Prayer for the Unbeliever

I don’t believe in a God who sits up in heaven, or anywhere else. I don’t believe in a God who answers prayers. I don’t believe in a God who needs to be praised, placated, or appealed to. At this point in my life, I also don’t see God as a him, a her or even an it. If divinity does exist, then there’s no solidity to it, no there there, no entity dwelling within, as least as far as I can tell. And yet I pray.

Imagine my surprise.

I pray because I feel better when I do. My mind is clearer. My intentions more certain. I even launched a pray-a-thon in August and decided to pray daily in the hope that such a practice would help me find goodness. I’ve kept my word. I’m still praying. But I’ve continued to struggle because I don’t really understand prayer. What is prayer if not the act of talking to a God? How can I talk to God if I don’t believe in God?

Enter Maine Chaplain Kate Braestrup and her marvelous new book Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life. I’ve just started reading it, and already I’m beginning to understand why the heck I’ve been doing what I’m doing.

It was Braestrup’s first, simple version of grace that struck me right between the eyes. One Thanksgiving before she was a minister, Braestrup offered to say grace and then “realized too late that I didn’t know any graces. So I made one up on the spot.” She said:

We are thankful for the food

And for the hands that prepared it

And for our family and for our friends.

Amen.

Reading this I got an immediate sense of mindfulness and of the sacredness of the moment. Are we not all thankful for our food and for the people who prepared it, even when we’re eating take-out? And we are certainly thankful for our friends and family who join us at the table, at least I am. Commemorating those joys is well worth doing. Acknowledging our gratitude helps us become aware of the moment and to open our hearts to it. At the very least, that acknowledgment kicks us out of our obsessive brains that chatter incessantly about work, money, cars, lovers, problems etc.

Although Braestrup cites Christian prayers (She is from the Protestant tradition but doesn’t specify a denomination), she also quotes other prayers. Here’s another grace I particularly like.  The author is anonymous.

For the food before us.

And the friends beside us

And the love that surrounds us

We are truly grateful

I adore this, especially the line about being grateful for “the love that surrounds us.” Marvelous.

I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the sacred, those snatched instants of our lives when we know we are in the presence of good. It permeates us at those moments. Sometimes it’s watching our sons hit a plastic ball with a bat on their first swing, or play their first concert, or grow up and take their lives into their hands and move 2,000 miles to live an adventure. (I’m looking at you, Tony.) Other times it’s an intense conversation with a friend where we push each other to be better. (I’m talking about you, Colleen.) On other days, it’s a song-induced connection between mother and daughter. (I see you Jennifer and Jessica.) Or maybe it’s a sunset shattering red over a lake, or the calming stillness of a room as you hold the hand of a loved one who’s dying.

I suspect there are many different kinds of prayers, used for many different purposes. I’m eager to learn about them all. First, though, I want to  praise the prayers of celebration and gratitude that help us see the sacred in our lives.

The word “sacred,” by the way, isn’t just about religion. My Apple dictionary reports that while “sacred” does denote things that “connect with God (or the gods) or are dedicated to a religious purpose,” the word also refers to that which is “regarded with great respect and reverence.” There are days, I swear, when taking a breath or a single smile are acts of reverence. How wonderful to have prayer to acknowledge that the sacred exists.

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6 Responses to Prayer for the Unbeliever

  1. I love this piece. I especially love imagining your surprise :-)

  2. dianesilver says:

    Trust me, I was VERY surprised. Of course, the other surprise is that prayer also feels very natural to me. It feels like coming home. It’s in me so I do it. How weird (and wonderful) is that?

  3. Sara Aase says:

    Goodness is the only thing one remembers in the end, I believe. And usually, the instances we remember best or that touch us most are acts of kindness by strangers. Praying is something that reminds us that we are connected to something bigger, and that joy or awe I think lets us be more open. If we are loved, we can love; we have just made room for goodness. I’ll be curious about what downsides you find.

    Something to read if you’re inclined: “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy, which asks your question in the midst of a world stripped away, in ruins.

    Good luck!

  4. dianesilver says:

    Sara, Thanks for the comment! I love your perspective, particularly: “if we are loved, we can love.” I don’t see any downsides to prayer. The downside I see to the concept of goodness is that we humans have a tendency to turn moral good into righteousness, and then we go out smiting those who disagree with us. I discussed the problem of righteousness with author Laurie J. Marks early on. Two Zen teachers also talked about how even thinking in terms of goodness can sometimes be a problem.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Wow, I can’t help to mention that this article came just as much as a Surprise to me. There is one question that lingers so clearly in my mind as I continue to contemplate everything that is being said here… If there is no such thing as a divine being or God, then why is it that we feel the need for prayer? What is the purpose of that intrinsic feeling, obviously there is no such thing that is beyond ourselves right? Or is there? Which of the 2 is true?.. The whole idea of love, care for one another and the joy and compassion that we share all originated from one being.. God, our Creator! .. This is why prayer and our need for it is so evident, otherwise we just seize to excist .. And prayer has no place whatsoever.. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. dianesilver says:

    Sylvia,

    Thanks so much for your comment. It comes at an interesting moment because I started work this week on a book about prayer. For nearly three years now I’ve struggled with the kinds of issues you raise. I kept thinking that I had to come down on the side of one or the other. If there isn’t a God, then why pray? In fact, if there isn’t a God, then isn’t the act of praying an act of insanity?

    You say that “the whole idea of love, care for one another and the joy and compassion that we share all originated from one being… God, our Creator!” And I can see how that thought would make praying to God sensible, right and necessary.

    But here are the questions that come into my mind: What if there is no God in the sense of an entity that created us and watches over us? What if the good things in us actually came from us? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? What if the divine is not something divorced from us, but something that is within us, and/or also out in the universe? (Could it be that the divine is both within us and outside of us?) What if believing in God and praying to God works so well because it helps us remember that goodness that lives within us all?

    And even more important: What if it doesn’t matter which one of us is right?

    Prayer feels good to both of us. For me, it feels right in my gut and my intellect. Prayer helps me be more at peace, and it helps me be a better person. I suspect it does the same for you. What a great blessing it is that both of us have found a way to do right in the world.

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