Q: Do you believe prayer is helpful and valid? I used to believe in it, but now it seems like a bunch of “will you help me win the lottery and make my sick dog better,” and that just doesn’t feel right anymore to me, but I don’t want to give up on it completely if there’s something still good about it. Do you pray?
A: Yes, I understand, and yes. I have always loved prayer. I think it stems from my childhood. I grew up in Bismarck and went to a beautiful little Episcopalian church with elaborately carved altar and stained glass windows everywhere.
When we knelt, closed our eyes and said our prayers, it felt mystical and sacred. At that time I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, or exactly what I was praying to, or what I was praying for, but I knew I liked it a lot. And that was good enough for me.
Throughout the years my view of God, Jesus, Christianity, religion and spirituality has continued to evolve dramatically, as has my view of prayer.
I’ve read up a little bit on prayer, and there are different kinds of prayers. One kind of prayer is the ‘help me’ kind of prayer. Another kind is the ‘help someone else’ kind of prayer, and a third kind of prayer is a ‘I love you, God, you’re fabulous’ kind of prayer.
A really funny and fabulous book I just finished reading is called “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” by A.J. Jacobs. This question reminds me of that book because we can look at prayer from a biblical perspective, which may or may not make sense to us in contemporary times, or we can look at prayer from a personal perspective and see if it can make sense to us in our lives today.
I’ve also heard it said that prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening. That’s an interesting concept, but I’ll take it one step further. Do we think that there’s some big guy sitting up there on a throne somewhere listening to all of our prayers, maybe taking notes to make sure he gets everything right? Or could it be possible that we can use prayer as a way of connecting with our deepest selves and of connecting with the rest of our world and even Universe?
If we say that God is that highest and best part of everything that IS, then we are connecting and communicating with that Unity part that is within each of us. Wow, I get so bogged down when I start to talk about God. It’s the divine mystery, the great unknown, but the closest I’ve still ever come to understanding what we’re talking about is to say that God is love.
So when we pray, we are talking to love, to send love to someone else, or to a situation, to connect with love. Now that makes some good sense, doesn’t it? It makes more sense to me, anyway, than thinking of God as some person somewhere that can punish or reward, give or take away. That’s just too, well, human for me, and I think God is WAY beyond human, or our understanding of it.
Remember what God is purported to have said to Moses in the Bible? “I am that I am.” So what does “that” mean? I think it means simply this: God IS.
So when we pray, what are we doing, and why do we need to do it? I think it helps us connect to something larger than ourselves, something that loves us, and always wants the best for us. We do it because we love others, because we feel alone, because we’re scared, because we’re grateful. I find myself praying when someone tells me they’re sick, or hurt. I pray when I’m happy and thankful. I pray when I’m scared (“God, please be with me right now…”).
But for me, it’s more a matter of making my connection to the divine conscious, like I’m paying attention to the conversation instead of making it a one-way scenario. There’s somebody else in my life that is here with me – I’m not alone. I’m never alone. There’s somebody who cares about me and loves me just the way I am – flaws and all. There’s somebody that I can talk to, that cares about what I’m thinking and feeling.
And I just know that prayer works, because we pray because we love, and I believe love is the most powerful thing in the universe, so prayer is using powerful love.
It’s like a really good cell phone that gets coverage no matter where you are. “Can you hear me now?” I believe the divine answer is, “Yes, yes, I can.” So if you knew you could connect with something that is like the best friend in the world, would you?
I invite you to make prayer into something that has meaning for you. If you want to start with something familiar, you can recite a prayer you already know, like the Lord’s Prayer, or even something you say at dinner for grace. Or sing a Bible song.
Just start somewhere and see how it feels for you. Add something, subtract something. Try something. If that doesn’t work, try something else. Make it into your own private conversation.
Like all conversations, I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ way to do it – you figure it out between the two of you. Remember, it’s between you and…(fill in the blank as to how you define the other party you’re speaking with).
Having said all of that, I personally don’t believe that praying for a specific outcome is very realistic or helpful to you. When you do that, you’re kind of like playing God, in that YOU are trying to decide that something ‘should’ happen, but how do you know what’s ‘supposed’ to happen? Maybe getting that job isn’t the best thing for you, even if YOU think it is. And besides, then if you DON’T get the job, you think your prayers haven’t been answered, and then you may not think that praying “works.”
So when you pray, you might rather try praying for the best outcome for everyone involved, or praying to relieve pain and suffering, or praying for enlightenment or understanding in a situation.
When my son and I pray every night, we usually pray in the same sequence. We first pray for all of the people in our lives, saying, “Please be with ….” Then if there’s something specific we’ve been asked to pray about, we do that. “Please send healing love and energy to…” or “please send comfort and rest to…”
Then we circle out and pray for all of those who are in pain, are hungry or scared, that they can feel peace and healing, and to know that they’re not alone; then we usually reflect on some things that we’re thankful for in our day. “Thank you for the beautiful weather and for the beautiful organic vegetables we got from the farmer’s market. Thank you for our good health, the clothes on our backs and the good food on our table.”
Again, it doesn’t really matter WHAT you focus on, but rather the fact that you’re paying attention to something beyond yourself, something greater than yourself. Not greater as in BETTER, just BIGGER, more expanded, and that connection can serve to open you up and help YOU expand, as well.
Prayer can be a very powerful vehicle for change and transformation, and with prayers can come miracles. I so profoundly believe in the power of prayer AND the power of miracles. I think they’re inextricably connected.
Anything is possible in this land of the great I am. And you can connect to that place through prayer, among other things, but I urge you not to give up on prayer just because of some old, outdated notions or constrictions or previous disappointments. Make it fresh for you, make it new, make it real, then watch it as it helps transform and enrich your life.
Prayer is two hands coming together as one, placed in front of your eyes and mouth to help you see and give voice to something sacred, and to bring that sacred into your everyday life. And THAT is very powerful. It doesn’t have to be formal or rigid – you just have to have a desire to connect and communicate; then just do it.
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