I used to bristle when someone told me, “I will pray for you.”
It seemed presumptuous.
Who were they praying to? And how did they know that their God had anything to do with mine?
I remember going to a Bible study with a childhood friend when we were nine or ten. There was a healing. I squeezed my eyes closed and put my hand over a mosquito bite and mustered every ounce of faith in my body that I could. I listened to the words of the faithful in the room and tried to say the same things they did.
“Heal, thing. Stop itching. Jesus, I believe you can heal me. Praise the Lord. Amen.”
It didn’t work.
This breed of faith had little to do with the churches I went to in my family. We didn’t stand up and testify or expect prayers to be answered. We were the same people we were when we were born, and felt that being “born again” would not erase any of our past transgressions.
Still, I experimented with magical thinking as I prayed for that one boy to like me, or that fellow pre-teen girl to understand me or please God, let me have done okay on that algebra test.
I’ve been too cynical to pray for a couple of decades now. God doesn’t grant ponies or fix the things you ask him to. I’ve had my share of desperate, angry moments, but none of them brought me to that late-night Eat, Pray, Love-style oracle.
Lately I’ve been learning to pray differently. It’s puzzling when a Buddhist says “I’ll pray for you,” because there’s no God out there running things in Buddhism, just the divine nature that allegedly already resides within each of us.
But I understand personal Buddhist prayer to be something more like this: “I open myself up to the possibility that everything in my life is as it’s supposed be, and that my attempts to control that are making me suffer.” Prayer for others isn’t wishing for specific outcomes either. It’s exhaling hope for the best possible outcome, with the understanding that we, the unenlightened, have no idea what that is.
In the twelve steps, prayer seems to work in much the same way. Even though it’s easy to read the steps and imagine that they invoke a magical, micromanaging, defect-erasing God, that’s not really their purpose. The process isn’t to get God to do your bidding with a quick fingertip to your forehead, it’s to probe deeply into your own heart and recognize more fully how you’ve hurt yourself, then others, and let go.
Twelve step prayer, who or whatever the higher power involved may be, is something more like: “God, I am afraid” or “universe, I am trying to control things that are uncontrollable.” It’s the showing up, the opening ourselves to the possibility that we can handle or surrender to whatever is that changes us. It’s the vulnerability. It’s the faith.
I will pray for you.