward good. Prayer may or may not do such a thing, but as long as it’s not a substitute for doing good, or being good, as long as it’s not an excuse to turn away from the parts of life that are painful, prayer, at the very least, is not causing harm.
I could let the ugly aspects of this world swirl around inside me. There they could fester and make me angry or sick or, worst of all numb. But I don’t want to be numb. And so I’ll continue to pray, knowing that it’s possible and quite likely that prayer is just my own way of feeling better about being helpless. I might not change anything or anyone but myself when I send out my imperfect prayers, but if doing so gives me the ability to live on this earth without succumbing to despair, I’m okay with that.