When we say we will pray for someone or something, what image does the mind conjure up? Is it kneeling at the side of our beds, earnestly and fervently asking an eminent and transcendent God for things we want, or not? Or keeping us safe while we sleep? Is it sitting in church, praying the rosary beads, and automatically, and maybe mindlessly, reciting the prayers of the ages? Is it that cry of pain, beseeching God for relief, or to make things better, after a mistake, after an accident, after life unleashes its worst in our lives?
Prayer, like God, has quite a bad reputation nowadays. Partly, I think, because we know so much of it is us, brow-beating a god who may or may not listen, and even the sense that there is something infantile about praying to a god who some see as an imaginary friend. A few years ago my extended family had a crisis, some other family members were suffering deeply. On the phone with a relative I said I was praying for our family members. His reaction was not quite what I expected. Well, maybe it was exactly what I expected. He said he would not be praying at all, that it did no good anyway.
I was brought us up in the Pentecostal faith. It was a rigorous spiritual regime, all spiritual warfare and as long as we had enough faith we would be protected by God and nothing bad could happen to us.
All that was very well until one of my own children became ill with a life threatening illness when she was a young child. I, for one, had never seen something of that magnitude coming into my life.
And yes, I felt betrayed by the God I had trusted to protect me, and my children. And yes, my faith was shattered, and it took a long time to recover from that. I still remember screaming at God, in one particularly heated prayer, how ridiculously unfair I found the whole deal, how he could expect my child to suffer, year after year, while I was being told God understood because he gave his only son.
… except his Only Son only suffered on the cross for 4 hours.
… and his Only Son got to be resurrected!
So what did I do with prayer after that? For years, like many others, I refused to pray. I refused to acknowledge even a gentle force outside of myself and steadfastly developed more and more of what I thought was strength, until I became brittle and unable to feel even the slightest Breath of God.
Then I realised I could say whatever I wanted to “God”, because on the one hand the god we pray to is a projection of our own minds, and as we rail against that/her/him/it, we are railing against ourselves.
And on the other hand God is a benign energy, a Source of deep peace and great love, an energetic force that is no more inclined to make my child sick as I was myself, because there is no conscious volition behind that force.
It just IS.
Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, teaches the Buddhist method of intercessory prayer called Tonglen. This is a way in which we can be as a Bodhisattva to other people. It involves, very simply, visualisation and breathing – as we know someone who is suffering, we can visualise their pain, breathe it in, while the breath is in the body, the pain is transmuted into compassion and we breathe it out.
A gentle form of prayer.