On the efficacy of prayer

On the efficacy of prayer

Three days hence I leave my childhood home, having spent June and July caretaking my mother.  I will miss much and many about this place, but what comes first to mind is the loud, cheerful, omnipresent song of the Carolina wren bobbledy-bobbledy-bobbledy-bob (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Carolina_Wren/sounds).

I grew up in a small town isolated in the Kentucky hills, where I now realize we made a great collective effort at pretending that for us time stood still.  Studying a detailed 1888 map of the town, I realized with some bemusement that even in my town-outside-of-time, in barely a century every piece of property had changed hands . . . except one, and that is the land on which my family built its hotel and tavern, the Sherwood Inn, still in the family.  Which came first, chicken or egg, persistence of ownership or the family’s resistance to change?  We are not meant to live at the speed of light and yet we do, composed of light as we each are, gods from God, lights from Light.


On a gray, humid midsummer day I am sitting under the shelter my father built to cover the patio swing, except that we replaced the swing with a glider because the swing had become downright dangerous for my mother.  This morning a grumbly thunderstorm passed through just as I was waking, and I lay in bed and said a prayer of thanks for the rain and a prayer for the health of the elderly mother of a friend.  She fell — to embellish the point — while getting up from having knelt to pray, as my mother broke her hip when she fell after climbing marble stairs to a shrine of the Virgin to light a votive candle.

About this act we call prayer:  What is it?  New Agers and interfaith advocates like to believe it’s a synonym for what Buddhists call meditation, but I’m not so sure.  Anne Lamott characterizes her praying as falling into one of two categories:  “Help me, help me!” or “Thank you, thank you!”.  My grade school catechism defines the former as “imperfect” prayer, the latter as something closer to “perfect” prayer.

“Perfect” prayer may be where West merges with East, where prayer in fact becomes meditation:  a state not above but beyond desire.  But most of us pray “imperfectly,” and our praying suggests what meditation does not:  The presence of another Being, or at least the Idea of another Being.  One does not have to pray for something or someone; one does not even have to pray to something or someone.  But prayer requires — as to my mind meditation does not — a sense of another; an abiding sense of interconnectedness that takes place within an all-encompassing Other.

Abraham Lincoln was not an explicitly religious man.  Until late in his career, according to Shelby Foote’s monumental history of the Civil War, “he seemed not to be a praying man and never joined a church.”  And yet as the Civil War wore on and the casualties mounted he evolved from a logician, a man of the law, to something close to a mystic.  Here is a note found on his desk and copied out by his secretary:

The will of God prevails.  In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.  Both may be, and one must be, wrong.  God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.  In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose.  I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.  By his mere great power on the minds of the now constestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest.  Yet the contest began.  And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day.  Yet the contest proceeds.

Lincoln is coming close — very close to penetrating the mystery of suffering.


These days the writings of the new atheists are driving me, once an agnostic, toward belief — not just in gods and goddesses, but in God, the God of Lincoln and of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Dorothy Day.

With every day science offers us more evidence of the interconnectedness of all being.  That the beat of a butterfly’s wing in Canada might lead to a typhoon in the South Pacific may be overstating the case, but science is arriving at the core teaching of Buddhism, articulated thousands of years ago:  No duality, meaning no separation between us and them, me and you.  We are all participants in and manifestations of the great river of energy that is constantly changing form.  In the same moment we are expending the energy required to shape shift.  The universe seems to be “winding down,” though so slowly as to be imperceptible and irrelevant to our daily lives.  But we are evolving toward union with the One from which we came.

This much seems clear:  In a universe where even the empiricists concede we can’t even know what we think we know, it’s impossible to say that prayer has no impact. We simply can’t know.  But “impact” is the wrong verb.  Prayer, or the aspiration to it, can perhaps bring us closer to union with the One from which we came, and that physicists posit existed in the moment before Creation – or, if one prefers, the moment before the Big Bang, though the former is a more eloquent formation.

Here is H.L. Mencken, an atheist and a real writer — compare his judicious acknowledgment of the importance and mystery of beauty with the shrill self-righteousness of today’s new atheists:

True or not, this [Christian] faith is beautiful.  More, it is useful – more useful, perhaps, than any imaginable truth . . . As a body of scientific fact it may be dubious, but it remains the most beautiful poetry that man has yet produced . . . The Christians are being driven out by the churches.  Their places are being filled by hunters and trappers, i.e., brutes.  There will be a 20th Amendment.  It will proscribe the Beatitudes, as the 18th [Prohibition] already proscribes the Eucharist.


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