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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Have We Known the Anguish of an Unanswered Prayer?

Perhaps we fell in love with the person of our dreams, but despite our yearnings and furtive requests to a higher power, our feelings remained unrequited. Perhaps we were watching the game of our favorite sports team—but they lost despite the collective energy of millions of fans. I know that may seem trivial, but a huge number of people pray for their teams to win. Perhaps we were confronted with the serious illness of a loved one, yet all our begging and bargains with God did not make them well. When I think about prayer it is hard not to remember that anguish.

And yet, for me, there are also other memories. There have been times when, to my surprise, strange and wonderful things happened after prayers. As if, despite my appeals, I never really expected a response.

Several years ago, my youngest brother in Michigan was getting married. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and we are scattered across the country. It is rare for my family to be gathered all together. At that time, our finances were very tight, but I really hoped that Margy and I could attend the wedding, since she hadn’t had a chance to meet most of my family yet. But then we found out that two tickets would cost $850. We knew we couldn’t afford that. So I prayed; and I also called my dad and asked him to pray. (No, he did not send us the tickets.) The very next morning, an email came, announcing special bargain fares from Southwest Airlines. The two of us could go for a total of $325.

Perhaps you may have had similar unexplainable experiences. A friend of mine just recently told me a story. She was having a particularly difficult night, with chronic pain that flared up keeping her from being able to sleep. She had never done this before, but for some reason, she reached out and prayed for help with the pain. And then, suddenly, all the pain went away. She was completely pain free for the first time in weeks. She was able to rest, and fell asleep in a deep peace. This prayer did not take away the pain for good. But it did remove it during several hours that night.

We pray when we face a challenge that feels bigger than we are. Praying is a way to appeal to the larger Mystery of the universe, the force for kindness or benevolence, to aid us in our smallness, our vulnerability.

All of this implies that there is something or someone to whom we are reaching out for help. Do we need to believe in God to pray? The answer is not as simple as yes or no.  I define spirituality as our experience of connection to the larger Mystery of which we are a part. We don’t have to understand God in a literal way. In fact it might be better understood metaphorically.

I am thinking of it like a flow of water. If we dive into and relax in a large body of water, we can float; we can also choose to draw water into our bodies by drinking, we can shape water, use it to cause change, create something with it. Prayer is like that. We connect to the larger reality through some kind of opening up or diving in. And if our connection to the larger reality is real, it is not merely an experience like going to the movies, where we can watch but not participate. Our connection creates transformation for our lives.

Swan in water MJ DSC09904

Prayer Links our Smallness to the Larger Kindness

You can only pray what’s in your heart
so if your heart is being ripped from your chest
pray the tearing
if your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg…
pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.
                                          Elizabeth Cunningham

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

The spiritual journey brings us into experience of our connection to the larger Mystery of which we are a part. But spirituality is not only about something we experience, something we receive with awe and gratitude. Spirituality is also about the power we hold to shape, to create, to cause change in the larger whole. Sometimes this power has been called prayer. I have also heard it called magic. But we don’t usually think of prayer as a power we hold. We usually think of prayer when we feel powerless, when we feel our need.

Why do we pray when we are in need? During our day to day lives, many of us often feel a sense of control over our lives, a sense that we are making choices, and things can be expected to turn out based on our work and our effort. But when things go wrong—when someone we love is ill, or we lose a job, or we face death, or a child is in trouble—we are confronted with our limits as human beings, we are face to face with our utter vulnerability. Think about the saddest or scariest or most difficult moments of our lives. In those difficult moments, we feel our smallness in this world.

Prayer is an appeal to the kindness in the universe, to the mysterious power of goodness and blessing that some call God. Prayer is a reaching out from that place of smallness to the larger reality in which we find ourselves. When we were very small, when we were children, we needed the help of someone larger than us. We relied on our parents or other caregivers for everything—our food, our shelter, our learning, our basic needs. That may have been a blessed experience or a painful one. And growing up in any situation, we feel a pull to become independent, to be able to do things for our selves.

As adults we are working out a balance: between giving and receiving, between helping others and getting help when we need it. But for many of us asking for help is difficult. Probably because we don’t really like to experience our vulnerability, our smallness. Possibly because we’ve had the experience of asking for help and not receiving it. In some settings in our world, to show our weakness might mean to be taken advantage of.

