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    What Is Praying?

    I have been too angry to write about the mass murder in Las Vegas, and too angry to write about the empty and reflexive offerings of "thoughts and prayers" that now follow every murder like it. But let me take this opportunity to talk about the question of what prayers are, and how they might be different from thoughts. America's general enthusiasm for religion masks deep, sometimes nearly bottomless religious differences, and so many, many people talk about praying, but use that word to mean very different things: sometimes contradictory things. What is praying, anyway?

    Praying is different from simply thinking because it is directed outside yourself, to some larger spiritual power. (This also makes prayer different from meditation. I have prayed, and I have meditated, and they are not the same thing at all.) Prayers have an address outside yourself; they are addressed to a god or to some other spiritual being. Some people pray to departed ancestors, to deceased saints, or to angels. But it's always to a spiritual being of some kind, rather than to someone who is walking around with a cell phone right now. The big differences in the way people pray are their reasons for praying and what they think prayer can accomplish.

    On one end of the spectrum, there are people who pray in an attempt to influence or control events in the real world. They pray to get a promotion at work, to avert a hurricane, to cure a loved one's apparently incurable cancer. If you're Huck Finn, you pray for God to give you some fish hooks. There is a lot of this, all over our culture, and it doesn't break along clear denominational lines.

    I tend to be skeptical of this practice myself. It is, on a fundamental level, a straight-up magical practice, no different from the prayers dedicated to idols during a ritual sacrifice. ("O mighty Jupiter, are you hungry? We have a delicious spring heifer for you. And, by the way, is there any chance you could make it rain?") In some cases, it is a very obvious magical practice, as with santeria rituals or the self-described "prayer warriors" who imagine they are fighting various demonic influences over our world. I am not interested in sorcery as a religious practice, and moreover I find it disrespectful. This is the omnipotent Creator of the Universe we're talking about. It isn't Let's Make a Deal.

    But at the same time, many people I love and respect do pray this way, some of the time, and I would not try to talk them out of it. When my mother's cancer came back, I wasn't telling anyone not to pray for remission. I never would. Someone close to me once prayed for a desperately-needed career break, got it, and followed through on a promise to return regularly and light more prayer candles at the place where he'd made the original prayer. I don't have a real problem with that.

    But I think almost everyone recognizes that this kind of prayer is only appropriate for situations when you have already done everything else that's your power, or when the situation is completely outside your power to begin with. You pray for the hurricane to pass your town by because, really, what else are you going to do? You pray for God to cure a loved one's cancer because there is nothing else you can do about your loved one's cancer. Almost everyone gets that. Even if you consider such prayer to be a form of self-deception, human beings sometimes need a little self-deception to keep going.

    Things become very different if you expect such prayer to substitute for action. Lighting a candle in a church after you've already done everything you can to prepare for a key job interview is one thing; lighting a candle instead of preparing for your job interview is another, much stupider, thing. Praying that the chemotherapy cures your family member is more than understandable. Telling your family member to pray instead of trying chemotherapy would be grotesque.

    So if someone's offering "thoughts and prayers" in addition to concrete action, that's terrific. But if
    the "thoughts and prayers" formulation means, as it too often does, "I intend to pray that no more mass murders like this happen again, and that is all I intend to do about the problem," then as far as I'm concerned you can stuff those thoughts and prayers. Your magic does not work. It is a pathetic self-deception, and nothing can be more arrogant that offering someone who is suffering your grandiose delusions in place of actual help.

    And for what it's worth, I never prayed for God to cure my mother's cancer. God already knew what I wanted and how desperately I wanted it. Mom's cancer had not come back because God figured that I wouldn't mind. So I did not pray for God to do my bidding or work me a wonder, like some petty conjuror. I prayed for God to make me a better son while my mother was still alive.

    Once you move past the vast number of prayers that aim to effect the visible world, you get to a gray area of what I will call funerary prayers: prayers dedicated to the spiritual welfare of the dead. From the skeptical atheist's point of view, these prayers are at least as pointless as prayers that attempt to control business, medical health, or the weather. In fact, they may be even more pointless, since they are aimed at an afterlife whose existence atheists do not concede. The only advantage of such prayers is that they are immune from immediate falsification. When you pray for a tornado to miss your house and the tornado destroys your house, everyone can see your prayer didn't work. When you pray for the welfare of your dead grandmother's soul, who knows? There's no way to tell if it's working or not.

    This kind of prayer was once a flashpoint in the violent Catholic-Protestant disputes that roiled the West from the early 16th to the early 18th century. But the practice of this kind of prayer has now become popular even in denominations that technically forbid it. (Lots of people do it, but you might also meet fierce objections to the practice; it's slightly unpredictable.) I was raised in a tradition that focuses strongly on these prayers for the dead, and even if I doubted their effectiveness I would still participate in them for reasons of culture and tradition, for much the same reason I would still always make sure my loved ones got proper funeral rites. At this point, I can no longer specifically remember praying for my mother's soul during her funeral, but I almost certainly did.

    On the other hand, I have seldom prayed for the welfare of Mom's soul since her funeral, largely because I don't believe she is in need of such prayers. I have some deceased relatives for whom I never pray, because I'm very confident of their spiritual state, and other relatives whom, for various reasons, I give a more strenuous effort. (I will confess that I once began a silent prayer for a departed family member with the phrase, "Okay, Lord. Let's not make this about me.")

    If someone says that they plan to pray for the souls of the Las Vegas victims, I am okay with that. Flights of angels sing them to their rest, and so on. But I wouldn't accept that as the sole appropriate action.

    The last major form of prayer, and the form most of my own prayer life centers on, is prayer asking for spiritual strength and guidance. I pray to ask for more patience, more generosity, better understanding. I don't pray for God to change the world around me for my convenience. I pray for God to change me, and make me better.

