What If Prayer Doesn’t Work?

Misty Winslow DSC04484What if prayer doesn’t seem to work? What if our desire is not fulfilled? Here is what I have found in my life. Sometimes, not always, something is awry inside my own heart. Maybe I begin to realize that I haven’t really discovered my deepest desire, and prayer helps me to find my true center. Maybe I discover I was afraid to take action on my own behalf. By opening our hearts to the movement of desire, of risk, of imagination, of action, we release great energy. In this way, the work of prayer fosters transformation in us that may go beyond our initial desire.

But sometimes, if our prayer is not fulfilled, it is just that there is no match out there corresponding to our desire. There was another time when I was praying for housing in Jamaica Plain, and it took four months before I found something. During those months, I’d often imagine a particular solution, and something amazing would show up, but then it wouldn’t be quite right.

I remember one day I did an errand on St. John’s Road, and thought, this would be a nice street to live on. Then later that day, a person came into the bookstore where I worked, and told me about an apartment there. I followed the lead with excitement, but found out it was too expensive.

Four months went by with such near misses and close calls. I wondered sometimes if the universe was playing games with my hopes and needs, but eventually I decided to blame a tough housing market. Prayers can’t work to find housing for all who need it, without our taking some collective action to create more affordable housing.

Sometimes, when we release our desire into the universe, the answer comes in ways we didn’t believe we wanted. I think about my last year at my previous church. I had been the Associate Minister there for several years, and then the Senior Minister decided to move on to a new church. When that happens at Unitarian Universalist churches, it is extremely rare that an Associate Minister can remain, or be promoted to the Senior Ministry position. But what I felt in my heart at that time was a deep desire to stay in that place, and grow my ministry there. So I pursued that possibility, and prayed for that possibility, even as I did the necessary work to explore other options.

When it didn’t work out for me to stay, I felt very sad about it, but then I interviewed for my current church, and was chosen to be their minister.  I believe that pursuing the desire of my heart as I understood it then, created a certain strength in me that enabled me to come to this new place and start a new ministry which was an even better fit for me.  I sent that arrow into the universe, and it landed in exactly the right place, even though it was a different place from what I imagined. It felt like my prayer was answered.

We are human beings limited in our ability to understand or control our lives, even though we’d like to sometimes. Prayer is our experience of yielding to the larger reality, the larger kindness, the larger goodness, in which we have our truest being. We can only pray what is in our heart. All the emotions, all the suffering, all the hunger, all the turmoil, all the joy. As Elizabeth Cunningham says, we must pray our “heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it like the small bird it is.”

In the end, it reminds me of the power of being heard. The best listener is not the person who tries to solve our problems or fix our dilemmas. The best listener is the one who cherishes us just the way we are. Who lets us talk and feel and sort something out by being present to us in compassion. So it is with the best prayer as well. We open our hearts, and we feel heard, we feel held, we feel cherished by this great quiet kindness. I hope that it may be so for you.

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Does prayer work?

First of all, what does it mean to ask if prayer works? Usually, by that we mean that our appeal for help is answered in a way that we get what we need or want. But sometimes, prayer works because it connects us to the larger Mystery, and we feel the deep peace of that connection. We feel seen and understood. When that happens the specifics may start to become unimportant.

However, sometimes prayer also works on a very practical level. To take away pain, to heal, to find something we need. Once, I placed my hands on the head of my friend, and her headache disappeared. I was curious. Why does that happen sometimes and not other times? Are there ways to pray that make prayer more likely to work?

When I look back at my experience, I see that there have been certain qualities that were often a part of such prayer with tangible results. The most powerful prayers in my life included the experience of becoming aware of the deep desires and yearnings in my heart. I would even say that desire or yearning or felt need are the root of the power in prayer, the source of its energy.

It may take a great deal of introspection to know what we truly desire. Some of us have learned to pay so much attention to the needs and desires of others, that we don’t know how to imagine our own. Or we have been misled by advertising, which manipulates our desires toward the pursuit of consumer products and stuff. Some of us may feel we don’t deserve what we desire. Others of us may have felt that religion asked us to give up our own desires. But I believe our deep desires come from a sacred place. We are all sacred beings and worthy of receiving good things from this world. In prayer, we must welcome our true desire, our yearning, our need.

Drawing by Benjamin Crowell, Creative Commons

Drawing by Benjamin Crowell, Creative Commons

And then, in these most powerful prayers, comes the experience of sending that yearning or that desire out into the universe. I imagine it like shooting an arrow from a bow. A big part of shooting an arrow is letting go of the arrow. Letting go of our desire does not mean abandoning it, or giving up on it. Letting go means not clinging to the need. An arrow can’t reach its mark if we hang on to it. We must trust that if we send out the arrow, it will have an effect.

Prayer is not the same thing as worry. Worry is a kind of hanging on, imagining the worst future, rather than being open to the possibility of something good. We are finding a balance between feeling our desire, and letting it go into the universe as it will. So we send it out and let go.

All desire, all need, all prayer, has a risk attached to it. If we let ourselves feel desire, we risk the pain of its not being fulfilled. That becomes easier when we understand that our desire is holy whether it is fulfilled or not. Desire is only unholy if it harms other people, or disregards their freedom. We must hold a deep respect for all beings. Prayer is not coercive. For example, if a person is romantically attracted to someone, they can honor that desire as holy. But they can’t force the other person to be attracted back. Letting go of the arrow honors the powers beyond us, as well as the powers within us. We are joining forces with the universe, not trying to force the universe to do our bidding.

Sending out the arrow is a symbol of asking for help from the larger reality. Here again, the arrow is just an image. There might be other images to help make it real. We can send forth our desire into the hands of God, or imagine it being received by an all-encompassing Love. We may imagine it entering like one small channel into a great river of life. We can also send forth our prayers into the care of our friends. We can tell other people what we desire and need. When we join our power with the power of others, it grows stronger.