Prayer has this baggage attached to it. It requires that we face our vulnerability, and be willing to ask for help. Prayer is like letting go into a kind of floating—a hope that if we are in over our heads, the ocean will hold us up, rather than swallow us. Prayer opens a link from our smallness to the larger kindness in the universe.  The Sufi poet Rumi said,

Don’t do daily prayers like a bird pecking,
moving its head up and down.
Prayer is an egg.
Hatch out the total helplessness inside.

Fractals Teach Us That We Matter

Oak MJ DSC03499There is another reason why fractals matter. Fractals teach us that we matter. By becoming aware of the fractal patterns throughout the natural world, we can see that all things are connected. The circulatory system of the human body branches out like the limbs on a tree. The patterns of waves on the shoreline are similar to the patterns of radio waves beaming through space. Even though we are infinitely small in comparison with the rest of the universe, what happens on a small scale reflects what is happening on a larger scale.

Some of these patterns may seem to be unchanging and eternal, but there is also unpredictability in the system. Scientists use the word chaos to describe this unpredictable behavior. Without chaos, there could be no creativity, because creativity means the emergence of something new and unpredicted.

Perhaps you may have heard of the “butterfly effect.” This phrase was used by Edward Lorenz to describe the impossibility of predicting the weather, despite creating complex computer models that looked at multiple variables. Lorenz found that a small change in the initial conditions would produce large changes when the patterned cycles repeated many times. It was expressed in metaphor as the butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in South America can change the weather in Maine.

We have creative power as human beings. That means that what we do within our patterns has an effect on the rest of the fractal network. We are part of an interdependent web of all that exists. If we change a pattern in our lives, it reverberates through the rest of the web; it ripples out like a stone thrown into a pond. We have the power to create more beauty, more love, more truth, and more goodness in the web. We never really know what greater effect we will have on the future of the universe. We cannot control the ripples that flow out. But human beings for centuries have observed that acts of kindness multiply into more kindness in the world.

There is a fable told by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop:

A sleeping lion was awakened one morning by a mouse running over his face. The lion became so angry that he grabbed the little mouse in his paws and was about to eat him up. The terrified mouse begged for his life. “Please let me go,” he cried. “If you do, one day I will repay you for your kindness.” The idea of such an insignificant little creature ever being able to do anything for him amused the lion so much that he laughed out loud and good humouredly let the mouse go.

Then, one day the lion got caught in a snare set by a hunter and was unable to get himself free. The mouse heard and recognized the lion’s angry roars and ran to the spot where he was. He went right to work gnawing at the ropes with his teeth. Soon the lion was set free. “You laughed at me when I promised to repay you. But now you see that even a little mouse can help a lion.” So remember: no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

What we do matters. No matter how small we are, we are intimately connected to the vast universe. We are part of its beauty and its creativity and its love. The patterns in the stars live in the patterns of our hearts. We do not walk alone. These are the lessons I learn from the beautiful geometry brought into the world by Benoit Mandelbrot. May these fractal mysteries teach us ever to be mindful of our power.

What is worthy of our worship?

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, what would you worship there?

The Buddhist teacher, the Dalai Lama, has said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is Kindness.” In the temple of his heart, he has chosen kindness to value, he has chosen kindness to which to commit his life. He has tried to live with kindness, even when the Chinese government took over his homeland of Tibet, and he went to live in exile. When he could no longer go to the beautiful temples of his childhood, he opened the temple of his heart, and chose kindness and compassion for all people.

People worship different things within the temple of their hearts. It is a very personal choice, to find what is worthy of your worship.

The pagan writer and teacher, Starhawk, calls herself a dirt-worshiper. She points to the soil beneath our feet, and reminds us that all of our food comes from that soil. The soil is the place of Life. So it becomes the most valuable thing in the temple of her heart. She gardens in the soil, and replenishes it with compost. She creates ritual to worship the earth, and celebrate all the seasons of the earth—fall, winter, spring and summer. She tries to stop the companies that are damaging the soil by using too much fertilizer or cutting down the forests. Sometimes she even goes to jail. She is really committed to the earth and to the soil. It is at the center of her heart and her life.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Take some time to ponder it.

What do you hold in the center of your heart?
What would you be willing to fight for, to die for?
Is your heart filled with junk?
Or something worthy of your commitment?
When you clean up everything, what stays in the room?
What is the thing you would never throw away?
What helps you keep your balance when trouble comes or storms rock your world?
What helps you connect with the larger reality of which we are a part?