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.

New Ways to Think About Prayer

Larry Dossey is a physician who attempted to study prayer scientifically. He challenged the way we have been taught to think about prayer and God. He said people think of sending prayers “up there,” as if God were a spiritual communications satellite, granting or denying requests at whim. He felt the studies seem to point, not to the arbitrary power of that kind of God, but to some inherent power in the human being, something that linked us together beyond the limits of space and time.

That also helps with a problem raised by Episcopal Bishop John Spong. He asked, “Should prayer work?” When his wife had cancer, thousands of people prayed for her, since he was a well known bishop. She did live longer than expected, but he began to be troubled by the implications of it being due to all the prayers. Would this mean that God cared more to relieve the suffering of those who were lucky enough to be well connected? Suppose there were a poor sanitation worker, whose wife wasn’t high profile, or well-connected. Wouldn’t it be a capricious God who would treat her differently, according to worldly standards of human importance? It didn’t fit the kind of God in which he wanted to believe.

Perhaps we can let go of that idea of a God granting or denying requests at whim. If prayer is a way of opening up a connection to the larger whole, then it means that our energies are tuning in to larger energies, and we can be influenced by those energies, and also influence the energy of that whole, in subtle and significant ways. Rupert Sheldrake put it in terms of scientific field theory. Prayer could be understood as an activation of our energy within a larger field of energy, similar to how magnets exert an influence within a magnetic field.

Now, that is all very intellectually stated—but the experience is felt more in the heart. So it helps to be able to imagine the larger Mystery in some tangible form. We just need to be aware of the kind of image we choose. A capricious granter or denier of favors may leave us feeling betrayed and hurt. But other images feel more true to a transforming power of kindness.

We may imagine the Mystery as a God full of unconditional love, or imagine the power of the bountiful Earth. We might envision Jesus who fed the crowds, or a vast River of Life, or a great web of connection. Images are the best way to focus and direct energy. Our minds might be hesitant about such images, or think of them as childish. But I find I can understand with my mind that these images are images–symbols, metaphors–and yet assent with my heart to engage in a relationship to the Mystery through them. What images help you to engage in prayer?

Prayer is a kind of paying attention, a doorway, a silence. A recognition of smallness and largeness. Prayer creates a relationship between our individual self and the universe. Or rather, prayer creates an awareness of that relationship which already exists. Prayer opens up our experience of divine power manifesting within us. Right in the midst of our utter helplessness, we discover a limitless energy beyond our own personal effort.

Sunset Crescent MJ DSC09460

The thoughts from Bishop Spong were from an article in IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences) #51 

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.