A Skeptic’s Path to Prayer
“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” Abraham Lincoln
It’s easy to depend on intellect and experience when everything is going well, but when hard times arrive, the self cannot bear the weight of our pain. Pain gifts us the willingness to reach out to a greater force in the universe. Prayer is an invitation to this force to enter our lives. You may assume that a steadfast belief in God or some higher being is a prerequisite to begin a prayer practice, and this is not true. The more I pray, the more my faith grows.
Something about the word prayer has always bothered me. It sounds submissive and sanctimonious. Many of us affiliate prayer with a rigid religious practice. The prayers at the Episcopal Church I attended every Sunday were dreary, and I was forced to kneel. In one of them, we apologized to God for our sins repeatedly. It made no sense to me because as far as I was concerned, he should be asking for my forgiveness, abandoning me in this mess of a life. No one explained God either. In illustrations, he was an old man who did not look friendly. And where exactly was he? And why did he care about me? Like the Santa Claus story, it didn’t add up.
My puppy Glennie died suddenly when I was eleven. Devastated, I cried and yelled at my bedroom ceiling. I made a decision then to abandon any possibility of God. Why would I continue to seek a God who kills a little girl’s puppy? As I became more aware of the suffering in the world around me, the atheist philosophy of Nietzsche and Sartre felt more accurate than anything I heard in church. Cynical and resigned, I steered my own ship until I smashed it to pieces and staying alive required me to lean on a group of strangers in church basements.
Finding a Higher Power is part of 12 Step Programs. The AA literature makes it easy for obstinant cases like me by offering options that replace a religious God. Early on, I heard a man say that if you think you’re the most powerful force in the universe go stand near the ocean and tell the waves to stop. I also realized that I’d been praying for a long time without labeling it. “Foxhole prayer” is the name people in AA called my frantic last-ditch pleas to nothing in particular.
Sober and stable, I built the life I thought I wanted. After a few years, I got too busy managing it to keep up the simple practices that saved me. I didn’t know how far I’d drifted from a spiritual path until after I had another awakening last year that reignited my faith in God. Afterward, I started craving meditation. No longer just an item on my to-do list, meditation became a sacred time in my day when I could detach from my thoughts and the buzzing world around me. But something was not transferring into the 12-hour blocks between sits, and I longed for more.
In January, a new friend came into my life who talked casually about prayer. It cringed at first but eventually became curious. My new friend is humble, and the way he speaks about prayer is enticing. He suggested I read a few essays in Power Through Constructive Thinking by Emmet Fox. After doing this, I was excited to experiment.
Emmet Fox was part of the New Thought Movement which developed in the United States in the 19thcentury. New Thought holds that “Infinite intelligence or God is everywhere, spirit is the totality of things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and “right thinking” has a healing effect.” PTCT was first published in 1932. Emmet Fox writes a lot about the importance of “scientific prayer”, which simply means a routine practice. Scientific prayer is not “The Secret”. Praying regularly does not rig the system so I get my way all the time. Over the past few months, many things have not aligned with my will, but because my faith is expanding, I know that whatever shows up is part of my curriculum.
My initial reaction to not getting my way hasn’t changed. I panic, get angry, blame, feel hurt, etc. I live in a body with a nervous system, so my physical response must run its course when I’m triggered. But now, I experience acceptance within an hour or two of being rattled. Letting go of anything that doesn’t serve my serenity is instinctual. The desire to be right or force an outcome has dissipated. There are fewer “problems”, more lessons. Navigating my day is easier and I feel pretty peaceful most of the time.
It took a while to re-wire myself, stop figuring things out and shopping around for advice. Answers formed by my intellect are biased and convincing. Logic never asks me to step outside a comfort zone or place someone before myself unless there’s something in it for me. The insight I receive from prayer is subtle but clear if I stay tuned in. Meditation is an important partner because it keeps the space open. Answers arrive in the form of a hunch, a person, an email, a phone call, a tug in my heart.
The good news is that you don’t need to define what you believe in, you can pray and be skeptical simultaneously. Skepticism is healthy and different from cynicism. A skeptic does research looking for evidence, a cynic rejects before investigation. Scientific prayer will grow whatever seed of willingness you can muster to get started. The power is undeniable if you take it on wholeheartedly.
All I need to pray is a few minutes alone. I pray before difficult conversations or meetings. I pray when I am nursing a stubborn emotional disturbance. I pray to express gratitude for my life as I walk to an appointment. I pray for people who are in pain. There is no right or wrong way to pray. Prayer connects me with the boundless wisdom that exists in my consciousness and all around me.
When I am murky or blocked, I wait to make decisions or run answers received through prayer by a trusted advisor. My will occasionally dresses up as divine guidance when I am physically off kilter. Exercise, sleep, diet, who I spend my time with are essential because it’s easier to hitch my wagon to historical perceptions and feelings when I am not taking care of myself. Regret waits for me in the past and fear in the future, so staying present matters. Once I realized that truth is only available right NOW, it became desirable to stay where my feet are.
“Prayer does change things. Prayer does make things happen quite otherwise than they would have happened had the prayer not been made. It makes no difference at all what sort of difficulty you may be in. It does not matter what the causes may have been that led up to it. Enough prayer will get you out of difficulty if only you will be persistent enough in your appeal to God.” Emmet Fox