photo by James Douglas
Prayer. When I was little, I prayed. But it was really more of an OCD. My own version of If I die before I wake…was an anxious plea to keep myself, family and friends safe, healthy, happy, and alive. If I didn’t perform this prayer the same way every single night, right after closing my eyes but before drifting off to sleep, I feared something bad would happen.
Unfortunately, something bad happens whether you pray or don’t, have an OCD or not.
I never learned how to pray. And I didn’t know whom or what I was praying to exactly.
But I did it anyway. It soothed me and felt essential in some curious way.
I didn’t see my parents pray. If they did, it was personal and discreet, perhaps it was something done at night or first thing in the morning behind closed doors.
When I was younger and heard someone say, “I’ll pray for you”, it sounded like an insult. But, “You are in my prayers”, sounded more inclusive, gentler and not so judgemental.
Tosha Silver in her exquisitely beautiful book, Outrageous Openness, seems to echo this sentiment when she writes that worrying about someone is the worst energy we can send them (and ourselves). She writes, “It’s simple instead to learn to send blessings as soon as worry begins. Just hold the person in your mind filled with light and happiness, see them peaceful and content. Do it day after day. That’s the single most useful gift you can mentally offer anyone you love.”
I also read somewhere that while meditation (and or stillness and silence) is listening to the divine, prayer is talking to the divine. To be in a relationship requires both; talking and listening, giving and receiving.
But every dawn of every new day, my definition of prayer expands. It is deeper, wider and more forgiving. The particulars are irrelevant. All that matters is that I do it. Prayer to me is inviting sacred meaning into my day.
And now when I think back to my dad admiring the desert sunset with a gin and tonic in hand, swaths of orange and purple sky embracing him, I see him in prayer. My mom, on the beach, sitting in her chair, toes in the sand, drinking up the sunshine as waves play and roll around in the background, feels like prayer. A positive intention, a wish on behalf of a loved one or stranger can also be prayer. Singing Happy Birthday around a cake lit with the soft glow of candles and smiling faces, prayer. Art, prayer. Walking for charity, collective prayer. Writing this blog, prayer.
While reading the book Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, I loved the visual she offers of imagining a bottle of vinegar and oil. When we pray, her friend Geri says, “pour out the vinegar first – the acid, whatever’s troubling you, whatever hurt you, whatever is harsh, and jangling your nerves or spirit.” I am worried, scared, sad.
And then what you find underneath is golden. There, lies the oil. There, the divine is working. There, we are not alone. Please give me strength. Please provide comfort and peace to those I love.
We get to bring our whole selves to prayer. We are honest and naked in prayer with nothing to prove and nothing to hide.
I am reminded of Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, The Three Essential Prayers. We pray when we or others are in need. We pray to give thanks. We pray when we are standing in the midst of sacred awe. And sometimes we pray simply because we don’t know what else to do.
“Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself up to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say, “Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help.”
“These prayers acknowledge that I am clueless but something else isn’t. While I am not going to go limp, I am asking for the willingness to step into truth.”
Prayer is said to be powerful. I used to think that meant powerful as in the realm of magic and miracles, powerful. And while that might be true, prayer is also powerful because of what it does to the person praying.
In a recent article in Outdoor Magazine, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg writes about his research on prayer. “Newberg found that prayer allowed his subjects to more quickly and efficiently achieve flow, that coveted state of mind most commonly described as being ‘in the zone.’ During flow, a cascade of neurochemicals descend into the brain, including dopamine (which regulates pleasure), serotonin (which reduces stress), and norepinephrine (which activates the fight-or-flight response). The brain also undergoes electrical changes.”
Prayer is good medicine.
Prayer for me is no longer an anxious plea. It is a letting go, a ride on the crest of a breaking wave. It is an open arm surrendering, falling backward onto a field of velvety green grass. Prayer is resting. It is being carried. It listens, it holds, and it is always an option. Sometimes, it is the only option.
Admittedly, I still pray, hoping to keep the bad at bay, but in addition, I pray to be given the strength and courage to endure whatever happens. I pray to be of service. I pray as a way of showing up.
I pray to stay open.
And, slowly, prayerfully, I am learning.