I wanted to start this entry with the words: “I’m not a pray-er.” Only, it isn’t true. In fact, I do pray. Not often and not well, and I am extremely uncomfortable saying (or, in this case, writing) it. Because to say that one prays is loaded, invites all sort of assumptions and judgments. I’m afraid of what other people will think of me. Mostly, I think --coming from a family that worshipped at the church of atheist intellectualism -- I’m worried about what I’ll think of me. I’m not just uncomfortable writing or talking about my prayer life, such as it is. I’m also deeply uncomfortable doing it. Which begs the question: why bother? And what does that have to do with seven days of change?
Let me back up a tad. As I said before, my parents rejected outright organized religion and all its trappings and trickery. We valued knowledge and facts and scorned those who relied on this silly notion of a God. Thus, the only praying I did growing up was the foxhole variety that, interestingly enough, seem to be ingrained in our brains from birth. Dear God, don’t let me get caught. Dear God, don’t let that be the last piece of cake. Dear God, help me pass this test. Dear God, let that boy ask me out. Dear God, are you there? It’s me, Julia.
If I got the outcome I sought, I took it for granted. If I didn’t – which was most of the time, given the unlikelihood of the things I prayed for – I took it as further proof there was no God and that prayer was bunk. That approach, while frustrating and confusing, got me through most of my adolescence and young adulthood.
It’s impossible for me to talk about my prayer life without talking about my recovery from alcoholism, but I feel self conscious about that. I’m painfully aware how annoying it can be, how much it can alienate some readers. But it’s essential here, so if it makes you uncomfortable, I get it. If it makes you roll your eyes and think you’re stuck in a Lifetime Movie of the Week, I understand. Maybe you’ll come back next week for something a little less personal.
I got sober with a popular, highly anonymous 12-step recovery organization that happens to be pretty big on the whole God thing. It wasn’t easy for me to gel with at the start, and it's still something I struggle with – but desperate people are willing to try an awful lot of things. And, fortunately, there are workarounds for the “God” concept. You get some pretty wide berth to figure out what your higher power might be – anything from a coffee cup to the group itself to a gen-yoo-ine beard-havin’ Jesus figure.
But then there’s prayer, tons of it. Meetings begin and often end with the serenity prayer or, sometimes, the Lord’s prayer. Certain steps require prayer work to complete them. So I did what I was told, reluctantly and not without resentment, trying it all on for size. It was like an ill-fitting and really itchy sweater. I was simply going through the motions. I could say the words they told me to, but I didn’t feel connected to anything. I felt like I was the world's biggest faker and it was only a matter of time before people found out how spiritually retarded I really was. I coasted like that for about seven years.
Then along came my friend M., the woman who taught me most of what I know about prayer. The best part? She's an atheist. And when an atheist tells you that she prays and experiences the benefits, it's tough to make your own arguments hold water. But I had questions. Oh, did I have questions! How, I wanted to know, do you possibly pray if you don’t believe in God? Who in the heck are you praying to? Infuriatingly, M. merely shrugged and asked me what difference that really made.
I thought it was a trick question. But then M. explained to me that, for her, prayer is just a good way to pause and take a moment to order her thinking at the day's start -- or to give thanks at its end. A "recovering Catholic," she told me she even says the rosary from time to time because the ritual is comforting to her and she believes in the sanctity of words. (I had to admit that, as a writer, that latter part in particular made sense to me.)
I began to warm to the idea that maybe what mattered was not who or what I prayed to, how I prayed or even the words I said, but that I prayed. That the act itself could bring me calm and comfort and order and humility.
I would never have predicted how much freedom that revelation gave me to try and figure the rest out for myself, to find a way to try to make prayer a genuine experience for me. It would have all worked swimmingly had it not been for my brain, which made me feel ridiculous about praying. It argued with me. Mocked me. Cajoled me. The result was a prayer life that was half-assed at best. I prayed occasionally, self-consciously and, often, resenting the feeling that I “had” to do it.
I’d probably have chucked the whole idea out the window, frankly, were it not for the fact that the people I admire most in recovery are sane, funny, grounded, intellectual types who also happen to extol the value of daily prayer. All of which is a very, very long intro to why I decided to follow their lead and pray for seven days in a row. I mean, really try. Morning and night. On my knees, even. Would that be enough to make a difference?
The first day, I forgot, entirely.
But by day two I was back on the wagon, so to speak, begrudgingly getting down on my knees and giving it a whirl. I still felt ridiculous. I didn’t know what to say. On my knees by my bedside, I automatically started by saying (in my head), a beseeching, “God?” and then realized it was just like the beginning of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. Clearly, I had trouble focusing. I clung to that hope that acknowledging I didn’t know what to say and humbling myself with getting on my knees would earn me some credit.
After a couple of days, the "on your knees" bit was starting to feel a tad wholesome, maybe even martyr-ly. And there was no arguing that it forced me to stop. Or try to stop. Even if I wasn’t entirely successful, I could get in a few deep breaths and a fleeting sense of being in the moment and being entirely okay in that space. Maybe the gift in this was that pause, that space in which to ask for help and give thanks. To whom or what, I didn’t know, but somehow that didn't seem to matter. It felt important just to be exercising my humility and gratitude muscles?
On the last day of this little experiment, I flew to Texas. I am not, as I have noted elsewhere, the world’s best flyer. It’s not just the fear of dying, although that has a hefty hand in matters. It’s also that I have some sort of strange, almost neural, physical reaction to the motions of flying. The minute the plane starts to move – even when it’s on the ground – the nerve endings in my arms and legs spring to life, making me anxious and prickly. It’s a sensation that’s magnified by the bumps and sways of take-offs and landings.
At some point over the years, it has become an unconscious ritual to grab for my husband’s hand when the plane revs up the runway and say a prayer. So, just like that, as the plane tucked its wheels and we took to the sky, I found myself praying. I was asking for help. Asking to have this discomfort removed from me. Asking for acceptance of the fact that it was out of my hands. I was asking, if somewhat sheepishly, for a good outcome, a safe delivery.
At that moment, when the praying was automatic, I wasn’t concerned about to whom or what I was praying or where said thoughts and words are landing. I just felt the need to get them out there, to calm myself with this ritual. By the time we leveled out at our cruising altitude, my nerve endings had quietened a bit and I was able to relax. And whether that was because my prayers allowed me to soothe myself or because they went out in the universe and I received aid in return, I don’t know.
Nor, it turns out, do I really care.