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

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God, if You are real, I need a sign

If we’ve never tried to make a spiritual journey, it can seem complicated and difficult, like me trying to make sound come out of a saxophone. But once you’ve found the music, it can be as simple as turning a dial. We learn to recognize the sound of the Mystery’s still small voice. There isn’t just one right way to do it. The practices of the religions of the world are all attempts to find a way to tune in.

We might take up serpents, or practice sitting meditation, but we don’t need to. We don’t need to call it God or Goddess, or Spirit or Mystery, or call it anything at all, though that can be helpful to some people. We don’t have to come up with faith we don’t possess or sacrifice our desires. Whatever is going on in our deepest heart can help. Even doubt or despair can call it forth. We don’t have to abandon our intellect, or be a perfect icon of virtue. But we do need to slow down, change our frequency. We need to pay attention. We need to open a channel or a doorway, invite a connection.

Hands MJ DSC02028One evening, during my first year in college, my best friend and I were sitting in the quiet candlelit chapel of our campus. A few other people were also there, scattered about the pews. I remember feeling that we each seemed so isolated in our private meditation. I was moved to reach out and take the hand of my friend. Little did I realize, at that very moment, she had been wrestling with her own inner spiritual struggles.

Feeling a certain despair, she had just prayed, “God if you are real, I need a sign. It doesn’t have to be a miracle, I just need you to touch me in some way.” Then, I innocently took her hand, and it was the touch of God that she experienced.

Would you climb a mountain if you knew for sure that you could have a spiritual experience at the top? Would you go down into the river? Would you risk an invitation?

Miracles

One of the first things to be discarded by the early Unitarians, as reason was adopted as their guide, was their belief in miracles. They celebrated the wonder of the natural world, but decided that healing and prophecy and other supernatural events found in the Bible were imaginative stories from a more superstitious age. And it all makes sense: those events were not a part of their own lived experience.

However, there are many mysterious aspects of our human experience. More recently, even scientists have grown curious about healing, extra sensory perception, and other phenomena that seem to defy logical understanding. As the orderliness of Newtonian physics gave way to the strange chaotic properties of matter and energy encountered in Quantum physics, people began to wonder if spiritual mysteries had been cast aside too soon.

It has been difficult to use the scientific method to sort out the very subjective realm of spiritual experience. If some people can experience God, does that mean all people should be able to do so? Are there spiritual methods and practices that should consistently produce a spiritual experience? Buddhist and other forms of meditation have had an appeal for skeptical thinkers because meditation is a practice offered in the manner of an experiment. It is a method, not necessarily linked to particular beliefs, and anyone can try it out. But this is not to say that results are easy to measure.

I believe when we move beyond religious dogma that tells us we must believe certain miraculous things have happened in the past, we can move toward a thoughtful openness and curiosity about the inexplicable experiences of our own lives and the lives of those around us. Let me tell you a story from my life. It is actually a rather simple story, nothing big or dramatic. But it taught me something about miracles.

In the spring of 1986, I was living at the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp in upstate New York. At that time of year, there were only a few of us there, staying in an old farmhouse on land near the Seneca Army Depot. We were there to protest nuclear weapons, but this story is not about a prayer for world peace. At that time, my lover was living in western Massachusetts, and I missed her. I didn’t have a car, or much money. My prayer was a wish that I might find a way to go visit her.

The camp was a crossroads of sorts, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have visitors. Peace activists from all over would stop in for a day or a week. Not so many during the winter or spring, but still a few. In my prayer, I was conscious of my wish to see my love, and I remember imagining someone coming like a knight on a white horse to carry me to Massachusetts. Quite a small prayer.

The very next day someone drove into the driveway. The visitor was driving to Massachusetts in a white pickup truck. It would have been enough to get a ride, which I did. But the white pickup truck was an added ironic touch that still sends goose bumps up my arms. So whimsical and tender a response. 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer