Prayer Is Not Nothing

Standing in a field, arms outstretched, opening to prayer and a relationship with the divine

Nothing Left But Prayer

This week at the recovery church meeting, we will talk about prayer. The timing seems right. As the United States reels from the effects of the pandemic, from forest fires and hurricanes, from a relentless cultural divide, and now, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg from cancer, it seems as if all we have left to do is pray.

It’s not just world events that leave us seeking comfort in ritual and supplication. When turbulence gets so bad it threatens the plane in which we ride, for instance, or medical interventions fail and we find ourselves perched at the edge of the afterlife, we can feel powerless.

Yet though we may be powerless, we still have choices. We can allow anxiety to overwhelm us, we can flail against fate, but we don’t have to. If we are not religious, we can quiet our minds, watch our breath, allow timelessness to wash over us, and remember that all is well here and now. If, on the other hand, we are of a religious frame of mind, we might pray for salvation in this body, beg God for a reprieve, remind ourselves that in the end, all manner of things will be well. Even when our life is uncertain, we can feel joy in being alive.

How Do We Respond?

As I write this, though, my heart is heavy with the sadness of Ginsburg’s passing. It does not seem that all is well, nor that it will be in the future. Many in our country mourn.

Yet some celebrate the opportunity to add one more conservative judge to the Supreme Court. If this happens, it will be one more step toward cementing the power of our country’s ruler, the president who would be king. It is not a future I look forward to, though some do. Not everyone despises the cruelty of tyrants, for they believe they will be enriched and protected. They believe they will flourish when others flounder. Of course, life doesn’t work out so smoothly, but we all have our fantasies.

Standing in a field, arms outstretched, opening to prayer and a relationship with the divine

For those of us who prefer a just and compassionate world, Ginsburg’s death is a tragedy, and not just because a lively, joyful, determined, and justice-loving woman has passed from this earth. Her death is sad, and we would do well to honor the loss of a loving grandmother, a respected colleague, a generous friend.

But Ginsburg was a public figure, and her dying could shift the balance of power in our country.

So how ought we to respond? Mitch McConnell intends to approve a justice before the year is out, though he refused to allow the same thing to happen for President Obama. In small Oregon towns, vigilantes are stopping drivers, intimidating them with weapons, and turning them away from their destination, all in the name of protecting their neighbors.

How do we respond? What do we do?

We Can Pray

We could pray, and that would be fine. Let’s raise a prayer for Ruth’s soul. Pray that her presence lives on in those who carry on her work, that her spirit brings us courage and wisdom, that she helps us rise from the ashes of our homeland, just as we in the West will rise from the ashes that have decimated our forests and towns. Humans are resilient. We will find a way. Peace will come. Love will win out. Even if we don’t live to see it, evil will one day fade into dust. Let’s pray for this. Absolutely.

Yet let us not pray just with words. Action, too, can be a prayer. Standing in solidarity, creating a wall of bodies to protect the vulnerable, singing, dancing, feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted. All this is prayer.

As a chaplain, I come across all kinds of ideas about prayer. Some people think prayers should be written down and memorized, or that we should only pray for others, or that “thank you” is all we ever need to say, or that God will grant them miracles because they are good and because they asked. Other people want me to pray for them to find the courage to get through their trials, that their family be safe, that God protect everyone from the coronavirus, or that our planet and its creatures be renewed. They ask that I speak of their gratitude and love for their heavenly father. They ask that God’s will be done.

What Does Prayer Do?

People are also confused about what effect prayer is supposed to have. If the Bible tells us God will give us what we ask for, why do we so often get nothing? What is God thinking? Can a “prayer warrior” guarantee we that receive what we want? If God doesn’t answer our prayers with a quick “yes,” we may feel abandoned and betrayed, or think something’s wrong with us, or blame our ancestors. For some reason, we believe we should live a life without suffering, and we expect our prayers to ensure that we find relief from our pain.

