There’s a tiny thread, frayed and bare, found at the end of the rope. You know this thread very well, because it is the one you cling to when the darkness falls and the doors close. It’s your lifeline. You can call it your faint hope or last chance. I call it prayer.
To be human is to fail and fall short, to recognize that the promise planted in our hearts so long ago will never be achieved. To be human is also to know that there is a Mystery from which we came and to which we go, and which is intimately involved in our search for the fulfilment of that promise. We sometimes give that Mystery a name: God, Yahweh, Christ, Allah, Goddess, Gaia, Fate. Many names, one thread.
When I was a child, my God was like an all-seeing, all-protective parent. When I grew older, that Sky-God died. What remains is the thin thread — the faith that I am not abandoned. So when I am asked if I pray, or why I pray even when God seems absent, my answer is simple: I can’t help myself. Prayer is not an option for the human creature; it’s what we do. We are built for it, holding tight to that connection with the Mystery that made us.
Too often, questions about prayer confuse God with Santa Claus, turning our connection with eternity into an exchange of wish lists. Yes, there are times when we have to lay out our hearts’ desires in all earnestness, but these so-called “intercessory” prayers are just one small aspect of praying.
Prayer is so much more than asking the Almighty for help. It’s a verb, not a noun; a dialogue, not a monologue; a relationship, not a transaction. Prayer is thinking and feeling our way into Mystery, to borrow from Rev. Douglas John Hall’s book, When You Pray: Thinking Your Way into God’s World. As such, prayer is often the screaming desperation of having no answers. It is tossing and turning at night as our fears threaten to sink us. It is a fist shaking at heaven over a cancer that does not go away. Prayer is tears of deep sorrow at the graveside and uncontrollable laughter in the labour room. It’s the struggle against shame and regret, and the battle to embrace forgiveness in spite of our limitations.
In that sense, I have never stopped praying. In my experience, it is not always whispered words. It does not require folded hands or closed eyes. It can be wide-eyed wonder at the music of Mozart or the delicious rhythms and rhymes of Drake. It can be the silence of deep meditation devoid of words, or, as many medieval scholastics believed, it can be found in strenuous debate. When we enter into a conversation with the Heartbeat beyond and within us, we are praying.
And in this light, prayer is essentially a humble enterprise. We’re joining in an ancient conversation with Mystery. One does not presume to know. One does not command attention or control the conversation. How did Jesus put it? “Thy will be done.” Better to listen long and speak modestly.
We are born alone, we die alone, and often all that keeps us from falling over the edge of despair is a tiny thread, a connection. I hold on tight. In the end, it’s all I can do. That’s prayer, and that’s enough.
This story originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of The Observer in the regular column “Conundrums.”