Saturday, June 26, 2010

Prayers: Return to sender?

Sometimes friends ask me to “send prayers.” The concept baffles me.

Full disclosure: I’m not what you’d call religious. I don’t begrudge people their beliefs, as long as they aren’t using them to justify prejudice, fuel political hatred or otherwise hurt anybody. But I don’t align myself with any group or label. I don’t even consider myself atheist, because that to me carries the same level of certainty about lack of God that religions have about God’s existence. I just don’t know. I’ll never know. None of us will for sure, at least as long as we’re alive. I think it’s entirely up to us as human beings to make life better for ourselves.

Spirituality is not a common everyday theme in my life. I rarely contemplate the mystery of life, why we’re here, what our purpose is, etc. I know that might seem strange for someone known for over-thinking everything, but I don’t find big-picture questions like those all that compelling. Not only am I sure we’ll never know all the answers, but I imagine that the ultimate truth is probably less spectacular and interesting than we all want it to be.

Very early on, I realized that everything seemed to have two explanations: folklore and scientific. I think I first realized this when my mom gave a volume of Charlie Brown’s ’Cyclopedia when I was about 5. The book explained the Adam’s apple got its name because, before people knew anything about the larynx and anatomy in general, they thought people got these lumps from Adam choking on a piece of that infamous apple. And while I chose to believe the apple story — presumably because it was the more interesting of the two — I realized for the first time that some things have two or more explanations.

This notion was only further cemented through my school years, as we’d read tall tales and study Greek myths. We were taught that no, foxes don’t really have white tail tips because some British girl spilled milk on one 100 years ago — but isn’t it fun to pretend so? Historic myths, we were told, were fascinating tales concocted by ancient societies to explain what they didn’t understand. They thought the gods made the sun rise! That’s so charmingly mythologic! After all, everyone knows today that the Earth revolves around the sun in a predictable cycle and rotates on an axis, which is a direct result of God saying, “Let there be light” in the Book of Genesis. We’re blessed to live in such enlightened, myth-free times!

So, back to the prayer thing.

I’ve lived long-term in two places: south Louisiana and southwest Missouri. Both are very religious areas, though very different in makeup. South Louisiana is a Catholic haven. This is what I grew up around and understood, to the degree that one can understand a faith so shrouded in mystery. Putting recent political rows and molestation scandals aside, Catholicism is a relatively quiet religion that employs faith in miracles, rituals and Mary as a way of finding inner peace. Prayer, of course, is a big deal and socially prominent. I’ll never forget the gas station clerk who, when told by my grandfather that my grandmother was ill, said, “I’ll keep her in my prayers.” Cajuns keep lots of people in lots of prayers.

Such sentiment is also common in southwest Missouri, which is the world base of the Assemblies of God. Megachurches, baptism, evangelism, mission work, casual talk of the rapture and tribulation and a lot of saving that doesn’t involve accounts. It’s the flip side of the Christian coin, but shares with Catholicism the power of prayer.

So again, back to the prayer thing.

Because of my scope of friends from both places, I’m frequently implored via social media to send prayers. Many times, I’m not even told for what. And I respect people’s privacy and hope they get past their bump in the road. I wouldn’t be a good friend if I hoped for anything less than the best. This too shall pass. That said...

Do you really want my prayers? They don’t seem to do me much good. I used to pray every night of my life, well into my teens. Mostly due to spiritual OCD, but also because it made me feel better. But then I just stopped one day. And nothing changed, for better or for worse. Life has continued to give me the same ratio of good things to bad that happened when I was whispering into my hands every night.

Prayer seems to work for the same reason flashing your high-beams at a red light to make it turn green works: because you remember when it works, and forget all the times it doesn't. Still, if it makes you feel better, then by all means do it! No harm done. Just be reasonable with the credit.

If I do pray for you, I’d prefer to know why. I know you can’t or shouldn’t always share, and your intentions are probably in the right place; but how do I know you're not praying for your abusive husband to make parole? Or that you want your driver’s license back even though you lost it for hitting a child while texting? Or that you're horrified that Barack Obama, not Sarah Palin, is president?

And to be fair, I feel equally weird about sending good vibes or whatever else stands in for sending prayers. I like solving problems and helping friends achieve goals in tangible, proactive ways. So if I can help at all, that’s what I’d rather do.

And I think that’s what any god would want.


venessalewis said...

Look at you with the religious blog! Lovin' it! Hmmm...."spiritual OCD"...that is something we need to discuss. Because if you mean that literally, boy can I share a related story. Totally on par with you about the "sending prayers" thing, as I think I've mentioned before. Because I don't really pray formally that often anymore. And really, who can remember all this stuff they need to be praying for anyway? My idea of prayer now is looking over Layden's crib while he sleeps and letting a calm feeling of happiness and thankfulness wash over me. In that, I think God, if he's out there, knows what I am getting at. Really enjoyed reading this.

Ian McGibboney said...

Thanks, V!

Speaking of OCD... When I was 8 or 9 and at Lake Fausse Pointe, I had a dream about being in Heaven. Hell was next door. When I visited hell, Satan stabbed a group of fallen angels with a pitchfork like a shish kebab and they started singing an upbeat number. It was so sunny and dark at the same time. When I woke up, I started saying all these terrible things in my head about God. Nothing I actually believed, but sort of from that cortex where your brain thinks people can read your mind and wants to embarrass you. And I countered back mentally with, "Nooo, devil, you bastard! That's something Satan or a Ku Klux Klanner would say." This then went on for YEARS. I finally got the comeback down to, "To hell with the devil. I love Jesus." For thoughts! Thoughts that weren't even mine, but more like my brain taunting me. "What's the worst possible thing I can think of at this moment? What would I never say or believe? Go to hell, God! NOOOO! (chorus)" I finally got over that sometime in my late teens. It was like trying not to wash my hands every five minutes. And somehow I suspect faith isn't supposed to be like that.

You know, I don't think I've ever told anyone that.

venessalewis said...

It is such a relief to know I was not the only person that grew up with this paranoia of prayer. Tonight's conversation was very therapeutic. What kind of screwy religion lead a child to believe that God only likes repetitive, obsessive prayer, and will strike you down if you don't adhere to such rigor? Thanks big C. What's worse is the devil's advocate in my brain (aka reason) that would taunt me to the brink of utter destruction...launching an ever more fervent round of creeds to absolve me from my sin of thought. I'm lucky Catholics aren't into snake handling because I probably would have wrapped myself in a boa constrictor and dared the devil to squeeze.