Like most Americans, I hold the overblown belief that a book about my life would be worth reading. And, like most Americans, I have had the gumption to title it before I’ve even lifted a finger. It’s called “Should I Be Praying Now?”
As if you’re surprised, it has an obnoxious subtitle that helps marketers at Barnes & Noble know whether to put it on the Christian living shelf with the likes of Beth Moore or drop it behind the David Sedaris memoir with the naked barbie on the cover. It will read, “Moments of indecision during mealtime, bedtime, teeth-brushing, love-making, test-taking, baptisms, funerals, and the opening few minutes of small group.” It’ll be like Anne Lamott’s “doesn’t that make you feel better about your own spiritual life” kind of writing but more pedestrian.
After all, it was Anne Lamott that got me started on my spiritual teeter-tot between her brand of prayer as irrepressibly simple (“Help!” “Thanks! “Wow!”) and my upbringing of Catholic monotone (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed”) and evangelic effusiveness (“Father God, I just ask you to just give me that awesome peace of yours.”) The heavy kid with a sack full of guilt is winning out, digging his heels in the playground sand.
This is why I don’t pray, or at least I don’t know what to call prayer anymore. I’ve been through the analytic arguments:
Why pray if God’s going to do whatever God’s going to do anyway? (Because I believe we can change God’s mind, bartering like Abraham, wrestling like Jacob, and begging like the Syrophoenician woman)
Can we really pray for anything from parking spots to miraculous healings?(Although there is no biblical precedent for the former, I fancy God prefers me to be talking nonsense rather than not talking at all)
What do we do with all those verses in Scripture that promise us answers when well-intentioned church folks tell us prayer isn’t about getting anything in return? (I believe that prayer can be both a radical plea for intervention and an exercise in relationship-building; and maybe those folks just aren’t as righteous as you. Kidding, sort of, but who’s to say?)
I have a whole closet full of tricks I’ve tried over the years to pray more, to pray better; I’ve kneeled, letting my body do the heavy-lifting for the mind. I’ve recited, letting the mind rest from its own creativity. I’ve sung Psalms. I’ve memorized verses. I’ve run and danced and yoga-posed. I’ve shortened and lengthened my words. I’ve meditated and prostrated. And I still I don’t know that I am praying well, or praying at all. You will tell me that I am, surely, for you are kind, but I am telling you that I am not sure sure.
I know the end to my book already. This is no spoiler really, and trust me, I’ll offer enough self-revelatory moments throughout to keep you interested – like how I tried to convince my brother he was hearing from God by whispering into his ear all smooth like Casey Kasem as he slept. The book ends with a simple answer: Yes, you should be praying now. Maybe you already are.
Because why not? Why not pray now? And now? And wait…now? Why wait ’till I’m sure sure like some twelve-year old waiting to get my braces off so I’ll be more presentable and less mouthy?
This is why I pray: I’m not sure what (or even when) to speak, but I am sure God does. And I’ll bet s/he doesn’t even mind when my tongue gets tied up by those nasty little rubber bands.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”
– excerpt from A Summer Day by Mary Oliver
8 thoughts on “This is Why I Don’t Pray by Erin Lane”
Your post made me search for new ideas about prayer and healing… see something interesting on http://ssrn.com/abstract=1992323
I’m not convinced to pray. I’ve been chided for not praying “enough,” for not holding enough “positive thoughts” (what is positive? what you are telling me is positive? what if I don’t agree with that assessment?), and for not believing in god or God or goddess or whatever enough (what is enough?). And I was told that if I did enough of these things, that I could heal myself – or god would see fit to heal me. You know what I think? Babies, toddlers, very small children have dire diseases and they can’t wrap their minds around praying or thinking positive thoughts – and some of them die, some of them don’t. Were they bad for not following the right recipe? Well, people who are sick, who have real, diagnosed diseases, get this kind of chiding on a regular basis. It’s one of the meanest things I’ve had to endure about being sick. So, from now on my response will be, then you pray for me because obviously I don’t know how to do it the “right” way. The implication they are making is that I am somehow bad for not healing myself with their formula for how to do it. Bunk. I am not convinced to pray – by these do-gooders or by your writing. I do like Mary Oliver’s poem and I live that list. And I like her question – Tell me, what else should I have done?
I agree with you that people who tell you that you’re not doing the right things to heal yourself are mean. I don’t think that’s their intention. They’re just scared. They think if they can blame you for your illness — because you’re not doing the “right things” — then when they get sick, they’ll be able to cure themselves by doing it right. Our culture really believes in control, individual initiative, assertiveness, and taking charge — even when it’s inappropriate — when in reality we don’t control much of our lives. Nobody teaches us how to let go here. We have to learn it for ourselves, and we all do in the end.
Nancy, thank you for your response to what I wrote. You are right about the blame and fear connection. I have thought of that before, and it really connects to our culture’s beliefs in control, initiative, assertiveness and taking charge. I certainly have learned from my illness that I have little if any control. which is not to say that I can’t change the way I look at things. I’ve had to let go of a lot of beliefs and learn completely new ways about living life. Most for the better, I’m glad to say. Praying? I’d like to. But I honestly don’t know how.. I just want to be able to pay attention better.Thanks again for your kind words. -Dana
I love your post. Please write your book. It will be a fun and useful read for many folks.
I have one suggestion. It seems you have tried many auditory and kinesthetic forms of prayer, but no visual ones. What about visualizing your relationship with God/dess? Or visualizing God/dess? The tantric Buddhists and Hindus do this in many ways. I believe that our prayer/meditation practices need to fit how our minds work (what Dawna Markova calls our perceptual thinking patterns), and maybe until now your practice hasn’t dovetalied with the way your mind works. According to Markova, there are three major senses that we use — auditory, kinesthetic, and visual. Why not try something visual.
P.S. I’m writing a book about this.
Erin, this was great. Thanks. It’s good to hear from someone else who, like me, wants to pray, but struggles with these questions.
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