A cousin second-removed asks me to pray for her in a Facebook comment, and I nurse indignation for days. She reaches out kindly enough, to express support for my youngest son whose Zoom-accessible play I’ve advertised on social media. She says she’d love to watch, asks me how I am (It’s been years!) and mentions an upcoming job interview. She signs off, Pray for a good outcome!
And I balk. You don’t know me, I think. I don’t share your religion. I don’t pray.
I was raised as an evangelical Christian, but I no longer identify as such. I shed my childhood religion while in college twenty years ago, and while pre-2016, I found the community privately irksome, post-2016, I consider the community (as a politically active group, anyway) poisoned and poisonous.
In other words, I’ve got baggage, both public and private baggage. Baggage that is absolutely justified and baggage that might be unfair.
My cousin’s directive, although friendly and most likely flippant, sends me into a tail-spin. I’m not much of a pray-er, I think to write. But I’ll send loving thoughts. No. Scratch that. I’ll hold you in my heart. Ugh. No. What does that even look like? I wish you good luck! I type, in an attempt to write something true.
A little over a year ago, my niece was born with a hole in her heart. She hemorrhaged blood, was missing a lung, and everyone braced for the worst. Quickly, my Christian family organized a battalion of pray-ers. An army of folks spanning the country, many of whom had never met my sister, sat in the quiet of their living rooms and church pews to beseech their idea of God on her behalf, on the behalf of my niece, who, thank god, thank heavens, thank the power of community and medical breakthroughs (thank the doctors, too) turned out to be (after surgery and several tense and difficult months) just fine.
But let me confess something, when my sister went through her darkest hours and I signed my emails “sending love and thoughts your way,” the gesture felt abstract and frankly, wimpy. I wanted to do something more, but at the time, I didn’t know what. I could send money. I could send flowers. I could offer to cook dinner and watch her older son, and I did some of these things. And yet.
Here’s the thing, there’s zero scientific evidence to suggest that my petition would have affected the outcome, anyway. There’s little evidence to suggest that the web of benevolent intercession crisscrossing the country impacted my niece’s body, at all. Still, I want to loop back, because there’s obvious power in thought, diffuse consequences that even the cynic has to admit prove difficult to pin down. Sending thoughts your way, I wrote. But without the formality of prayer, I didn’t know how to send what I thought.
I shed my faith slowly, abandoned ribbons of it, snagged on learned facts and irreconcilable experiences. I left my faith in fragments, but in the end, I had to lose the whole constringent skin.
I left a bit of it with my youth pastor who shifted in his seat, uncomfortable over my fifteen-year-old girl body inside the unchaperoned privacy of the church office. Over and over, he directed my questions about God and faith and doubt to his wife, who possessed no title, no credentials other than wife to the youth pastor.
At sixteen, I shed faith into my palms, wet with my face lifted to take in the lobby of the Acadia Mental Hospital inside of which I was locked. I came because I stopped eating because I didn’t want my girl body to take up too much space.
I left a piece of it with Jack, a fellow resident at the mental hospital, who was eight when his father first raped him. At nine, Jack tested positive for AIDS and burned with the haggard, imperfect rage to be better loved. God, did I love him.
At seventeen, I left a fragment of my faith in the strange couple’s warm kitchen, rowdy with Ani Difranco, onion skins, green pepper stems, and spilled spice. Later, they would drive the three five-gallon pots of chili to the Bangor homeless shelter up the road. I absorbed the Tom Robbins quotes, the mismatched glass jars. The couple’s love as expansive and exciting as the nude hung above the tiny TV.
I left fragments in bookstores, and college classrooms, in a North Carolina artist studio where I posed nude. I left belief like ribbons between the pages of books by Adrienne Rich, Joseph Campbell, Virginia Woolf, and Carl Jung. In Savannah, Georgia, I eagerly shed virtue at the foot of a lover’s bed. I left it in poems and in stubbled ashtrays. In Linda’s living room where she cried because she loved God so much, but because of her girlfriend the church would not let her in.
I fell out of a constriction of skin that insisted to embody the whole world. I shed it because I loved the world too much.
I attempt to describe the offensive act to my husband — a presumptuous church-goer casually requests my prayer online. How rude!
“What’s the matter with her asking for prayer again?” He’s not being argumentative. My husband asks for clarity. I sit at the kitchen island and watch him wash the evening’s dishes.
