I started praying some years ago, in the spring of 2014. How it came about: a friend of mine lost his son unexpectedly, and I was looking for a way to express my condolences.
I really can’t imagine anything worse than losing a child, can you? I’d lost my Mum a few years before, and the waves of grief that washed through me at the time were like a force of nature. But my Mum had cancer, and I was expecting her to die. Mums are supposed to go before their sons; sons aren’t supposed to go before their Fathers.
So I was trying to put this into words. I wanted to tell my friend that I felt for him, that I was with him in his grief. I wrote the words “you are in my thoughts”, but that seemed trite somehow, mundane, and I quickly scribbled them out. I needed to refer to something deeper than thought, something that would truly express the profound mystery of grief.
So this is what I wrote, as the only proper form of words I could find under the circumstances:
“You are in my prayers.” And that seemed entirely fitting, entirely natural and true.
But that set me thinking. What is prayer? What is it that people think they are doing when they pray? And how could I write the words “you are in my prayers” and then not pray? It seemed hypocritical. I was forced into a dilemma by it.
A weight suddenly descended on me. I kept imagining myself in an attitude of prayer. I would look down at the carpet in my room and picture myself there, on my knees, with my hands pressed together, my head bowed, whispering solemn words to the aether. It was quite eerie and out of keeping with my ordinary view of myself.
We all carry a self-image around with us, don’t we? I guess I would imagine myself as, to some degree, sophisticated, sceptical, urbane. I’m an agnostic. I have no beliefs as such, and I hate to be labelled. Call me religious, and I’ll deny it. But call me an atheist and I’ll deny that too. No one is going to pin a belief-structure on me, like the tail on the donkey at a children’s birthday party.
The image of me in an attitude of prayer seemed the opposite of that. Naive, not sophisticated, fervent, not sceptical, primitive, not urbane, it was like this crude image had jammed itself into my brain as a denial of everything I considered myself to be. It was like something welling up from the bottomless ocean, some forgotten memory from the deepest part of my being. I realised that I had always had the urge to pray, at certain difficult times in my life, and that I had suppressed it in order the create that self-image of mine, of what I thought I should be.
And then one day I glanced around my room and saw that I had a ready made shrine. And that was it. I fell on my knees and allowed the prayers to come.
The shrine is a little bedside cabinet by my bed. I hadn’t created it as a shrine, but that’s what it has turned out to be. It’s exactly the right height for me to kneel in front of with my hands held together in an attitude of prayer. It has an icon of a Madonna and Child on the wall above it, which I’d given to my Mum in my youth, and which she had gifted back to me when I’d moved into this flat. There’s a tiny African fetish of the river god of the Zambezi, like a spiral dragon with a single eye, and a Native American dream catcher; also a picture of me when I was seven years old, and a bowl with three Chinese coins in it, which I use for casting the I Ching.
You’ll see that I’m covering all bases with this: an African fetish, a Christian Icon, a Native American ritual object, and a Chinese oracle. It’s not exactly consistent. But I’m not praying to any of these things. They are vehicles for the imagination that’s all, a focus for my prayers, not a destination.
I was very uncomfortable at first. I felt acutely embarrassed to be stuck in this peculiar pose, on my knees in front of my bedside table, praying to a God I didn’t believe in.
At the time I shared my house with a Marxist. He was an ex-member of the Socialist Workers Party and had a picture of Leon Trotsky on his wall. Trotsky was a notorious atheist, and I lived in dread of my flatmate coming home and catching me at it. I thought that the only thing worse than being caught praying by a Marxist would be to be caught masturbating by your Mum. That always made me laugh.
But this tells you something. We live in a deeply secular age. It’s not only Marxists who will look at you strangely. Mention the idea of prayer to almost anyone and they will give you this weird look, as if you’ve just done something unmentionable in mixed company.
Isn’t this odd? People have been praying for thousands of years, for as long as human beings have been on this planet perhaps, yet somehow it has become offensive in the last half-century or so. You can’t help wondering why this should be?
Maybe it’s because we have no sense of the ineffable any more, of that which lies beyond what we already know. Our culture’s view of the Universe is that we have it all done and dusted, all categorised and defined, like the list of ingredients on a soup packet; that there’s nothing left to discover, and nothing left to pray to either.
Nevertheless I kept up the practice. I’ve been praying ever since.
That’s how I see it: as a practice, as something I do, like meditation. In fact I see the two practices as part of the same dynamic process. Meditation is silent prayer; prayer is meditation with words. The one informs the other.
The act of prayer alters every time. There’s nothing fixed in it. I look at the images, I kneel down, I press my hands together and I open my heart. That’s it. I allow my innermost being a presence in that space. I say to the Universe, “look, this is what I am, with all my faults and foibles, my bad faith, my failures, my fragilities and loss of faith: this is me.” And then I allow the words to come.
Prayer is sacralised thought: thought made sacred. It’s as much to do with the posture as anything. It is an attitude of submission. It acknowledges your insignificance in the grand scheme of things and asks for guidance. It waits. It waits patiently. Most of all that is what you are doing when you pray. You are practising patience. You are waiting for an answer to a question you never knew you needed to ask.
I’ve had different thoughts on what I’m praying to exactly. Sometimes it’s as vague a notion as “the Universe”. That’s a very big thing, and it would take a particularly vain nature to imagine that the Universe was going to pay any attention to little old me, a mere speck of a being, on a speck of a planet, circling an out-of-the-way star, with seven billion other specks also vying for attention.
The same goes for God. I was struck by the absurdity of this after the Tsunami of 2004. There were many stories of people who had prayed and had survived, saying that their prayers had been answered. But what about the more than 230,000 people who didn’t survive? How many of them had also prayed? I imagine even confirmed atheists pray as a Tsunami wave washes their life away. Are we to say that they were not as worthy as the ones who had survived, that God didn’t love them enough to listen their prayers? Were they all of the wrong religion?
In fact, the Tsunami killed people of all religions: Buddhist, Christian, Moslem, Hindu and Jew; people of faith and people of no faith; and people of all religions survived too, whether they prayed or not.
And that is precisely the contradiction that lies at the heart of the practice: the awareness that, although we are insignificant on a Universal scale, yet we are deeply significant too. Significance refers to signs, to the things that signal meaning in our lives. And therein lies the answer to both questions: what is prayer, and what is it we are praying to?
Because the Universe is vast, mysterious and beyond measure, and can hardly hear our prayers; but the inner space of the heart is also deep and unfathomable. It is that part of the Universe that only we can know. This is the domain in which our prayers will be heard.
Prayer that asks for something in the outer world is inevitably doomed, either to failure, or worse: to being answered. Because if you believe that God answers your prayers by giving you what you want in this world, then you must also believe that other people, those who are hungry or toiling or lost, are given what they are given by God and that is what they deserve.
This is so far away from the meaning of prayer as to be a real danger to your soul.
No. Prayer is a dialogue. It is a dialogue with yourself: with your higher self, with the divine presence within you, with the being you might become. It is a conversation with that part of yourself that has distance and perspective, that can see beyond your present horizon and can guide you on your way.
And the only prayer that matters is the one that asks for wisdom, that asks for guidance and forgiveness: not the forgiveness of God, but the forgiveness of yourself, both for yourself and for your loved ones, for the ones you choose to judge.
From Kindred Spirit Issue 150 May/June 2017