Then there are the prayers that, like affirmations, are meant to make us better human beings. We pray for guidance, for the courage to do what God is calling us to do, for a peaceful heart. We ask that our resentments fall away, that we learn to forgive and to love. Such requests might not force God’s hand, but they might be enough to convince our unconscious to make it so.

Then there are prayers of lament. They can soothe our pain. By expressing our suffering, our longing for life to be different, we find healing. There are the stillness of meditation and the silence of openness. We pray as we count our quiet, slow breaths. Prayer is part of the sacred dance, the repeated mantra, the patient coloring of the mandala. Such prayers bring us peace and fortitude.

Mindfulness is its own kind of prayer, and it enhances prayer. Through mindfulness, we develop a connection to our words, our heart, to the spirit to which we pray. We are with our words, our movements, our touch. Mindful prayer and meditation help make us whole.

Connecting with the One Who Hears Us

Many Buddhist meditations are like prayers. Using the phrase “may I” or “may you” or “may all beings,” they speak of a desire for wellness, or peace, or compassion for ourselves and others, for wakefulness, for an unfolding of the wisdom that lies within our being, for a generous spirit, for a faithful heart, for the suffering of the world to turn to joy. Pema Chodron, in her book, Start Where You Are, calls these kinds of sentences “aspirations.” We name the things we aspire to. She writes that they are like prayers, “except that there’s nobody who hears you.” [1]

Yet perhaps there is. How do we know?

Regardless of whether we are heard or not, prayer is a kind of letting go. With our words and actions, we enter into an intimate relationship with something undefinable, whether that be a deity, a universe, or an elemental energy. Memorized or bubbling up freely from our core, prayers can move us toward a union with that blessed source. Meditation brings us into oneness with the universe.

Like prayer, meditation can bring us to a place of bliss, of peace beyond understanding. In both prayer and meditation, we enter into a realm beyond logical thought, where we know without words, feel without explanation. This awesome and mysterious place is sacred, empty and full at the same time. To come into this sacred center is a lot like falling in love.

Praying for Wisdom

But of what use is prayer when tragedies occur, when our beloved Ruth Ginsburg is gone? Right after she died, our political leaders and cohorts began using the language of battle. It seems we cannot stop to grieve. Some senators will try to install a new Supreme Court justice before the end of the year. Others will fight to stop them. Depending on what side we are on, we will cheer or despair.

I stand in fear because I suspect that a judge chosen by our current president will make it ever more likely that our right to vote will be stripped away, that our free press will become a phantom of itself, that our president will become a king, and that our democracy will become a farce. In the face of such a possibility, can we sit and do nothing? Do we simply clasp our hands and beg God to intervene for our side?

Sometimes, we must act. This may be one of those times. Yet to act from our fear, anger, and resentment only brings us more fear, anger, and resentment. This is not what I want.

So we pray. We pray for the wisdom to know what is right, the courage to do what we must, the serenity to be still, and the patience to wait for the right moment.

As Powerful as Stories

Prayer is not nothing. It is as powerful as stories. By the time he had listened to a thousand and one tales, the king, who demanded Scheherazade tell him a different story every night or prepare to die, ended up dying to himself. By listening to her stories, his heart opened. He became someone new.

Prayer does this for us, as well. As we breathe, sit, listen, cry out, dance, sing, speak, recite, we live our prayers into the world. This changes us.

But it matters what we pray for. If we pray for peace, we become more peaceful, but if we pray for the destruction of our enemies, we become more destructive. Prayer informs who we are and what we do. It can open our hearts, expand our souls, and make our spirits whole. In this way, prayer can also heal our world.

We live in a time of desperation and brokenness. Sometimes it seems prayer is all we have left. But after the stillness of prayer comes the wisdom to know what to do and the courage to continue on.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Chödrön, Pema, “Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living,” New York: Shambhala, 2001, 86.

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash 

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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