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Judith Greenberg, Ph.D.

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Agnostic Prayer: Calling for Help to Come

Posted: 11/14/2012 4:05 pm

After a couple of weeks of painful news, I've been thinking about the power of prayer. Don't get me wrong, I'm virtually an atheist. I value ethical actions from a humanitarian point of view and I respect science. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I joined a friend as he unpacked boxes of water-logged photos and memorabilia from his parents' car after their home on the Jersey shore was flooded. My kids and I baked for their school drive to raise money for victims and we carried blankets and coats, flashlights and wipes to a JCC collection site. I have no intention to pat myself on the back for these acts. I actually feel a kind of survivor's guilt after the storm. Although I live in New York City, I came out unscathed. The worst that we suffered was my kids going a bit stir crazy during a week off from school. We didn't even lose power. Engaging in charitable and helpful acts is simply the right thing to do.

But why, then, prayer? I started thinking about it during a yoga class I attended the other day. Two teachers volunteered to lead a special post-Sandy class with proceeds going to people in need. At the end of class, one of the teachers explained that we were directing our energy to those suffering and we yogis chanted a series of collective "oms." I know -- it can sound ridiculous. How could our "energy" after sweating, physically contorting and even meditating help people sitting in the cold and dark mourning the loss of their homes and possessions?

As I meditated during shavasana, or "corpse pose," the final resting pose of a yoga class, I wondered whether our collective chant, call or prayer could actually help others.

There is a prayer in Judaism for the sick, the Mi Sheberakh, in which the rabbi asks members of the congregation for names of ailing loved ones. People contribute specific names and this plea for those individuals' health becomes a collective recognition of the wish for healing. In some ways, I thought while meditating in yoga class, the collective energy for the victims of the hurricane was a form of a Mi Sheberakh, a communal call for healing and compassion.

What is one to make of such prayers? American religiosity is declining, The Washington Post reported in August, citing "The Global Index on Religiosity and Atheism." I am almost one of those Americans willing to claim the word atheist. But then, there are the times when things go bad. "Dear God," I hear myself thinking, "please don't let my friend have cancer."

It's not as if I actually think a Supreme Being is listening directly to my individual requests. I scoff at the football player who thanks Jesus for enabling a final winning touchdown or the preachers who condemn sinning New Yorkers for bringing disaster upon ourselves, as they did after 9/11. It's impossible to explain how any God could listen to individual prayers and still allow the Holocaust to occur. Too many horrible things happen for such logic to make sense.

Yet here I am, a New York Upper West Side liberal, a firm believer in science and rationality, and I still call out to God as my first reaction to hearing bad news. "No, please don't let it be so," I beg. To whom is my call addressed?

Perhaps my out-of-character prayers in times of despair are simply the expression of the need to call. Once we grow up and realize we cannot call out to our parents or other adults to help us, where do we turn? We still have the need to call, even if we do not expect for the call to be answered. The wish for healing needs to be voiced, whether in thought, in chanting, or in a traditional prayer. A vocal or a silent utterance takes the time to recognize a wish.

When I think about an unanswered prayer, a scene in E.M. Forster's novel "A Passage to India" comes to mind. Two British women, Adela Quested and her potential mother-in-law Mrs. Moore, have arrived in India and desire to "know" the country. At the end of a lunch party they have attended, Professor Godbole, a Brahman, sings a Hindu song whose sounds baffle the Westerners' ears. Godbole explains the song:

"I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden. I say to Shri Krishna, 'Come! Come to me only.' The god refuses to come. I grow humble and say: 'Do not come to me only. Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the universe, come to me.' He refuses to come. This is repeated several times. The song is composed in a raga appropriate to the present hour, which is the evening."

"But He comes in some other song, I hope?" said Mrs. Moore gently.

"Oh no, he refuses to come," repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question. "I say to Him, 'Come, come, come, come, come, come. He neglects to come."


Godbole repeatedly puts himself in the position of the praying supplicant. While the Westerners expect a call to be answered, Professor Godbole understands the need to sing about an unanswered call.

There are surely many unanswered calls and prayers these days. And while it is vitally important that we act and devote resources to helping those in need, perhaps acknowledging the energy of our collective calls for healing isn't wasted. Prayer recognizes the importance of the wish. By calling outside of the self we take time to honor that wish and in so doing, perhaps, to let the compassion affect our actions throughout the day. We certainly do not want to use prayer as an excuse to absolve ourselves from responsibility or defend inaction. But at the same time, taking the time to pause, reflect and feel before acting seems increasingly necessary in our of-the-minute age of tweets and texts. Hopefully, the prayer, by the very nature of its utterance, encourages human action.

 
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