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Finding Peace: A Few Thoughts on the Art of Prayer

I’ve long admired Anne Lamott and her fresh, infectious voice.  Reading her work is akin to having an enthusiastic, memorable conversation with a dear friend.  Her insights are shrewd; her warmth is undeniable.  She’s always struck me as an old soul, with an astute perception on life that seems to have been cultivated over thousands of years.

Particularly when it comes to faith.

Recently, I attended a Zen Buddhist retreat that left me breathless, and made me think of Lamott and her earnest search for spiritual wholeness, which she chronicles in several of her works.  At the retreat, we were encouraged to seek answers for our anger, and solutions to dealing with our grief.  We were reminded that on a spiritual plane, we are all one.  We were urged to release fear, and to measure life in love, not in minutes.

All of this has become a deeply ingrained part of my mind; all of this informs many of my actions.  This is not to say that I don’t occasionally suffer or feel contradictions in myself and the outside world.  This is not to say that I’m in complete control of the negative thoughts and emotions that at times overwhelm me.  On the contrary: Unexpected events easily throw me into the gutters of fear and insecurity.  Judgments, accusations, and unfulfilled expectations thrust me into a claustrophobic state of mind that’s thick with anxiety, uncertainty, and despair.  Yet, through my commitment to understanding psychology and spirituality—and the intrinsic link between the two—I’ve learned the importance of being able and willing to grow, to learn, to accept, and to change.  I’ve learned to deal with my emotions in ways that ultimately invite peace and joy—at least most of the time.

I was reassured by the messages of the retreat.  I was invigorated.  I was also reminded of an aspect of faith that I’ve long believed to be true: To some degree, to pray is to lack faith.

Many people might disagree with this notion.  Many people might find this blasphemous.  But allow me illustrate.

If there is a God, it knows our needs.  It knows our desires.  There will be times in our lives when only our basic, immediate needs will be met; there will be times when we are lavished with good fortune.  The gulf between the two exists because God wants us to appreciate what we do have at any given time.  Moreover, God wants us to use grace and discretion when we pray.  We can pray for the well-being of others; we can pray for our loved ones who are now deceased; we can pray for the endurance of our planet; we can pray for the facility and strength to bring about change in our lives.  But to pray for objects or situations we want is a wasted effort, in that it presumes that we are lacking something, and if faith is our companion, we are lacking nothing.

Which brings me back to the wonderful Anne Lamott, her astute thoughts on faith, and her approach to prayer, which she explores with heart and hilarity in her moving and mesmerizing book, Grace (Eventually): Some Thoughts on Faith.  Heartbroken, and in the throes of alcoholism, she was given a book by Ram Dass (“a vulnerable mess,” she calls him, “just like me”).  His work set her on a profound spiritual path that encouraged her to see that “the resurrection of the mind was possible.”  She writes:

“I started praying, not the usual old prayer of ‘God, I am such a loser,’ but new ones—‘Hi’ and ‘Thank you.’  I viscerally got that God was everywhere; poor old God, just waiting for you to notice, and enter your life like a track coach for slow people.  Kathleen Norris said, many years later, ‘Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine,’ and I got the message that day.  People were going to come into my life.  Many of them would leave.  Most of the people in my family would roll their eyes and hope that soon I’d go back to the manic and tranquilizing mall of American life.  Ty still hadn’t come back by the time I finished reading the book at seven, so I went to the main road in Bolinas to hitchhike home.  I ended up at the bar.  It would be ten more years before I stopped drinking, twenty years ago today.  But I remember standing there at dusk with my thumb out, euphoric and exhausted as if I’d been at the beach all day, then taken a long shower to wash off all the sand.”

With Lamott’s words in mind, let’s say hello to God.  Let’s say thank you, merci, grazie.  Let’s offer our gratitude to the universe, and pray for the type of deep, internal change that will allows us to heed the principles the retreat I attended emphasized: Embrace love, not fear.  Offer compassion, not indifference.  Pray not with indulgence and carelessness but with caution and care.  And be prepared to change, not stagnate, so that, like Ms. Lamott, all of us can feel clean again.  So that all of us can feel peace.  God, I imagine, will thank us abundantly in return.

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