Until the pandemic hit, I hadn’t prayed in nearly two decades.
Or rather, I hadn’t prayed the kinds of prayers that I was taught growing up: supplications based on the belief that an almighty God was listening and might grant my requests in immediate and material ways. Here and there I might offer up a vague invocation, like “may we be well” or “may we seek peace” as a way of expressing hope and setting intention. But praying to an all-powerful deity that I believed could move mountains, that was the stuff of superstition I gave up long ago.
Like many people across the planet, during those early anxious weeks last March I found myself reaching for spiritual anchors and sifting through the rituals of my past. I wrestled with my instinct to ask for help from a higher power, given my near certainty that divine intervention was not on the horizon. Then, a few weeks in, I had what felt like an epiphany and wrote in my journal I finally figured out what prayer is for… it seems so obvious I can’t believe I missed it all these years!
Prayer is for the one praying, I realized. It helps us get quiet, it organizes our thoughts and feelings, and it helps us find compassion and courage inside of ourselves. And then, with our calm and courageous selves, we go forth and do good. We don’t ask for good things to happen, we make good things happen.
But in June, in another of the many twists 2020 had to offer, I found myself prostrate on the floor in front of a homemade altar of candles and flowers and herbs, pleading for the safety of a woman I had never met.
Stitched into my urgent petition was an equally urgent question: Can prayer move mountains?
A month prior, amidst a temporary lull in the pandemic panic—numbers were down in New York, surfaces had recently been declared reasonably safe, we had stopped bleaching our groceries—I had a brief romance with someone I’ll call Emilio.
We were lovers, and then we weren’t.
On the way from were to weren’t, and before I realized that I would be using the word brief to describe our romance, his family orbited into crisis, a Covid-adjacent nightmare. His sister, severely disabled and bedridden, was rushed to the hospital after an infection got into her bloodstream. Sepsis, cardiac arrest, in the ICU many states away.
I was with him when he got the phone call and stayed with him through an anxious day of waiting for updates from the hospital. I helped him organize his travel to Florida for early the next morning, and then hugged him goodbye, fiercely.
Then he was gone, and I was left alone with a whole bundle of tender feelings.
Back in March, my epiphany that prayer is for the one praying brought a surprising sense of relief. I didn’t realize the question had been weighing on me, but it makes sense: I grew up in a conservative Christian family, and much of my childhood and adolescence was washed in prayer. Before every meal, after dinner, before bed, at church, during devotionals at my Christian school, at prayer meetings, on road trips, in the grocery store. Praying was like breathing, we did it all the time.
My parents believed in the power of prayer to move mountains, though I never entirely understood what was fair game to ask for, and what was reasonable to expect. They believed that divine and supernatural intervention was necessary for certain critical moments in history—that God created the world in seven days, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that any day the rapture would whisk us from our earthly toil into heavenly realms. In the here and now though, they tended to make requests that wouldn’t require God to violate the laws of nature.
During our family prayer time we asked for health for loved ones, peace and harmony in our church community, safety on the road. We also asked, humbly, for material things, as long as we could make a case that the object of desire was in the service of doing God’s work. For example, during the years we lived in Germany, my parents would pray for a good exchange rate between USD and German Marks, presumably because that would help stretch the church donations that funded my parents’ mission work in East Germany.
I found ways of advocating for my desires. If I had access to the Almighty God, why not mention that if it would please the Lord, it would be neat if Owen Taylor, would, you know, notice me. Surely a chaste sixth-grade romance between two believers would be a testimony to the goodness of God. These kinds of secret requests could be offered up during Bible class as “unmentionables.” Once my friends and I realized that this was a legitimate category, at least half of the prayer requests were not to be mentioned, and Mr. Mars dutifully recorded them on the blackboard as such. It was no small thrill to see my unmentionable chalked on the board and know that Owen would unknowingly beseech the Lord that he would return my crush.
My grandmother has no qualms about petitioning God to move mountains as needed, and to this day, asks for and claims miracles all the time. At 93, Helen Hyatt is sharper than I am, and yet I marvel that divine intervention was her first and most obvious explanation when, for example, she stumbled on my grandfather’s WWII memorabilia in a box in the garage. She thought she’d lost the coins and insignia decades ago, accidentally thrown out during a move, and there it was, sitting on top of some old clothes. Perhaps you might think this is semantics: she claims miracles like I might say “how remarkable!” But she uses the word in earnest. On the phone recently, she presented me with the WWII-memorabilia-found-story as irrefutable evidence for the existence of God. I love my grandmother. I didn’t know what to say.
As a young person, thinking about the power of prayer was fun. Knowing that the laws of nature were no match for God endeared him to me, placed him in the realm of mystery and magic. Talking to God was like having a superpower or doing Kegels exercises; nobody needed to know while you were doing it. I kept my requests humble, and always gave God an easy out—if it’s your will, etc. I remember in sixth grade praying earnestly for Narnia to be real and for my safe passage there, and still now I think, wouldn’t a brief visit with Aslan have been excellent proof that God was real?
In my early twenties I finally saw through the whole sham. Too many prayers unanswered, too much hypocrisy in the church, too little evidence for the existence of God; I was out. Baby, bathwater. No more church, no more Bible study, no more prayer meetings, no more personal supplication. Our family email threads took on a strange and telling duality, with parents and select siblings responding to news of distress with “I’ll be praying for you!” while others of us wrote “Sending good thoughts <3.” We never talked about this distinction, and I decided to say thank you and mean it whenever my parents told me they were supplicating on my behalf. I no longer believed in the power of prayer to move mountains, but I enjoyed the agnostic flexibility that someone else’s genuine invocation might—through mysterious means—do some good.
After leaving the church I joined that amorphous category of “considering myself a spiritual person,” knowing that my inner sanctum still needed nourishing. There were many ways: writing, meditating, walking in the forest. Getting quiet. Listening. I did occasionally still ask God for help, but more so out of habit than actually believing there was someone there to heed my cry.
Praying earnestly, however, by which I mean asking for immediate and material intervention, seemed like one of the more delusional religious rituals, and possibly distracting from taking action. Why waste time praying for the poor when you could use your time and resources to fund micro-lending projects, campaign for better social programs, even just give food and cash to people in need?
Ergo: prayer as a grounding personal practice was a beautiful thing, prayer as a petition to an invisible and likely nonexistent deity was foolish and even dangerous.
From Florida, Emilio sent occasional dispatches and endearments, mostly bad news followed by more bad news, softened with I’m thinking of you. The first flush of love feelings had transformed overnight into an anxious, throbbing ache.
With my new love interest and his family in such dire straits, my spring musings on prayer being for the one praying suddenly struck me as foolish. I had no use for prayer as a grounding personal practice. I needed the kind of prayer that could get shit done. I tried out prayer as begging. I tried prostrating myself on the floor. I asked for things. I wept. I lit candles. My atheist friends lit candles. I didn’t know where to address my prayers, so I called out “anyone who has any power over anything PLEASE help!”
I didn’t demand miracles, but I wanted real, tangible goods. I asked for the lessening of suffering. I asked for the hospital to find a way for the family to safely be together, so that if his sister was going to die, she wouldn’t have to die alone. I asked for protection against the virus. I asked for protection from the irrevocable damage of trauma, pleading that Emilio would not only physically survive spending weeks in a hospital in Florida, but that he would emerge from this nightmare as a person who still believed in life, a person who could still love. A person who might come to love me.
Here’s something that puzzles me about evangelical prayer. If you ask for something for someone that lots of people want, how does God decide who gets it? If you pray for your dad to get a lung transplant, what about the other dads who need donor lungs? Do their kids have to pray harder? Longer?
If you ask for the man you’ve just started dating not to get Covid while spending long days in hospital in a state where the virus is surging, and he eludes the virus while others around him succumb, is it because no one was praying for them?
Evangelical answers to these questions typically start with something like God, in his infinite wisdom…
There’s a corner of the internet where you can find a seemingly earnest website dedicated to the question of why God won’t heal amputees. The site is the work of Marshall Brain (yes, that’s his name), creator of the How Stuff Works series, who uses associative logic to prove that if God can’t heal amputees, then the belief in God (and all religions) is based on delusion. The sub-pages of whywontgodhealamputees.com are helpfully organized with hyperlinks titled things like “Why won’t God heal amputees?” and “How does prayer work?” (which takes you to /superstition.htm). Brain’s anti-evangelical message is delivered in the language and tone of pro-evangelical rhetoric, complete with testimonials like: “Brain has already helped thousands of believers use logic and critical thinking to recover from religion.” It’s hard to tell whether his site is an intentional parody of Christian-speak, or if he’s oblivious to the fact that his mission to spread the good word of rationalism bears the marks of religious zeal.
Whether satiricial or sincere, he makes a relevant point. If God can retrieve WWII memorabilia from a dumpster in Amarillo in the 1980s and place it on top of a box in an attic in Bakersfield in 2018, then why couldn’t he restore limbs? Why couldn’t he heal Emilio’s sister?
After weeks of healthcare nightmares and rollercoasters, Emilio’s sister finally stabilized and was waiting for a date for a potentially life-saving (though still very risky) surgery. Meanwhile, Emilio’s communication with me became sporadic, a text message every few days, and my concern for his sister gradually shifted to include concern over our connection. I knew logically that I shouldn’t take it personally under the circumstances, but it was painful not knowing whether I should put my feelings on hold or distance myself more significantly. Without having any shared history to look back on, I had no idea what he was like in crisis, and how I could be most supportive.
A month or so after he left for Florida, I stopped hearing from him altogether. He didn’t ghost me exactly, but after a clearly established pattern of me being the only one to reach out and him taking days to send back brief, one-line responses, I let him know that I was there if and when he needed me. I decided it was best to wait for him to get back in touch.
He never did.
I felt angry, unappreciated, abandoned, and embarrassed. I could—and did—speculate about the workings of trauma and grief, about whether he associated me with that terrible moment when he got the terrible phone call, about how it might have felt dangerous to be soft and open with a new love when he needed to be numb to survive. The truth is, I have no idea what was going on for this person who was ever so briefly part of my life.
What finally became clear when I stopped hearing from him was that I had been praying for a stranger.
Something I’ve come to appreciate in my recent attempts at prayer is that the act invites me to shift my attention outside of myself. In many traditions, prayer begins with surrender, acknowledging forces greater than you at are at work and play in the world. There’s a comfort in realizing that you’re not in charge, that you don’t have to know everything or carry the weight on your own. There’s power in that kind of humility, even if you don’t know the names and shapes of the forces, and may in fact believe that they can’t be known.
My early-pandemic epiphany that prayer is for the one praying still rings true. I ask that I may become more generous and I become more generous.
But that’s only half the story. The gifts of prayer can extend well beyond the one praying. When I pray for loved ones in crisis, I’m offered a place for my worry and grief. And if I have a place to take my worry and grief, I’ll be in a stronger state to support my loved ones. Rather than burden them with my fear, I’m able to offer my steadfast comfort. My loved ones are helped by my prayer-grounded self.
But what happens when prayer for a loved one becomes prayer for a stranger?
An admission: In praying for Emilio and his family, I was also praying for myself. I wanted his sister to be ok, at least in part, so that he would be ok and we could be together. It wasn’t a selfish desire, but it was a desire that, if fulfilled, would have included me. But when the dream of a future relationship with Emilio evaporated, I didn’t know if I should keep praying for him and his family, or if the prayers I already said had any value.
That question became a question about everything. To keep praying for Emilio’s sister was like praying for the whole world, like grieving for all of humanity. How much grief can a person carry? How much worry can a prayer hold?
In retrospect, I’m grateful for the way I was split open last year. I cried a lot, I wrote a lot, I felt a lot, I humbled myself. And eventually, I made peace with the fact that I didn’t know if my prayers made any material difference. Maybe in the end they were still worthwhile, if only to offer me a place for my tender feelings.
But by the powers of my agnostic flexibility, I leave room for the possibility that my fervent supplications moved something in the universe, and that even now, mysterious forces are providing much needed comfort and protection to this family of strangers.
(Thanks to Killing the Buddha)