Saturday, December 26, 2015

Like a Prayer

Even secular people need time out to meditate, reflect, and give thanks. Is prayer the answer?

My soul – if I have one, which is still up for debate – is an angry misfit type of soul. It’s not a soul that likes cashew cheese or people who talk about their spirit animals. My soul likes a nice yoga class as much as the next soul, but it wishes the blankets there weren’t so scratchy, and that they’d play better music, and that the lady across the room wouldn’t chat nervously through the whole goddamn thing like her soul has been snorting crystal meth all morning. My soul would like for all the other souls to shut the fuck up once in a while.

My soul is not necessarily allergic to spirituality or to religion itself. It just feels suspicious towards bossy, patriarchal gods dreamt up by bossy patriarchs. Not that my soul doesn’t recognise that it’s a product of its environment! My soul is the first to admit that if my mother weren’t agnostic and I weren’t raised Catholic and I didn’t have a premature existential crisis after watching Horton Hears a Who! (1970) when I was eight, I could just go to church like all the other people who don’t like cashew cheese or wind chimes or men in linen pants. Then I could file into a pew and fold my hands in prayer and ask forgiveness for being such an irritable jackass. Unfortunately, my soul has spent lots of time with the Lord, and my soul is just not that into Him.

I’m not alone on that front. In Religion for Atheists (2012), the philosopher Alain de Botton writes that although religions have a lot to offer – they ‘deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring’ – it can be hard for atheists to reap those benefits.

We might not need to know why we’re here, but most of us want to feel like we’re in touch with something bigger than our own fluctuating moods and needs, and that we’re pointed in the right direction. But prayer isn’t just a spiritual version of Google Earth. Beyond asking for guidance or expressing gratitude, it can be a way of nudging our intentions toward action. As Philip and Carol Zaleski explain in Prayer: A History (2005), ‘Prayer is speech, but much richer than speech alone. It is a peculiar kind of speech that acts, and a peculiar kind of action that speaks to the depths and heights of being.’

That sounds like a pretty tall order, until you consider how fundamental prayer has been to humankind since prehistoric times. There’s some evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead surrounded by flowers, and scholars have suggested that engraved bones from the site at Laugerie Basse in southwestern France depict humans engaged in prayer. Prayer has been used to ask for protection or rainfall, for inspiration, answers or healing, as well as in thanks or celebration or mourning. Prayer can communicate adoration or devotion, ecstasy or ‘mystical union’ according to the Zaleskis, who must be Jeff Buckley fans. But however prayer is used, it makes simple sense that it should feel more received than invented. So where does that leave those of us intent on inventing a prayer for ourselves out of thin air?

by Heather Havrilesky, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Vilhelm Hammershoi