“Because she assumed I was Christian. It’s not like she would have accepted a pagan dance in the woods.”
“Then don’t do it.” He scrubs at a pan. “Problem-solved. Free world, right? She’s allowed to ask. You’re allowed to say ‘no.’”
“That’s not it,” I sulk toward the counter. “It just bothers me. It’s such an intimate request. I don’t even know her that well.”
“Maybe she’s an extrovert.”
I roll my eyes. If I can restrain the triggering wash of political association, if I can manage to dislocate the interaction from the contextual confusion that surrounds it—i.e. my cousin’s political alignments made apparent in past posts—I might be able to arrive somewhere new: A woman reached out to express support for my son. She expressed nervousness about a job interview and asked me to pray. In other words, a woman shared her small fear with me and asked that I spend a minute or two focused on wishing her well.
The request was probably flippant. Sure, she might have weighed the directive before sending, but the most likely case is that she exists in a culture that takes heavenly intercession for granted, that the ritual is so thoroughly baked into her day-to-day that adding a new name and face into the prayer rolodex ain’t no big thing. Writing in the journal, Aeon, Lutheran Pastor Benjamin Dueholm evaluates prayer’s multifarious purposes with honest and thought-provoking verve. He muses in “Why pray?” that the phrase “’I’ll be praying for you’ … falls between ‘I am thinking of you’ and ‘I will drop off a casserole.’ It affirms a social bond—benevolent intentions embodied in words and mediated by a shared belief in a God who, if nothing else will note the exchange.” Dueholm seeks more ecstatic and mysterious reasons to pray, but I find it apt that he chooses to link prayer with food preparation, apt as the similarly intimate act requires at least some amount of commitment, focus, and specified intent. Even if the Christian community—along with the rest of us—has lost some regard for the holiness of the act—the act binds the community together.
The truth of the matter is that the formal intimacy implied by my cousin’s request does not exist in my current world. Sure, relationships underpin my life. I enjoy healthy affinities with family and friends. I engage in authentic, sometimes uncomfortable conversations, mutual vulnerability that leads to self-discovery and bonding. My friendships feel real, tenable, productive, and yet I would find it challenging, if not extremely awkward, to ask a friend—my husband, even—to establish a sacred space of silence so that he might focus on my wellbeing.
To be fair, I would also hesitate before requesting a casserole, as I, like many of my self-reliant New England peers, find asking for help to be difficult. The social bonds are missing. My friends and I do not share the same gods. Gone are the days when we had to amble on over to our neighbors in order to maintain relations lest we need help building a fence or the walls of our home. We’ve invented machines, cell phones, refrigerators, TV dinners.
A number of studies have tried to pinpoint a relationship between prayerful petition and unknowing third parties. Dueholm references the largest, a 2006 Harvard study that uses control groups from three separate religious communities offering a standardized intercessory prayer for patients recovering from coronary artery bypass surgery. Quite simply, Dueholm writes, “It didn’t find one.” He goes on to note:
Such studies suggest a practice trapped by modern metaphors shared by both skeptics and believers. Prayer is analogous to a drug. Its workings are no longer looked for in the ecstatic interruption of natural processes or inevitable chains of causes, but within them as a focused concentration of psychic energy producing, or failing to produce, some discernible and reliable effect.
So, maybe intercessory prayer doesn’t amount to much. Maybe our prayers, alone, aren’t enough of a prescription to help heal an ailing third party, and it makes sense that science would disprove this. Over and over, it seems that science frees us from each other.
But do we lose something when we dismiss thoughts and prayers altogether? Did I lose something when I relinquished prayer alongside my belief in the deity I was raised to esteem? Prayer is as ancient as humans, after all. It spans civilizations, gods, goddesses, heavens, and earth. Thought is action, too. I love deeply, still I do not pray for others.
Prayer, like God, is one of those words that evangelicals clutch with ugly exclusivity. I was raised to believe that no one else got it right. Not the Catholics. Not the Lutherans. Not the Muslims, Buddhists, or Sikhs.
But the truth of the matter is that prayer, like God, means too many things.
You write the word and spill a bag of marbles across a floor, a rolling clatter of sizes, colors, and transparencies. Meditations, incantations, conversations, the cold and broken hallelujahs.
