Thursday, October 7, 2010

Power and Prayer

I have been thinking about how I talk to god. How I talk to the god I do not believe in. How people in general talk to their gods. Not the gods of everyday life. Not the celebrities, the material goods, not the revered state of victimhood or or self-righteous sanctity, not the stupor of power. Prayers to the god who creates, destroys, blesses, bestows, deprives, defends, reconciles, reproves, loves and despises - that's what I mean. The parental god, the prime mover god, the all knowing and mysterious, magisterial god.

When god and I are on good terms, we communicate conversationally. I talk about my day, and in return a breeze combs through my hair, or an an old lady laughs a ribald cackle. When we are not on good terms, I remain petulantly silent, and in return my soul turns black as mushrooms left too long in plastic in the refrigerator.

Prayer is a natural impulse. Ask any atheist who has been bungee-jumping or had a really great orgasm. We naturally call out to god in our moments of greatest fear and greatest bliss. In forgetting ourselves, we immediately connect with god.

That was the magic of Zen meditation for me, I think. In an effort to erase the self, to quiet all thoughts and by recognizing them obtaining the power to release them all, I found myself approaching the great blank ineffability of god.

I'm a person who enjoys creating lists. I strive for completeness, symmetry and accuracy making my lists. One that I have been contemplating lately is a list of the reason people pray. This subject was a topic of my grade school religious training in Catholic schools, and a snippet I particularly treasure. The school girl's list of 5 ways to pray was in the abbreviated language of a child's mind, while still being satisfying to her soul. I was touched, early on, by the power of prayer.

People pray to petition for something. It may be to beg something for one's self or for others.  The prayer may be for grace, for health, for stuff, for an emotional need such as love or revenge. The big ask might be for life itself. But the greatest petition to me, is the one that asks for acceptance - "thy will be done." Prayers for acceptance recognize that we are deluded in believing we have control over much of anything besides our own conduct and our own thoughts. The primary gift of this prayer is humility.

Prayer in thanksgiving enables us to be grateful. It reminds us we are not alone, that even if we doubt the presence of deity in the universe, that we are dependent upon the planet and other beings for our coming into being and for our continued existence. The great gift of this prayer is satiety.

Prayers for forgiveness are also asking for something - for release from the pain of guilt. This prayer asks for repair of conscience and a return to our own state of wholeness and communion with the world we have wronged. This prayer has immense power to transform who we are when paired with reparations. The penance given in the confessional booths in my childhood never felt like a sentence to me - I enjoyed the cadence of the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and repeating them over and over was a joy. What was painful was the preparation for confession, the process of contemplating my shortcomings. It also caused me to make an effort to view myself with honesty.  Prayer of expiation and the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is one of the things the Catholic church gets right. People need a chance to be forgiven for and to forgive the worst expressions of our humanity. Done right, the sacrament can help us along this path, and enable us to evolve into better people over time. This prayer gives the gift of clarity.

People pray bodily as well. Acts of prayer shape our lives, create patterns and flow.  Small things give substance to the framework of family, faith, nation, world, and self that comprise our existence. We can drape that framework with acts of love, creativity and hope. We can also choose to drape that framework with contempt, numbness and doom. Our choices in how to act reflect how we perceive the world - what it is like to be who we are.  Prayers in the form of acts of love are reflections of how the best of us experience god, how we continue to bring this benevolent god into the world.  These prayers gift us with peace.

The fifth form of prayer I learned about as a child is one less often practiced - prayers of praise.   The act of praise arises from a sense of wonder and awe. It is the paralysis that grips us when we see the first ultrasound of the baby in our bodies, or the shaft of light cutting through a storm cloud to illuminate the backs of brilliant white swans crossing over a steel blue lake. Praisesong is the tears that escape our eyes when we hear the forgotten lullaby sung in a voice not our mother's but recognizable nonetheless. Praisesong is the crash and gasp and sweat of sex celebrating our corporal form. It is Walt Whitman's poetry. Praise both reflects our world view and shapes it. It is different from thanksgiving in that prayers of thanks recognize the benefits we have received. Praise magnifies the glory of creation that is indifferent to us, amplifying what is most magnificent in front of us and behind us, to the right of us to the left of us, above us and below us. The gift of this prayer is joy.

There is a sixth kind of prayer I wasn't taught about as a Catholic schoolgirl, but which is present in the bible.  It is the WTF

Lately, my devout parents sit in a dark, small room watching a 54 inch TV. One of the things they watch is a program that bills itself as news, but which is populated by pale people shouting and yelling histrionically. I know what they say because my father shouts it at me over lunch. I realize later, remembering him bouncing up and down in his chair and jabbing his finger in my face over and over, that outrage is the only exercise he gets anymore. In this way, I can be grateful for the program, but I am still afraid for his heart.

I fear for the hearts of all the people who absorb the ill-will and anxiety those left- and right- leaning entertainers spew. This form of entertainment is like watching lions tear Christians apart. You get to identify with the crowd of watchers, and distance yourself from the victims. But then that becomes your world. One where there are enemies lurking everywhere and you are never safe. Producing, participating in and watching the smug insipid liberal tripe and the paranoid heartless conservative garbage is the opposite of prayer - it is damning.  It is a catastrophic failure to revel in the beautiful diversity of our common humanity, and to feel strengthened by our obligation as sentient beings to care for the planet and all its inhabitants. It is a failure to ask, to atone, to act, to be grateful, to notice that which is praiseworthy and to question.

My spiritual life these days is like the daisy-petal pulling divination - I believe, I believe not, I believe, I believe not.  It would be a comfort to be able to believe.  The one constant has been my prayer life.  I don't consciously think god is listening - if god there be.  Prayer just wells up in its various forms and I let it, and I examine what prayers I come up with to learn what they say about my state.  I am uncomfortable writing that I pray, because it gives the impression that I am religious or spiritual when I am neither particularly, at this point.  I may as well write that I am human, and my thoughts, acts and words are leading me along some path of realization, that may or may not lead to heaven, if heaven there be.

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