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Thoughts on prayer

Wednesday 1/4/23

I don't believe many people understand what prayer truly is and how prayer works--how it might work, I should say.

Citing prayer--that one is doing it with special prevalence--has become like many things in our age--a stand-in for substance and commitment. The mentioning of prayer is typically performative. The phrase "thoughts and prayers" is as meaningless as just about any in a society and culture in which almost all words are now meaningless--the few words that we do use--because they're never wielded with precision, honesty, and command. Specificity doesn't exist in language the way language is now enacted, and the way people have devolved because of how language is used. The way that connection breaks down, to the point that there is hardly any at all, in any form.

Saying--announcing--that one is praying for someone is almost always insincere. It's to get attention. And when it's not insincere, it's still often born of a kind of ignorance. And ignorance crossed with sloth, and doing the bare minimum, which is something people now love, insofar as they can love at all.

It's not real love, of course. The idea behind prayer for most people is associated with the spiritual. There is some higher power--and most people think of it as a higher being, whom they speak of as a person--and that higher power or being is thought to be aware of everything, is wherever they are, and needs to be appeased.

That's the foundation of prayer as most people think of it. It's importuning. It's adjuring. It is, above all, reaching a quota. The way we typically think about prayer is as a volume-based exercise. Hit a number between enough people, and the higher power or being will be moved to grant what's essentially a wish. It's also not equitable; pray more for Sally, and she gets to be better off than Anne, who didn't get as much fervent and voluminous support on the prayer front. That is the idea, no matter how much people might want to deny it, if you think 6000 people "praying" for something increases the chances than if you only had 5000. And that's not a good idea.

I don't like to think of a higher power in this regard and as this faulty an architect, overseer, partner, mirror; whatever it may be. I don't like to think of it as a granter of wishes. Nor do I really care to talk about God. I believe in something beyond myself because of how I know myself. Because of how I know what I am able to do, which is beyond me--beyond a person. I know that, I feel that, I experience that. I have opened myself up to that, and that has opened me up to me, and me to my work and vice versa.

I don't think prayer orients around an idea of having to satiate someone or something with how much we implore them, praise them--or it. We put prayer in spiritual terms, but as much as anything, prayer is secular. That is the paradox of prayer, and that's what almost everyone who goes on and on about prayer fails to realize. Prayer has utility that isn't about spiritual belief, and certainly not religiosity. Prayer has as much value, potentially, for the non-believer as the believer. Here is what prayer really is, when prayer is sincere, and prayer is real: prayer is empathy. It's going into someone else's life with all of the energy and imagination that requires. It's an attempt to feel as that person does who is the object of the prayer being offered.

I would think a higher power that has some quota that has to be hit to grant a wish is a dick. Is arrogant. "Move me, people. Wish to me. And maybe I will grant what you want after you kiss my ass enough."

True prayer is about what can be done, but this is a complicated concept. Often, with that person for whom we're praying, that's nothing. We might not know them. We may have no way to reach them. There are numbers--one cannot do something directly in one's daily life--or most people cannot--beyond the scope of however far one can reach out.

Paradoxically, prayer often isn't about the person we're directly praying for. We reach into their lives through this concerted effort, and we have a cognizance of what they might be feeling, experiencing. We have a new experience ourselves as a result. We become more attuned to someone who is going through what they are going through, which changes our perspective. Adds to our perspective. We add humanity to the humanity we had. This is called growth, which is also what prayer is.

When this occurs, we act differently and experience the world differently. We may know someone going through a version of what the person whom we have prayed for is going through. We behave better towards them. We are more accommodating, understanding. We may realize that this other person could be us. We didn't have that awareness before. That knowledge then informs how we view our own lives.

In this way, prayer can make us less callous. More open to others. More patient. Better suited to understand someone else's pain or experience. We may directly serve a person who is not the person we were praying for in the first place, because of how we prayed for the latter. This person we reach can be a person we will meet in ten years time. It may be someone we never meet at all, but a person who is met by our example as it has been passed through others.

This is what prayer is. It's not really about wishing and getting something for Bob, because such and such happened to Bob. It begins with Bob. And it is about Bob, but in the larger sense than that Bob is about Bob. The benefits of prayer are likely to grow themselves elsewhere. And they are likely to show themselves in ways we never see or learn about. This is a form of faith. Faith is often not easy. Prayer is often not easy. It's not banging out a wish to a figure in the sky. It's emotional and mental work.

Prayer is not a refrain. It's not a mantra. It's not a catechism. It's not saying fifteen of these and ten of those. Prayer is not about quotas, it's not about making wishes, it's not about supplication. It's about going into someone else's life. There are many ways to pray. To partake of art and receive what it gives us can be a way to pray. To take a walk of an hour with only one's thoughts, can be a way to pray. To sit and think, "I should ask how my friend's kid is, she was sick over the weekend," can be a way to pray.

True prayer is never about "look at me." It's not about cliches. It's not about half-assed phrases ("prayers up") jerked out on Twitter for likes. It's not even anything you talk about as prayer, because that mitigates the purpose and injects the ostentation. Makes it a form of pile-jumping, of empty echoing, which is the opposite of actual prayer.

Prayer is actuated words. That does not mean actions instead of words; it means words that help us go forth to places we normally don't. Internal places. Emotional places. Through our own hearts and minds, we enter into someone else. We go to places where we may have to confront our own laziness, where we've gone wrong, our selfishness. Places where we may have to admit we've failed and we've failed for a long time, but it's never too late to begin moving in the opposite direction, with all of the time, energy, effort, humility, awareness, and self-awareness that requires.

That's what prayer is. Everyone claims to pray when it makes them look good or a cause has been brought to their attention, but hardly anyone actually ever prays in the real sense of what prayer means.

The last thing that prayer is is a wish. Wishes are for fountains at malls. And they don't work. The things that do, require a lot more effort.


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