    If you're a skeptical rationalist type, this might seem like simply a particular form of focused meditation, a way to focus my own mind on what, to an atheist, can only be an imaginary addressee. And if it were only that, I would still defend its value. But I will add, again, that the practice is very different from meditation. When I meditate I am trying to clear my mind, to leave it blank. Prayer very much engages the parts of the mind that meditation is trying to still. Prayer has a direct, positive focus.

    When I pray for wisdom and guidance, I am asking for help deciding what to do. In effect, I am praying for instructions. Such prayer is never a substitute for action. It is a prelude to it.

    If people say they will pray about what to do to stop another mass murder like the one in Las Vegas, I hear that and feel like it's the right thing to do. But appropriate prayer has to lead to proper action. "I've prayed on the Las Vegas murders, and I've decided we need to change some things," is what I'd prefer to hear.  But somehow that's never the party line.


    Doc, I'm a hard-bitten atheist, but I always appreciate your thoughtful meditations on religion, which challenge my temptation to judge religious practices by their most glaring defects.

    PS This is one of my favorite anecdotes about petitionary prayer: It's fascinating to read the theologically-sophisticated chaplain struggle to reconcile General Patton's crude military calculus.

    Thanks very much, Michael. I respect your atheism, if that phrasing makes sense.

    I think the temptation to judge religious practices by their worst defects is prevalent in our culture, because the worst versions of religious belief get such a huge amount of the press. Extremists get nearly all the ink, and present themselves as the only "real" version of their faith.

    I mostly blog about religion to add at least one small not-crazy religious voice to the conversation.

    "God, help me be a better atheist."

    Doctor Cleveland, you are certainly not shy talking about difficult things.

    The distinction between meditation and prayer gets tricky if the lines between beings is not assumed to be a known boundary. Or even an unknown boundary. The bodhisattva is exactly not just about one consciousness.

    Being a sort of confused Christian, I see that we differ greatly to the degree we give ourselves. The command to love is not a friend to a set of laws or a confirmation of a belief. It is this odd element that will take as much as you offer.

    One thing Buber said may be germane. He asked that his secret prayer be heard, the one he could not put into words or even understand completely.


    Thanks for the comment, moat. It may well be that the prayer and meditation distinction seems clearer to me because I am a Western Christian selectively borrowing (or appropriating) isolated Buddhist techniques for my own Christian practice, rather than accepting Buddhism entire. I borrow the meditation techniques designed to still my mind. I would not use Buddhist prayers, or otherwise acknowledge any Buddha as a deity; I'm a monotheist.

    Your third paragraph is hard to parse, but seems to mean that you find me reluctant to give of myself or to love without restraint. I don't see where you get that from my post and, to be honest, would prefer that you not explain.

    I don't think I said anything about holding back love. The autobiographical examples I used were about someone I loved, and continue to love, without reservation. I was writing about the things I feel are inappropriate for prayer: I would not pray for God to cure the fatal illness of one of the people I love most in the world, and neither my love for her nor my wish for her to live were any secret from my God. And the fact that I don't ask God to remit her time in Purgatory does not mean I don't think of her every day. It means I don't think she's in Purgatory. (Would you pray to get the Buddha sprung from the Bardo?)

    I did not mean the third paragraph as any kind of criticism. I was thinking how difficult it is to be a follower of Christ. I am sorry for any pain my words gave you.

    It's okay, moat. As I said, that paragraph is a little confused and therefore hard to parse.

    As a society we preach the importance of leadership, and then demand that most everyone follow. The Church is perhaps unique in that it teaches following and even leadership as "following the call" - not an ego-driven move, but directed by God still (whether everyone actually takes it that way....). We also don't impart quite the same honor on following a calling and the sacrifices made for that - I guess it makes sense that things you do for God are considered more important than these mere trifle of worldly things, even though "as ye do to the least of my brethren..." line would seem to somewhat override that rating system. The military of course teaches followership to the utmost, but regards its machine as creating leaders as well. Anyway, many good stories from those who follow with passion and/or dedication - the apocryphal tale of Peter having himself hung upside down one of my favorites - a purely selfless act with only painful results, zero upside to it (pardon the pun) but great symbolism.

    It makes sense to see following as a kind of acceptance of a duty or necessary sacrifice. But one could hear the action as a simple matter of going the same way as another did. You wouldn't be able to know if the direction taken meant you would arrive at any particular place.

    I don't mean to imply a bland sheepish following. Think of Obama's followers in 2008 - creative, enthusiastic...

    And I didn't mean to imply that what you were referring to a soulless obedience.
    My cryptic responses on these matters comes from a wish to not say more than I can see. But the brevity is only making me more obscure.

    I think I will step away from the theological for now and stay with my main skill sets: Demolition and Pencil sharpening.

    A lesson to hear:

    Don't say more than you can see ...

    Silence opens eyes.

    Do you know the Catholic practice of saying the rosary, moat? (Is no different than meditation to this parochial school girl, just another mantra.) Or even better, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola? Just wondering if you do, what you think in the context of your comment.

    Thanks for ‘this excellent piece. In social movements, the type of prayer offered up reflects the Biblical emphasis of one’s religion. Conservative Christians seek order. Liberal Christians seek justice.The action one takes to achieve the goal of the prayer is much different. In the Civil Rights era, some black pastors felt the action was to be an upright citizen and allow God to change white men’s hearts by having blacks function as respectable member off society. This kept the order. Other black pastors felt that peaceful protest with marches and sit-ins was the true Christian action. This action was made to disrupt. The first group of pastors focused on order, the second on justice. The prayer mindset for the two groups was vastly different.

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