I grew up in an atheist family. While my parents were raised in religious homes—my father in a kosher Jewish house, my mother in a devout Christian Science one—as adults they renounced their adherence to organized religion and raised me and my sisters in a “religion free-zone.”
But I was born spiritual. I longed to belong to some sort of tradition. I used to sneak away from home on Sundays and go to Catholic mass with my best friend’s family. While I had no education in prayer, I prayed all the time. I prayed over dead birds in our suburban neighborhood; I bought gospel music records; I hung a photo of JFK in my bedroom after he was assassinated and prayed to him. My sisters thought I was nuts.
I once heard an Irish writer say that “an essential element in the life of a writer is to have been an outsider in childhood, to have been given the gift of not belonging.”
This man’s gift had been a father whose job kept the family moving from one town to another. This made him an acute observer of people, and, he said, a better writer. My own childhood predicament of not belonging to a religion, of not being given answers to the big questions, awakened in me an intense yearning to understand the mysterious nature of life and death. I went looking for answers everywhere. I became especially fascinated by prayer: how different people pray; to whom they pray; the answers they receive. Over my many years of searching, I have prayed with Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, with Muslims in Egypt, with Buddhists in Nepal, and with Hindus in India. I have also engaged in prayer rituals with Native Americans, goddess worshippers, pagans, and shamans.
One of my favorite forms of prayer is singing. I have taken Sister Alice Martin’s gospel singing workshop at Omega many times. For me, singing Christian gospel music with her is like diving into an ocean of bliss. Sister Alice is an electrifying singer, songwriter, and gospel choir leader. When she walks into a room, you sit up a little straighter.
“Prayer is about being hopeful,” she says. “It is not a phone call to God’s hotline. It’s not about waiting around for an answer you like, especially since sometimes the answer you’re going to get is, ‘NO!’”
My favorite advice about prayer from Sister Alice is this: “If you are going to pray, then don’t worry. And if you are going to worry, then don’t bother praying. You can’t be doing both.”
When I stop and listen closely to what’s going on inside my head, I often hear the buzz of worry, like the drone of bees in a wall. What would I rather be doing, I ask myself, worrying or praying? I usually choose praying. It’s a lot more fun than worrying.
Sometimes I pray using other peoples’ words. Sometimes I pray in silence. Sometimes prayer feels to me like the last resort, an act of throwing up my hands and saying, ‘You take over now!’ Sometimes it feels like a cry of hunger or thirst.
Rumi says, “Don’t look for water. Be thirsty.”
Prayer is allowing oneself to be thirsty; it is a longing for something we just cannot seem to find. The Sufis say that our longing for God is God’s longing for us. In this way, prayer is like a conversation between friends separated across time and space.
One of the reasons I love prayer is because it is an antidote to guilt and blame. If I am unhappy with the way I have acted or have been treated, instead of stewing in self-recrimination, or harboring ill will toward someone else, prayer gives me a way out. I bring my painful feelings out into the open and say, ‘I have done wrong,’ or ‘I have been wronged.’ And then I ask for a vaster view—one that contains within it all the forgiveness I need in order to move forward.
Sister Wendy, a marvelous Catholic nun best known to the world from her books and television shows on art criticism, says this about prayer: “I don’t think being human has any place for guilt. Contrition, yes. Guilt, no. Contrition means you tell God you are sorry and you’re not going to do it again and you start off afresh. All the damage you’ve done to yourself, put right. Guilt means you go on and on belaboring and having emotions and beating your breast and being ego-fixated. Guilt is a trap. People love guilt because they feel if they suffer enough guilt, they’ll make up for what they’ve done. Whereas, in fact, they’re just sitting in a puddle and splashing. Contrition, you move forward. It’s over. You are willing to forego the pleasures of guilt.”
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, best known as the medical doctor who brought death and dying out of the closet in American culture, has legendary faith in prayer. She created a curriculum for medical students and sat with hundreds of dying people. She says, “You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden, but you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand, but take the pain as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.”
The only thing we can really ask for when we pray is the ability to trust in that greater purpose. We pray to have our hearts opened and our purpose revealed. We pray for gratitude when our life is good and for faith when it is not so good. We pray to trust that our pain is a gift with “a very, very specific purpose.”
To pray is to let go of our belief that we are in control of our life, and to give it over to something more inclusive than our own point of view. It requires a leap of faith. Even if we have only the slightest sense that a higher power is at work in the world, we can still pray. We can name that gossamer belief ‘God’ or not. We can pray to God or to our own larger perspective—the part of us that trusts in the meaningfulness of life.
I sometimes use Einstein’s idea about solving problems when I pray. He said, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”
My favorite prayer these days is, ‘Please show me a bigger perspective, a new consciousness.’
Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president said something that expresses for me the true meaning of prayer. “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” Havel says, “but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”
We will know if our prayers are working when we are blessed with that kind of conviction. The fruit of prayer is a growing certainty that life is an eternal adventure and that we are explorers, always changing, always learning, always open to what we will find beyond the horizon.
© 2012 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies