Monday, July 31, 2017

The Power of (the Unbeliever's) Prayer

Prayer used to be as natural to me as breathing. My inner monologue often included Jesus in its conversations. I prayed about everything. Prayers were not mere request forms for things I needed or hoped for. Sure, I asked for health when loved ones were ill, I asked for safety when I was scared, I asked for help when I was in need. I certainly prayed most fervently for salvation of those who were lost. But it was so much more than that. I had long conversations with God, sharing my thoughts, my dreams, my sorrows, my desires. I thanked him for beautiful sunsets and small victories. I analyzed questions and dilemmas with him. I included him in my mental decision-making process. I walked and talked with him on a regular basis.

I never felt I was a good "prayer warrior," but prayer was a normal, natural part of my daily life.

And I believed in the power of prayer. I believed that my prayers were heard and that God would answer them each, though not always in the way I wished. I believed that there was a genuine power in prayer, and that they could move mountains. Without getting too theological, I believed my prayers could make things happen (if they were in line with the preordained ... another topic for another time.)

Losing that belief in prayer, and the belief in a god to address them to, left a hole in my heart. In the early days of my newfound faithlessness, I often felt empty. I had no one to talk to. No one but myself to address in my inner dialogue. No one to call on for help. I was lonely without prayer.

I recalled a conversation I'd had with some friends in a school cafeteria while living in Scotland. It was a charity bake sale at my children's school, and we mothers were sitting around a tiny table with tiny chairs talking about the supernatural - ghosts and what not. I was still a Christian at the time but very ardently a searching one. One of the mothers referred to herself as "spiritual but not religious" and mentioned that she often prayed to the universe.

At the time, that seemed ludicrous. Why would anyone pray to the universe? What can the universe do to answer your prayers? For I believed that the power that lay in prayer was actually the power that lay in God to do something about those prayers.

Now I began to imagine that power differently. What if the power is actually in the prayer itself? What if the power is in ourselves and in the act of praying?

In those lonely days after losing my faith, I recalled the idea of praying to the universe. It still felt wickedly sacrilegious, as I was still adjusting from a lifetime of believing in a God who would strike me from the Book of Life for committing the unforgivable sin of blasphemy. But since I no longer believed in gods, I tried it one day. I had the familiar urge to address God about something, so I went ahead and did it - but I addressed the Universe instead.

I wasn't struck by lightening. But I felt oddly comforted.

A few days later I had a dream. In the dream, I'd been in a terrible car accident with my children. In the dream I found myself starting to cry out to God to save my children, then at the last second, I cried out to the Universe instead. I partly feared this blasphemy would mean death to my kids but even in the dream, I realized that the prayer itself was not going to save them, it was only going to comfort me through the terror of the situation.

I woke up from that dream shaking yet amazed by the epiphany.

I've been praying to the Universe ever since.

Yes, to faithful ears it sounds either despicable or foolish. It's not without pause that I share this. To those who find praying to anyone other than God sheer sacrilege, I understand. To those who believe that my need to pray is a hidden desire placed in my heart by God, I understand. I used to think those things too.

But really, it's just this. Prayer was always my way of sorting through my thoughts. Rather than simply monologuing with myself, I had someone to address those thoughts to. That made it like a real conversation, one that required an aspect of reason, introspection, story arc and conflict resolution. It was an audience for my innermost thoughts. Prayer also gave me a way to thank someone for the good things in my life, the things for which no one on earth could be responsible for. Prayer was my way of figuring things out, working through issues and finding comfort in pain.

Prayer was a powerful tool for me. But the power was in the act of praying itself, not in the one to whom I prayed.

Prayer is still as natural to me as breathing. I don't pray as often as I once did, but perhaps my life is noisier now, with three growing kids, a demanding job, and very little time to reflect in silence. But I still pray often. When I hike, I find myself praying in glowing rapture to the Universe (who now gets a capital letter too) over the beauty of nature. When I am lonely or depressed, I share my painful feelings with the Universe. When I have a tough decision to make, I include the Universe in my inner monologue.

It's not because I believe some nebulous concept of a omnipotent "universe" has replaced a concrete concept of an omnipotent God, but because the act of praying itself is so powerful to me, no matter who it's addressed to, that I feel disoriented without it.

So there you have it. I am an atheist who prays. Fervently even, sometimes. Just another way I'm rationally irrational, I guess. Maybe just way I'm a little "spiritual but not religious" too.