Life can be very hard. In the past few weeks, two people have written to me to tell me of a great loss in their lives. One was a man who lost his wife to cancer, the other a mother who lost her son in Afghanistan. Both told heart-breaking stories and both stories ended in the same way; they had prayed for their beloveds and had lost them anyway. Both the mother and the husband had come to the same conclusion. There is no one listening.
But perhaps prayer is not a way to get what we want to happen. I think prayer may be less about asking for the things we are attached to than it is about letting go of our attachments in some way. Prayer can take us beyond fear, which is an attachment, and beyond hope, which is another form of attachment. It can help us remember the nature of the world and the nature of life, not on an intellectual level, but in a deep and experiential way. When we pray we don’t change the world, we change ourselves. We change our consciousness. We move from an individual, isolated, making-things-happen kind of consciousness to an intimate connection with the Mystery at the heart of the world. This profound shift can be very simple.
Many years ago just before I was put to sleep for a long and dangerous surgery, my surgeon took my hand and asked if he might say a prayer. When I nodded, he leaned over the operating table and whispered in my ear. “Dear God,” he said softly, ”Help us to do here whatever is most right.”
With these few words he reminded us both of ultimate causality and transformed an operating room equipped with the latest technology into a holy place. The comfort he had offered was very genuine. I felt the almost paralyzing fear that had been my daily companion, release me, and holding his words close I went under anesthesia with the deepest sense of peace. Like all genuine prayers, this traditional American Indian prayer is a powerful way of embracing life, of finding a home in any outcome and remembering that there may be reasons beyond reason. Prayer offers us the kind of radical openness that allows us to trust life. It reminds us of the possibility of unknowable purpose and unknowable meaning. Unknowable purpose and unknowable meaning are a source of great strength and comfort for me and have allowed me to work in places of suffering, loss and death for more than 50 years with an open heart.
As I have become old I find that I have grown into a way of prayer my grandfather showed me long ago. I wrote a story about this in one of my books. I would like to retell it to you now. Grandpa was an orthodox rabbi and a mystic, a life-long student of Kabbalah. As a small child I believed that he knew God as personally as my father knew the friends he played cards with in the kitchen every Wednesday. We talked to God together.
In the Fall of 1943 when I was five and started kindergarten, I had a sort of religious crisis. It was a time when religion was not only taught in the schools but practiced in the schools as well. On my first day of school the Principal called a general assembly to welcome us to PS 173. She opened this meeting of all the children in the school by reading from her Bible and told us that we needed to get on our knees and pray every day to get God to look at us, to remind God that we were there. If God forgot us and turned His face from us, she told us, we would wither up and die like an autumn leaf. I do not remember her exact words but I do remember that she had held up a large withered dead leaf. I was stunned.
Even at five I knew that God had a lot else besides me on His mind. My grandfather had told me that He watched over every flower, every tree and every one of us. What if God blinked? Would I dry up and die like that leaf? God could blink at any time, couldn’t He? In the days that followed I became so terrified that I was unable to sleep. I could not discuss such matters with my parents who were young socialists. My grandfather was the only one I could talk to about what the Principal had told us. It was a whole week until he came to visit and as soon as I got him alone I told him what the Principal had said. Filled with fear I asked him “Grandpa, WHAT IF GOD BLINKS?” And then my fear overwhelmed me and I began to sob.
My grandfather gathered me into his arms, gave me his clean white handkerchief and waited until I could stop crying. Calling me by his special name for me, “Nashumelah”, which means “little beloved soul,” he asked me some questions of his own. “If you woke up in the dark in your room would you know if your mother and father had gone out of the house and left you alone? “Of course I would” I told him. “How would you know this, Nashumelah…would you see them?” “No” I said, “Would you hear them?” “No” I said again. “Then how would you know you were not alone in the house?” I looked at him with some irritation. “I would just KNOW Grandpa” I told him. “Yes, of course you would.” he told me. “And that’s how God knows you are there too. He does not need to look at you to know you are there. He knows you are there in the same way you know He is there and you are not alone in the house.”
Many years later I came across the Christian concept of “Pray Without Ceasing” and recognized the long tradition behind the words of comfort my grandfather offered a frightened little girl. Perhaps God’s presence in our lives is like gravity, an intimate relationship that affects our every movement and often goes unnoticed. Yet if gravity suddenly stopped, we would all know it immediately. The earth holds us to itself without ceasing. So does God. Perhaps the experience of this is the ultimate kind of prayer. It reminds us that there is no place to go to be lost and we are not alone in the house, in the dark.