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Prayer: Works or Not?
This is a hot topic among the science vs. religion folks, with the answer generally being "no" as far as the pragmatists are concerned. In fact I've never seen an atheist acknowledge the possibility. So maybe this is a first. I said a big prayer one day, to a god I don't revere, and had it answered immediately and, so far, permanently. That was about three years ago, so it looks like a keeper.

Now I've seen the gag about how every prayer is answered, only most of the time the answer is "no." Cute, but it cuts no ice with me. This time it was an absolute yes, no room to doubt it.

Background: I'm Jewish on my wife's side. She's pretty secular as they go though--gets to shul for the holidays and that's about it. Most of her friends belong to the same synagogue, and she sits shiva and goes to their kids' bar/bat mitvahs. The basic stuff.

Me, I was brought up to sulk through Congregationalist service in the tiny town where we lived. There wasn't much compassion available, as far as I could see, and I could have used some then. Main thing goin on was smug. So I dropped the whole game as soon as I got out of town, at about 14. A few years ago I started doing yoga and some pranayama stuff, and heard the spirtual riff that generally goes along with that. I meditate (it works).

So a couple of years ago there was this Jewish wedding. On the way there my wife was complaining about something she didn't like that had/n't been doing. I have no clue now what it was, but as always at that time anybody who expressed disappointment about me aroused a very powerful and insurmountable sense of shame. This time was no different, except that I was heartily sick of it but felt that it was completely beyond my control. I couldn't do anything about it, and I'd been getting shrunk for some time.

We entered the hall where the wedding was to be. Just inside the door stood a small table with a pad, some pens, and a basket on it. There was also a sign that announced the revival of an old custom, no doubt related to the one Jews practice today at the Western Wall: they writer prayers, fold them up, and stick them in cracks in the wall for ha shem to read and answer. The sign promised that prayers written down that day would be placed beneath the chuppah  (wedding canopy) where G_d would rain down blessings on them during the service. Apparently his aim isn't all it might be, since he's blessing the couple.

So, of course, I wrote "Uproot my shame", folded the note, put it in the basket, and haven't felt an iota of it ever since, and there have been plenty of occasions when I might have.

I haven't prayed since; don't want to push my luck.

So maybe this is a 12 steps effect, where you acknowledge that you can't lick your problem alone, and acknowledge that in front of a bunch of folks who share it, to some degree. Those conditions were surely met; the people there were Jews, most of them. The difference is that nobody but me knew what I'd written.

Later when I told this story to some friends my wife rebuked me because, she said, on such occasions prayers are supposed to be for the community, not oneself. Apparently ha shem doesn't share her view.
I'm not sure what prayer is. I was raised secularly and it happened that when I was eight I ended up facing all questions of God's existence alone in my bedroom at night. In conclusion I've never prayed and have never had a sense of what it is.

Superficially I've always assumed prayer to be little more than a wish, a desire of God, an appeal for his blessing. Praying for things to happen every night until there is something new to desire. A continuous cycle of rejection and a continual misinterpretation of God. As an outsider it always seemed an easy way out, that if you pray for something and it happens it is all in thanks to God and if it does not happen it is his way. It is the removal of personal responsibility.

But again, what did I know about such a complicated institution? There must be something to prayer since practically ever religion since the dawn of man has given it such importance.

Then I read Franny and Zooey by Salinger and I let it reshape my own spiritual understanding, let it reshape the very fabric of my atheism. In the book Franny aims for spiritual enlightenment by constantly practicing the Jesus Prayer: namely the repetition of one single prayer to the point that it envelops entire body and mind consciousness.

Zooey To Franny: "I swear to you, you're missing the whole point of the Jesus prayer. The Jesus Prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who'll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back. And by God, if you have intelligence enough to see that — and you do — and yet you refuse to see it, then you're misusing the prayer, you're using it to ask for a world full of dolls and saints and no Professor Tuppers."

In this we see that to Zooey prayer is not about the receiving but the praying itself, the asking. In the repetition the prayer-giver takes on the spirit of those few words which he is sending to his lord. The point of prayer is to become that which we ask. Through repetition we take on its spirit. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." The Jesus Prayer works because it doesn't have an end goal, there is only its constant repetition and its entire becoming.

"You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don't realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don't see how you'll ever even move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. 'Cessation from all hankerings.' It's this business of desiring, if you want to know the goddam truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why're you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line — in one damn incarnation or another, if you like — you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You're stuck with it now. You can't just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to — be God's actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?"

Salinger is obviously taking cues from Eastern religions here, but is he so far off from the point of prayer? To bring oneself closer to God (whatever that means to you spiritually) we must detach ourself from the result of the prayer and let the praying itself become our spiritual mantra. If you make prayer and love synonymous than love will envelop you as you whisper, likewise if you pray for something you'll only earn more wanting.

Prayer is repetition. Repetition becomes us.

In response to Hanna Clapson
Hi Hanna,

I respectfully disagree. Prayers definitely do not have to be repetitious. I just pray by talking to God. My prayers are different and unique every day. I don't follow any rules, and I don't repeat the same phrases over and over again. I pray through conversation, and I just hope God listens! :-)

Also, I want to address this point you made:

"As an outsider it always seemed an easy way out, that if you pray for something and it happens it is all in thanks to God and if it does not happen it is his way. It is the removal of personal responsibility."

Forgive me if I've inferred the wrong intent from your post, but I feel inclined to say this in response...

I think, as an outsider, you might be making a mistake in your perceived "removal of personal responsibility" here. When I pray, I'm not handing off my own responsibilities to God, and I'm not accepting "whatever will be, will be, because obviously God wanted it to happen!!" -- on the contrary, I'm asking for forgiveness and for His/Her/Its blessings while holding myself responsible for my own actions. Those actions, I believe, will ultimately be judged by God later. Maybe I missed your point here, but I think my opinion could not be farther from yours. I see religion as the ultimate form of acceptance of personal accountability and responsibility. A truly religious person knows that he or she will ultimately be judged by his or her own actions, and hopefully that person will live harmoniously with the rest of society because of that knowledge.
Ted,

Your submittal recognizes many aspects of social inclusion.

Your shared afflatus, as a devine imparting of knowledge, has power and works for me.  I enjoyed how you incorporate your wife's religion and ethnicity into yourself: " I'm Jewish on my wife's side". I've not encountered that manner of inclusion recognized so sweetly before, that gracious allowance that recognizes and "owns" the spouse's generative powers of influence within the self of the other spouse, even the power to evoke a sense of shame, with all its sense of humiliation.

I view religion as one of the means that the human uses to reconcile the self with the world (the outside other). It is the personal interactive means with which the human meets and interplays with its social responsibilities. Prayer and meditation are different titles for a similar objective, that being, the preparation of the self to be open to a new understanding and a new interpretation of what already inexorably exists within the self and the out-of-self. It is the means of self-preparation for change which is why and how it works. When the present consciousness is confronted with a dilemma of intolerables, self-preparation involves adapting and adjusting oneself to a new definition of oneself to ones dysphoric awareness or/and the consequential opportunity to reinterpret the external challenge.

I regard your "prayer" on the folded piece of paper for ha shem (somewhat like a letter in a bottle thrown into the sea) to be a far deeper prayer than most people would give at a wedding. You were seeking the means of improving yourself so that you could be acceptable as a gift to the world in which the newly weds were forming their new identity. To the extent that your request to "uproot my shame" has been perfected, I would think, that your wife would have to accept the significance of that reality.
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Latest Post: June 30, 2010 at 9:02 AM
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