I’m praying for a lot of people these days.
After sharing news of a recent cancer diagnosis, a life-changing accident, or deep financial straits, a friend will say, “Please pray for me.”
And I always say, “Yes, of course,” because how can I turn them down?
Someone I know has, in the last year, lost her husband, her boss, and her mother. Her widowed father has dementia and requires 24/7 care, costing thousands each month. When I last spoke to her on the phone, the return of her cancer, in remission for several years, made her usually bright voice turn weary.
“I’ll keep you in my prayers,” I told her.
“Thank you. It helps.”
Yet what to ask for when I pray? For her father’s miraculous recovery from a disease that’s a one-way street? To win the lottery, so his care can be paid for? For her not to miss her husband, or grieve the loss of her own body’s ability to carry her forward to meet these demands? And how to know if my prayers are answered, or even should be?
I grew up in the Lutheran church but no longer follow any kind of dogma. I have carved out a spiritual path which includes practices that work for me: kundalini yoga and meditation, communion with what I perceive as the spirit of nature and animals, a healthy serving of Buddhism, tracking lunar cycles, all carried out against a backdrop of probing the question of what it means to be a conscious being in this century, in this confusing and tense era.
After my morning meditation, I chant the Buddhist prayer:
May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they never be disassociated from the supreme happiness which is without suffering.
May they remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to loved ones, and rejection of others.
Then I start on my list, naming the people who are in my thoughts, who I care about, and wish to be returned to health and peace. Yet, who am I to ask for this? I’m just keeping my head above water in my own life. It’s rather audacious to think I would know the right answer, the proper request for anyone else’s life. With the long view of reincarnation always in my sights, how can I possibly know what is right for anyone at the soul level? I cannot parse that for my own soul, so to try for another strikes me as both presumptive and preposterous.
My mother had her own form of prayer: worry. After my father died, she told me that every night as she lay in her twin bed in their bedroom- they were of the era where at a certain point in their married life they exchanged their shared bed for two singles – she would tally her worries by calling each of her four children up in her mind. Then she’d tick through the challenging circumstances of their lives and personalities, as if taking an inventory would help them. I shook my head, wondering, what good does that do?
Twenty years later, I realized I’d become a worrier, too, and experienced its odd comfort: the false sense of control it gave me over situations I have no control over. At least, by worrying and fretting and thinking and brooding about it, I’m doing something, right?
Two descriptions of worry brought me to my senses. The clear image of “Worry is like shoveling smoke,” and the pragmatic wisdom in the song lyrics, “Worry is like praying for what you don’t want.”
So, what is the point of worry, or even prayer? In her recent book, Women Rowing North, Mary Pipher relates coming across a pot of prayers from ten years earlier:
“I read through them slowly and tried to remember what events had prompted them. I realized that the prayers had all been answered. Not by anything I did, nor necessarily by anything that happened to the people I was praying for, but rather because time had made those particular problems irrelevant. I was in a different era now. I had new problems, I pondered the blessed nature of time covering old worries with history. Perhaps this is what an answered prayer is, simply a surcease of worry.”
The surcease of worry. Even the sound of it soothed me, made me think of time covering old concerns the way the ocean does the sand, smoothing it out, erasing disturbances on its surface.
Will I continue to pray for those friends who ask? You bet. Will I know what to pray for? No, but I will toss up to the Universe the most neutral request I can come up with, and be content that, in time, all prayers are answered in the cessation of worry.