For many years after leaving Christianity, I simply did not pray. In fact, I refused. Even when I felt guilty enough to join my wife, who was still Christian, as she led our children in prayer, I refused to get on my knees. I would sit on a chair or on the ground, but never kneel. This sign of submission still had power over me, even 15 years after I stopped believing in a God who demands submission.
If there was any kind of God I believed in, it was nature. And nature was not answering anyone’s call, so I saw no reason to pick up the phone. My issue with petitionary prayer arose from my belief that nature is incapable of answering prayers, at least not in the same way an anthropomorphic God is supposed to. And to be honest, I looked down my nose at people who believed that God heard and answered their prayers. I couldn’t get around the idea that God would answer some prayers but not others. And the standard theological non-explanations for this — “God works in mysterious ways” etc. — would inevitably set me off on a tirade.
After joining a Unitarian congregation, I remember reading a story by former UUA President Bill Sinkford, who is one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist thinkers, about how he had been called to the hospital one night when his son had overdosed. And as he sat by his son’s hospital bed, he prayed. Though I’m embarrassed to admit it now, I felt contempt. My thought at the time was: “He was weak”. It seemed like a betrayal of principle. And I thought to myself, if my child ever got seriously sick or hurt, I’d be damned if I would pray.
Looking back, I see now I was suffering from a profound lack of imagination. Clearly I had trouble imagining what it would really feel like to have my child be seriously sick or hurt. When my son was 16, the doctor told us there was something on his spinal x-ray that might be a tumor. It was a week before the MRI results came back negative and we knew it wasn’t a tumor.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that hearing the word “tumor” in conjunction with my child was one of the worst moments of my life. Over that week, between the word (tumor) and the test result (negative), I contemplated all of the possibilities, with lots of questions and no answers. I felt powerless and out of control. The weight of it drove me to my knees. Literally. I felt a emotional weight pressing down on me, a weight which I struggled against, but finally acquiesced to.
And I prayed. I didn’t pray to any God who would heal my son. I didn’t even pray to any God who I believed was actively listening to me. But nevertheless, I had to pray. I had to kneel in acknowledgement of everything that was beyond my control. I prayed to a personified impersonal universe. I said, “My son may have a tumor. I don’t want it to be true. I want him to be healthy and happy.” I prayed not with the belief, or even the hope, that praying would change anything. I just knelt in acknowledgement of my powerlessness. I knelt in acknowledgment of all of the things I could not control: whether my son had a tumor, whether it would be malignant, even whether he would live or die. And I bowed my head all the way to the ground three times.
And then I got to my feet. Because I wasn’t done. I felt a sense of defiance rise in me. And I said to that same personified impersonal universe that I knew I wasn’t entirely powerless. There were things I could do. I could be with my son. I could ensure he received all the medical care he needed. And I could love him.
Octavia Butler was the first acknowledged female science fiction writer and the first acknowledged Black science fiction writer. Her dystopian novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents describe a fictional religion Earthseed, the first two tenets of which are:
God is Change. Shape God.
For Butler, God is a metaphor for the ever-changing natural universe. To a certain extent, we are always at the mercy of forces which are beyond out control. But we have a measure of free will, the ability to perceive and learn, and to become shapers of those forces. Our lives are the outcome of a reciprocal interplay between God shaping us and us shaping God. In one of the verses of Earthseed scripture, Butler writes:
We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
This is how I felt when I was driven to prayer by fear for my son: the feeling of both being shaped by forces beyond my control and defiantly trying to shaping those forces. And I found both comfort and a sense of empowerment in my double-sided prayer.
A friend of mine, M.J., once described petitionary prayer as: “an acknowledgment of the limitations of human action and will”. She wrote:
“I don’t think Nature can hear us or choose to answer or ignore our prayers. But I wonder if prayer might make us more open to grace, more aware and appreciative of when it touches our lives.”
— M.J. Lee
That wasn’t the last time I was driven to my knees. A few years ago, I began to feel like I was running up against some kind of invisible limit. In my environmental activism, in my closest relationships, and in my internal state, I felt it. It was the limit of my ability to reason through a problem. This crisis was brought on by the combination of acute interpersonal conflicts and a more general anxiety brought about by my growing awareness of the “end of the world as we know it.”
