This week left me ragged. It left me exhausted, depleted, and shaken. Full of personal and interpersonal trials, it tried my mind and spirit dearly. It’s the sort of week that turned my thoughts to prayer.
That’s a problem. Concerns about prayer contributed substantially to my conversion from liberal Christian to spiritual seeker and Unitarian Universalist. (Note: Not all UUs agnostics or atheists. Some are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, and/or something else.) I’d prayed for years. I can’t recall a dinner at home that didn’t start with grace: “God is Good” or “Come, Lord, Jesus” were standby rhymed prayers in our home, with freestyle grace led by Dad on special occasions. Thanking the divine for was the first purpose of prayer I learned. Other rote prayers followed.
In my Methodist Sunday School class, The Lord’s Prayer was a third-grade memorization task. While I wasn’t in the sanctuary much at that age, I had plenty of seat-time invested in the Jesuit-led, Catholic community that made up church part two on most Sundays, and I’d long learned their version. My challenge in 9 a.m. Methodist Sunday School was to stick the ending, since that was different from what I heard each Sunday at noon. Aside from the sung Doxology, the Protestant portion of my spiritual life provided only prayer as soliloquy, with the minister at the pulpit delivering it.
As I moved to Catholic school in my middle and high school years, continuing my religious formation there more than in the Methodist home of my elementary years, I picked up the other Catholic basics. It was, however, a prayer class in high school that was instrumental into shaping my perception of prayer and its many roles. We were taught that prayer had four forms: giving thanks, intercession for others, praising God, and petitioning for one’s own needs. We examined Catholic prayers, which promptly went from rote and empty to filled with purpose. We meditated to mantras, focused on candles, reflected to music, studied the Psalms, and wrote our own prayers. A year or two later, a Catholic youth group furthered that understanding, expanding my understanding as prayer as conversation with God. Prayer moved from rote to intentional.
I believed deeply. Not in a punishing, restrictive God, but rather in a loving God, one who wanted the best for us but left the details of that up to us. God as father and mother appealed to me, perhaps since 19, I’d lived without parents in close proximity. My view of God offered me the intimacy and security of a relationship with a being who would never abandon me and loved me despite what I saw as innumerable, fatal flaws (at least fatal to human relationships). And, for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t.
Somewhere in the last decade, I started to question. Not profoundly, but just in the usual ways that people question when they ask hard questions that are no longer satisfied by short answers. Specifically, I questioned petition and intercession. Why would a loving deity — unconditionally loving and forgiving — act for someone for whom I prayed? What about all the people in hard times who had no one to pray for them? Why would this loving deity only act for those who others remembered first? What was the purpose of praying for what I wanted or needed — or even for guidance — if we have free will? And again, where did this leave those who didn’t pray? What kind of divine being would only respond and comfort those who contacted him/her first?
Prayer fell first. The rest of faith soon followed.
Old habits die hard, however. While my understanding of what exists beyond the individual human is still in formation, my long-held view of the divine no longer remains. But in times of extreme stress, I often myself starting a prayer only to find myself stumped after the salutation. Do I address my plea to the universe? Do I take my delight in the sleeping form of my son or the setting sun to the wheel of chance or to the universe? How do I take another person or nation into my heart with love and wish them well? And does any of that matter? How do we reach out of ourselves to that which is bigger than the individual? How do our depths touch those when we cannot actually reach out and touch them? It’s intercession that, as much as it troubles me in theory, that tugs at me the most.
This week was one of those weeks, a week where I wished I knew how to make this part of my agnosticism work. Plenty of my ilk rely on social action, on any scale, is the answer. It certainly play a leading role. It does not, however, answer every concern of this heart. Sometimes there isn’t an action to take, aside from in our own hearts. I’m playing with voicing concerns and intentions in two-word mantras, matching the words to my breath. With this modified meditation, I can later bring those two words back in a stressful situation. ”Pause, praise,” increases my ability to not chew a child to bits during a rough homeschooling moment. ”Live love” is another pairing that focuses my intentions.
That’s not the whole answer, but it may be a start. Directing the heart and mind may be the bulk of prayer, creating a space within where one can listen to more than the firing of one’s own neurons and find meaning beyond the confines of the body of one. I’m a big logic and reason fan, but loving isn’t about logic and reason, and neither is prayer.