Dueholm well captures the slippery term:
Prayer is a concept that baffles and beguiles. It eludes definition, comprehending wildly disparate and even contradictory practices. It includes humane self-fashioning and bitter imprecation, strict formality and total improvisation, wordless meditation and lengthy monologue, the intention prolonged in a spun wheel or a lit candle. And to the extent that prayer is not now, and perhaps never has been, understood as a way to cajole and influence the power that governs the world, it is not always obvious what prayer is supposed to accomplish.
In other words, if I don’t plan to “cajole and influence” outcomes, why would I pray, specifically for others?
The personal benefits of meditation and other prayerful rituals are well-known inside and outside of the scientific community. A quick Google search will turn up a long list of studies linking meditation with decreased anxiety, stress-levels, lowered blood-pressure and more. Last year, I downloaded the science-based meditation app, Headspace, and have experienced a significant improvement in sleep, my marriage, and mood. But there’s measurable difference between my open-space of meditation and the narrowed lens of prospective prayer.
The scientific method saves us from ourselves. Our darkest impulses, irrational appetites, our primordial, unfounded fears. Science provides us with a trustworthy way to test and measure reality. It keeps us from burning witches at the stake and viewing impoverished children as cursed. Prayer benefits the pray-er for a host of objectively-measurable reasons, which is why I can browse an entire aisle of gratitude journals at my local Books-a-Million or why Forbes magazine regularly advises me to envision my goals. Mainstream society teems with alternative ways to enjoy the various perks of prayer. That said, as my dad undergoes surgery this morning, I can find no conventional way, no secular script I can use to hold him in my heart.
I stopped eating in high school, and the youth pastor, wife-to-the-youth-pastor, assistant pastor, Awana leaders, and more lined up to pray for me, but no one could cast the demons out.
I prayed for myself and spun in a painful eddy of blame. The lack of results could only indicate a lack of prayerful commitment, faith, and force. In other words, I was doing it wrong.
Less personal and perhaps more discouraging are the many instances in which the sacred act is weaponized by way of a white man’s mouth. Sinister examples abound in politics, Bible camps, and Christian festivals, in prayers that teem with fire and brimstone, the loud pastor monologuing a terror-driven narrative for the sake of the young sinner, eavesdropping from the pews. The male priest who sits with the abused wife and prays that God will soften her heart, that she might lose the anger that rises in her like a lioness of protection. It’s no wonder that to many, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has taken on a saccharine quality, flattened like a dyed carnation pressed between the flaps of a ninety-nine cent hallmark card. It’s difficult to deny the stinging futility of a phrase when it’s so regularly and insincerely lobbed at institutionalized and avoidable tragedies such as socially induced disorders, murders caused by racism and lack of gun control. For good reason, these verbal Band-Aids invite scorn.
The benefits of prayer depend on the pray-er’s idea of God. In the Atlantic article, “When Prayer Makes Anxiety Worse,” American journalist Olga Khazan describes the mixed research on the efficacy of prayer. Khazan spotlights a study published in Sociology of Religion that suggests prayer’s efficacy “depends on the personality of the God they believe in. That is, whether someone has a relationship with what they perceive to be an angry, vengeful God or more of a friendly figure could determine whether prayer brings relief—or simply more stress.” This scientific finding nestles neatly with what Dueholm refers to as the “most intriguing finding in the neuroscience of prayer,” which is that our practices, themselves, sculpt our understanding of God. He quotes Amichai:
I declare with perfect faith
that prayer preceded God.
Prayer created God,
God created human beings,
human beings create prayers
that create the God that creates human beings.
I’ve found my meditation practice indispensable, but I want my God to spill beyond the island of me. I want my God to contain other people. I want to feel community in my innermost parts.
When I was young, I prayed every night.
I was an anxious child and the world pressed heavily on me. My parents weren’t enough to buffer the dark crush at the window, the late night wake, but I had this God, outside of my mind, an objective other to whom I could turn when I needed to feel less alone.
I was taught prayer in free form and the conversations roamed through two distinct phases: I started with praise and ended with petition.
I started with gratitude, I basked in appreciation for my home, family, and friends, but also Polly Pockets, scratch-n-sniff stickers, chiffon dresses, and computer games. I swept a sleepy gaze over every good thing and celebrated each as a blessing from above. The practice carried me lightly toward thinking of others. I simply held each person in my mind. I pictured my parents, sisters, grandparents and envisioned their well-being. I lovingly imagined a cancer disappearing, a sorrow loosening its grip. My faith not only led me to look for the best in everyone but to envision it as so.
