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How I Pray

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Years ago, I was visiting my aunt Mary Kate in North Carolina. One morning, I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep. I wandered into the kitchen around 5:30 a.m. and found my aunt sitting at the kitchen table deep in thought.

"Amma Kate," I asked, "Do you always get up so early?"

Yes, indeed. "I like to get up before your Uncle John so I can have some time to myself."

"What do you do at this hour?"

"Honey," she said, "I have myself a pot of coffee and I talk to Jesus."

"You do what?" I asked.

"I learned a long time ago that you can't do it alone, so every morning I ask the good lord to help me with my problems. I get everything off my chest, and I mean everything, and he shows me another way to look at things. And Sugar, when I'm finish talking with him, I'm ready for the day. I'm A-OK."

I shook my head and laughed at her morning ritual. Well, I'm not laughing anymore. In fact, I often think about my Aunt Mary Kate as I sit down each morning at my own table, which is covered with Runes, crystals, stones, and sacred objects. Around the room are altars and statues of Mary, Kwan Yin, Buddha, a painting of Joan of Arc, an icon of Jesus from Russia, rocks from Ephesus in Turkey. I don't have a pot of coffee, but I have a cup of my organic Gano café, and yes, I talk to Jesus and Mary as well to Saint Bridget, Hecate, Hermes, Neem Karoli Baba, Sai Baba, Rumi, all my ancestors, angels, and spirit guides. I write in my journal, I meditate, pray, and like my dear aunt, get everything that's bothering me off my chest and straightened out, ready to face the day, A-OK, as my aunt loved to say. I wouldn't exactly call it a formal meditation but it's my own funky, spiritual style, and it works for me.

I was late coming to spirituality. I grew up Roman Catholic, and although my parents weren't religious, I attended mass and Sunday school at St. Aloysius church every week. That is, until I was around 14. One day after mass, I asked Father Chase what he thought about astrology. "The devil's work," he said, not missing a beat. I was shocked and appalled by his rigid attitude. I was miserable and lonely and the Dell Horoscope magazine was my lifeline; every month, I would pore through the pages looking for some glimmer of hope. The only thing I knew about astrology was that I was a Taurus, but in that moment I traded the saints for the stars.

For years, I prided myself on being an atheist and had no interest in god or religion. Back then, the word "spirituality" wasn't part of our everyday vernacular; I wasn't aware that there was anything outside of organized religion. But all that changed during the 1970s when spirituality became a buzz word. At the time I owned a natural foods restaurant in Greenwich Village, so I came into contact with many new age philosophies. I began practicing yoga, meditating, and reading books like Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life; I discovered The Course in Miracles and attended workshops at Omega institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where I learned about different spiritual traditions and teachers. It was a whole new world, one that I embraced wholeheartedly.

Now, years later, I'm back with the saints as well as the stars. What I've learned along the way is that all good paths are connected to other good paths. I've also learned that my spiritual practice can't be separate from my life. What's the point if it doesn't elevate and inspire my relationships, peace of mind, and how I function in the world? I still get judgmental, petty and impatient, but more and more the old Velcro just doesn't work and those attitudes don't stick as much. I have a long way to go, but that's fine; for me, it's a lifetime process of releasing, healing, and forgiving.

My aunt had a living, breathing relationship with Jesus and a deep, abiding faith. She wasn't perfect, but every day when she sat down at her kitchen table she strove to forgive and to make things right. I think she would have agreed with what Anne Lamott writes in her wonderful new book Help, Thanks, Wow: "Most good prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something."

I don't know if people change, but I do think we heal, and a spiritual practice is a vehicle for that. I don't think it matters what form it takes. Whether we pray, chant, meditate, spend time in nature, or like my aunt simply talk with Jesus, whatever allows us to unplug from the world and our own crazy mind and connect with something greater than ourselves. The pot of coffee is optional.

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