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.
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.