I saved myself for last, and the end of my prayer turned inward to address a scattershot of lingering worries, many of which felt lighter at this point, capable of floating away. In the deep of my prayer, when I attuned to a problem, even as a child, I saw a solution. In the quiet, I heard wisdom. Be still. Be well. You are loved.
But the question remains: can prayer work without God? My son wakes in the night alone. He stares up at the ceiling. The room is empty. If it’s true that prayer precedes God, that prayer creates God, to whom should he pray?
It might be easier to talk to God if someone draws lines about her, when the adults in one’s life make a caricature, an illustration one can hold onto. Yet, these designating lines, the drawing of boundaries can also limit, and in my own life, the concept of God has exploded to cover everything, to include the landscape, the stone, the piece of trash and glass of water. Still, I yearn for a secular liturgy, a formula of focus, a way to hold another person in my heart. Why not imagine each other as stronger? Braver? More curious and connected? Why not edge deeper into that space where solutions might emerge.
Heather Havrilesky’s at times humorous, at times profound essay “Like a prayer” starts as a quest after a “prayer to repeat when things go haywire.” Havrilesky, whose soul “feels suspicious towards bossy, patriarchal gods dreamt up by bossy patriarchs,” explores a variety of modern prayer-rituals including reciting passages from the Rig Veda to her shower head, setting daily goals, and inventing her own deity. (She writes, “Just imagine if everyone did it: ‘My God is a voluptuous sea monster with a gorgeous green eyes who speaks only in gentle whispers and serves fresh sushi.’ ‘Well, my God rides a purple dragon that shoots ice-cold Peroni beer from its mouth’”) Havrilesky performs some of her researched rituals and bypasses others. She invents her own prayer, a poetic affirmation: “You are bright burning light. You have everything you need. You have plenty of time…” but loses steam after a week. She eventually gives up on the prayer. She writes:
Instead, I just lay in bed and tried to think of every member of my family and every one of my closest friends. I started with my husband, my kids, my mother, my sisters, my brother, their spouses and kids, my aunts, and my father, who’s been dead for 19 years. Then I listed my close friends. I put them in alphabetical order so they were easier to remember.
The next day, it was much easier to remember everyone, even though it had been hard the first time.
And by the third day the names felt almost like a prayer.
It’s been a month, and now every morning I just say my prayer of names. Doing that makes me realize that I do have a belief system: almost everything is superfluous, except people. People matter. And there’s a strange emancipation that comes from acknowledging the people you love, and giving them your love, even when you know they can’t always understand you, accept you or love you back.
It’s difficult to live in this finite body and remember how thoughts, actions, and feelings spill over into the world. It is difficult to remember how interconnected we are, caught in an Indra’s Net of socio-economics, micro-aggressions, environmental systems, positive and negative vibes. So much of what touches us, influences us, penetrates us, is invisible to the naked eye.
Prayer strikes me as a formal tool to allow positive thoughts, our invisible influences, to pour forth into the world. To think with purpose and notice the people in my life as sacred. Not just mothers and fathers and children, but flippant cousins, second removed. I might not need to define a god before laying in bed at the end of the day and instead of tallying a to-do list or worrying about the next day’s busy schedule, running my thoughts like fingers through every good thing, the smell of the heater, the sound of my children’s breath, the beat of my heart. Perhaps, I need only to slow down, perhaps the moment alone is enough to define God in order to hold the people I love. Or people I don’t even know. I might hold an entire population wounded by racism, sexism, or other miscellaneous bigotry and envision that population as expansively empowered. Of course, the action doesn’t end there, but of course, the action must begin, and why not begin there, in the quiet dream, in the intent set by a vision strong enough to lead the next day forward.
Dueholm, Benjamin. “Why pray?” Aeon, 12 January 2016, aeon.co/essays/what-is-prayer-supposed-to-accomplish. Accessed 29 November 2020.
Havrilesky, Heather. “Like a prayer.” Aeon, 17 March 2015, aeon.co/essays/can-secular-people-benefit-from-prayer. Accessed 29 November 2020.
Khazan, Olga. “When Prayer Makes Anxiety Worse.” Atlantic, 14 August 2014, theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/when-prayer-makes-anxiety-worse/376002/. Accessed 29 November 2020.