By Tom Robotham
Let me ask you a question: Do you pray? If so, for what and to whom?
I used to pray a lot. Throughout my childhood, I attended services at a lovely old Episcopal Church virtually ever Sunday, and for several years I served as an acolyte. In time, I grew to love the language of The Book of Common Prayer, especially the Collect for Holy Communion, which proclaims that to God, “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” then asks that he “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of [the] Holy Spirit.”
At night, after climbing into bed, I prayed informally as well. It’s often been said that young people feel invincible, but I never felt that way. From an early age I was acutely aware of the fragility of life, and as a way of coping I would ask God to protect my family and me. In those moments, his presence was palpable—and never something to fear. Indeed, the concept of God as a fierce and punishing figure was unknown to me. The religious environment in which I was raised ingrained in me the feeling that God loved all creatures, great and small, unconditionally.
As I came of age, however, I began to reject all of this. While I never lost my sense of spirituality, I came to think of Christianity as nothing more than a childish superstition. This was reinforced in college when I was introduced to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His reflections on prayer were especially resonant to me.
“Prayer,” he wrote in his essay “Self Reliance,” “is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg.”
In spite of this, when my children were young, I began going to church again. The beauty of the Anglican liturgy—along with the embrace of a loving and non-judgmental community—proved for a time to be more powerful than my intellectual skepticism. I began to see the proclamations and exhortations of the liturgy not as language to engage rationally but rather as something to experience, in the same way that we experience the natural world in all of its manifestations. When we go swimming in the ocean, after all, we do not contemplate the molecular structure of the water or the physics of waves—we simply feel it and let it wash over us.
That said, after my children grew up and left home, I drifted away from the church once again—and rarely prayed thereafter.
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering whether I need to return to the practice.
THE REASONS FOR THIS are fairly obvious to me. For one thing, there are the terrifying implications of the coronavirus. A lot of people, it appears, are under the impression that it will pass and that when it does life will return to “normal.” This strikes me as not only naïve but dangerous. Sure, it’s likely that in time there will be a vaccine for this particular strain. But there will be others, whether of natural origin or developed and loosed upon the world as a weapon of biological warfare. And yet, because Americans in particular have a tendency to bury their heads in the sand, I fear that the next deadly pandemic will catch us off guard as surely as this one did.
A sizable and very vocal minority is making matters worse for all of us by insisting that they don’t need to where masks or follow any other health guidelines because “God will protect them.” This is not only utter foolishness; it is downright offensive, for it implies that if people get sick it must be because they lack faith.
The problem, however, is not limited to those circles of people who cling to a childish and self-centered notion of God, while rejecting science as the work of the devil. By and large, most of us have lived with our heads in the sand, ignoring all manner of threats, from climate change to the corruptions of our political system, our “capitalist” economy, and our culture.
Long before the pandemic began, after all, we were facing the grave threat of a president who seems to thrive on divisiveness. But I have long argued that Trump is a symptom of our disease rather than the cause of it. The fact that he became president reflects badly on all of us who grew complacent under the illusion of a “booming economy” and a pacifying culture of distraction.
It was not Trump, after all, who created systemic racism, the problem of pervasive gun violence, or catastrophes like the Flint water crisis. Nor is it Trump’s fault that for decades we as a nation have tolerated a growing wealth gap, a mediocre education system, the incarceration industry or a health care system accessible only to those who can afford it.
PRAYER ALONE won’t solve any of this—least of all the kind of prayer that asks God to fix our broken world in the manner of a child who comes to daddy and pleads for him to fix a broken toy.
But more and more often, I’m drawn to the idea of prayer as a place to start. The question is, in what form?
For me, it certainly won’t take the form of those prayers of my childhood. But to my mind, there are many other ways of praying. I have come to believe that prayer at its heart is an expression of a desire to open the soul ever wider, like a flower opening its petals to the sun.
Many books have been helpful to me in this process of contemplation—especially Amazing Grace, by Kathleen Norris. Like me, Norris at one point rejected everything to do with religious practice.
“Prayer was impossible for me for years,” she writes in her short essay on the subject. Eventually, she returned to it with a new understanding: “While prayer may originate in our own desires,” she writes, “it can quickly move beyond them, into our life with others, and toward the greater society.”
To cast it in terms of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, it begins, in other words, with “right understanding” and “right purpose.” Or to put it yet another way, it begins by turning toward what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”—an orientation toward the higher self and a contemplation of its essence. I pray, for example, that I may cleanse my mind and my heart of hatred and resentment. This is especially challenging in these polarized times. But it is a necessary aspiration—one that has the potential to lead to understanding that our sense of separateness is an illusion. It is in our nature to cling to this illusion, and the illusion is further fueled by a society that has long encouraged us to vilify the “other.” Nevertheless, I believe that it is possible to overcome these forces.
In my efforts to do so, I have become increasingly aware of how often I fall short. This is why I have no trouble embracing the concept of original sin, which at its core is separation from…well…call it what you will: God, the divinity within, or the true Self that transcends the ego.
The other thing that occurs to me about prayer is that it need not involve words at all.
Indeed, consider the very first lines of The Book of Common Prayer: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.”
I’m inclined to believe that if I start each day in this manner, I will be in a better position to move into the world with what Buddhists call “right conduct”—that is to say, an effort to undertake every action with mindfulness and bring to every encounter the spirit of agape, or all-embracing love.
I know that in spite of this I will stumble again and again. But when I do, I will pray for the strength to get up and begin anew.