For my whole life up until then, I was confident in my ability to think or talk my way through any problem. Problems seemed to me to be a function of a lack of clarity. And thinking and talking had always brought clarity. But when I hit this limit, talking no longer seemed to help, and actually seemed to make it worse sometimes. Even thinking often made it worse.
It felt like I was in a pit. My reason normally would have been like a metaphorical ladder, or at least a rope, to help me climb out of the pit. But now my reason seemed more like a pickaxe or a shovel, just digging myself deeper. I felt powerless and bereft of resources.
I experienced depression and anxiety attacks, something which was new to me. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t think my way out of this. I had to feel my way through it. Feeling my way through it was awkward and embarrassing. It felt like walking through a dark room, and stumbling a lot.
And when it got really bad, I prayed. Not a wordy prayer. Just a barely articulate “Please help me.” I wasn’t even praying to anyone in particular. Just sending my plea out there. And you know what? It helped.
Some strength came. The knots inside of me seemed to loosen a little. Not suddenly or dramatically, but definitely. It came from inside me, I thought. But, honestly, I didn’t care where it came from. Because it was keeping me alive.
And I keep praying occasionally, mostly at my worst moments. I pray, not to the “God of my understanding,” as they say in AA, but to the God of my not understanding. And I decided I wasn’t going to worry about trying to understand it for a while. While praying might seem inconsistent with my atheism, I decided it would be irrational (as well as potentially suicidal, in my case) not to acknowledge the limits of my reason.
One of my favorite books is by the 19th century minister, John Trevor, his spiritual autobiography titled My Quest for God. Trevor studied at Meadville and was a Unitarian for a while, and what he wrote about Unitarianism has stayed with me:
“My respect for individual Unitarians is unbounded. And yet their religious position as a denomination is one which I have always deeply regretted. For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character-everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation-never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. …There is one thing needful to Unitarians. God alone knows what it is, but he does not tell them. Is it for want of their asking?”
— John Trevor, My Quest for God
Is it for want of our asking?
Unitarians today tend to be even more atheistic than in Trevor’s time. And so the notion of asking God anything hardly makes sense for many of us. Anne Lamott says there are three basic prayers-”Wow!”, “Thanks,” and “Help.” (Some Christian writers have added a fourth: “Oops!” But I think Oops! is a subspecies of “Help!” “Oops! I f’d up. Please help me make it right. Please save me the consequences of my actions. Please let me find compassion in the eyes of others.”)
Of those three prayers, Unitarian Universalists are probably most comfortable with the first one, “Wow!”, and least comfortable with the last one, “Help!”. And yet, I wonder if we are cutting ourselves off from an important spiritual resource when we don’t ask for help. We assume naturally that asking presupposes a sentient listener on the other end. But is that true? Is it really necessary to believe the natural universe is sentient in order to address a question or a plea to it? Or even to receive a response?
Asking is an act of humility. It is an acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers or all the power, and that sometimes human reason and human will is not sufficient. Unitarian Universalist minister, Ashley Horan, describes supplication, the act of asking, in this way:
“opening in ourselves the ability to surrender control while courting creativity and cultivating hope as we seek to change circumstances in our lives and our world.”
— Ashley Horan, “A Guide to Acts Prayer”
The act of asking changes the person asking. It opens us up to new possibilities. Perhaps asking is a way of quieting the conscious mind so that the unconscious can speak to us. Or perhaps it is a way of opening our senses to answers that are already around us, just waiting to be noticed. There need be nothing metaphysical about it.
Whatever the mechanism at work, I know from experience that answers do come, when I humble myself enough to ask. And grace did come when I was humble enough to receive it. I have received responses when I was a Christian, and I believed they came from God. And I have received responses as an atheist, and I said they came from my deep self. But the effect was the same.
This practice, the practice of asking, has worked most effectively when I set aside some time to do it, and when I vocalized my question or my plea, in other words, when it sounded most like a prayer. The vocalization might be the hardest part for many Unitarian Universalists. For many of us, anything that smacks of theism trigger our intellectual gag reflex. But we might think of it instead as a spiritual technology which can be borrowed from theistic religions and made to work in a non-theistic context.
You can rationalize the practice in any way you want, but I think, for it to work, you do have to mean it. You have to really ask. You have to really open yourself up to receiving some kind of response. Anything from a resonant thought that pops into your mind to a synchronistic event to a feeling of relief or comfort.
You can think of it any way you want. But however we think about it, however we quiet that nagging critical voice in our heads, we can still always ask.