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[Back to Essays]

The Power(s) of Prayer

An unpublished essay by Dean Blehert

A friend tells me that in a pinch he prays, and his prayers are answered and asks what do I think of that? Prayer is something I've thought a great deal about over the years. Prayer traditionally has meant different things to different people (to coin a phrase). Hell, it means different things to the same person.

Some prayer is a pretty low-order thing: There's wooden ritual prayer, done because it's what tradition, as set down by the high priests, requires, particularly degrading (to both God and man, for what sort of God makes nothing of his own image?) where one prays out of fear, lest one be struck down by lightning.

And yet, even ritual prayer has possibilities: Where the prayers themselves are in a language one understands and where they encompass positive hopes for oneself and others, the words may inspire us, rekindle goals. From time to time the ritual words come to life, and in many cases they are not without wisdom. And even where the words are memorized gibberish, the positive intentions with which one prays may overcome that. And since ritual prayer is often done in company with co-worshippers, it can increase understanding in a family or community and create a group intention a group's shared dream for a better world.

But just as often community prayer demands that our side prevail, while the bad guys go to hell. And still more often, it is a dull chanting that goes on while one thinks about what one plans to do that afternoon. Or, worst of all, it is an attempt to turn oneself into solemn, deadly stone, solid enough to gain the respect of a very serious and respectable God.

Compared to that, the primitive "Dear God, kill my enemy" is refreshing. Dear God, let me have a Porsche so that I can be the coolest guy around and get all the girls. Dear God, make me rich and happy. Dear God, don't let my wife find out about....

What's wrong with this, apart from the selfishness of what's prayed for? It's a low level of responsibility. God does it all for one. It's training to be a victim, making nothing of oneself. Of course, some religious people see this as a goal worth attaining. I'd prefer to take increasing responsibility for things. If I can learn to tie my own shoes and drive a car, why shouldn't I be able to learn to earn money, court a woman, love, be of use to others? You may say, yes, but all this comes from God. Than must we pray, "God, please tie my shoes!" and "God, please wipe my ass for me!"?

Most of us think more highly of prayer that is accompanied by action (God helps those that help themselves), a step up in responsibility, especially where the prayer extends beyond just one's narrowest cravings for example, where one wishes others well.

A more subtle idea of prayer is "Thy will, not mine, be done." But why "not mine"? Wouldn't one want one's will as much as possible aligned with that kingdom of the spirit that is "in us" or, say some, is what we are?

The form of prayer that I think of as most responsible and useful is where one simply and silently, asking for nothing specific, attunes oneself with the universe and puts out, as effortlessly as can be, an intention, something like English mystic, Julianna of Norwich's "And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well" a kind of joining up with an expansion across the universe. It's an attempt to expand to include infinite potential survival or to let infinite potential include you.

What if I simply tell you, "Everything is going to come out just fine"? What if I tell it to you with such casual certainty that it's true for you? Is that a form of prayer? (Everything IS going to come out just fine.)

And this can become a state in which one lives, so that prayer is no longer accompanied by action, but has become action.

Ideally prayer becomes us that is, ceases to exist.

I think that prayer at its best (when it is still recognizable to us as prayer) is a way to make things happen without letting oneself know one is doing so. When we don't want to know our own powers, we make things happen via Rube Goldberg complexities so that our left hand won't know what our right hand is doing. Ritual, magic spells, turning three times and bowing to the East, rubbing a rabbit's foot the more rigamarole, the more we are protected from knowing our own powers and having to take full responsibility for our actions and decisions.

If we depend on magic or ritual to deliver our dreams to us, we will, coming upon the scene of an accident, wait for someone else to take over and put order into chaos. When someone needs help (some traveler who has been beset by thieves), we will pass by, thinking, "I'm sure the proper authorities will handle this." When we read of catastrophes in the paper, we will hope that someone is doing something about them. Most of what we see will "have nothing to do with us." One's responsibility level is a thread that runs through all of living.

Any complexity has the drawback that it IS complexity. It distracts us as the magician's patter keeps us from seeing how the trick is done from realizing the power of our own decisions. Without that realization, we are less causative than we might otherwise be.

But some prayer is as close as one can get to making things happen by decision without actually doing so. It would have to be simple prayer, uncluttered with other people's desires which is usually what one is praying for when one prays for a Porsche, to realize someone else's dream, often the dream of one's parents or friends, derived from the dreams of Madison Avenue writers. It would have to be one's own. That is, the one who prays must be the one who prays, not someone else. If you find yourself praying that you'll be a successful doctor or lawyer, you may be making your mother's prayer for you and resisting it all the way! Simplicity is a key to making one's decisions become reality. This doesn't mean that the results must lack complexity. Why should one not decide a city or a world into existence? The simplicity is in the source of the decision or prayer: One must be able to decide just that which one wishes to decide and not, simultaneously, other and conflicting things. If, for example, I told you to decide right now that you will double your income today, you could (perhaps with a bit of gung-ho effort) make that decision, but could you make ONLY that decision without also thinking (a small, quiet decision), "This will never work" and "Do I really want things to just happen that way?" and "Will this get me in trouble?" and dozens of other barely conscious considerations?

Even if we could direct our intentions with the requisite focus, some of us may not be ready to simplify to the extent of deciding things into and out of existence. We may prefer that our games have a bit more solidity than that.

One who wants a bit of a game, prefers at times to have a source outside himself for the results of his decisions. Of course, if one's prayer is like Julianna's "...all shall be well," then it becomes hard to distinguish between oneself and that to which one prays. Nonetheless, there is a difference between praying for something and simply deciding that it shall be so or, better, that it IS: There's a difference between "Let there be light" and "Please let there be light." (More subtly, there is a difference between "let there be light" and "Light!" And that word, too, is superfluous.)

The question to ask is whether or not a person praying is moving closer to being that which makes things happen (God? Self?). Or is the person praying moving away from causing things and toward being the effect, the creation, the problem and not the solver? Is prayer becoming an addiction, or is one praying oneself beyond the need for prayer, prayer refining itself into action and knowing?

But making decisions about how things will be via complex machinery is better than not making such decisions at all. One without a dream is dead, and a dream is, essentially, a decision about how things are to be.

We all use complexities of one sort or another to mask the powers of our own decisions. For example, most people decide via effort, grit, resolution. Many use a kind of feigned serenity as a way to persuade themselves that it's OK for their decrees to take effect. Some use fancy language. Some use repetition ("Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better"), etc.

Oh, and many of us (guilty!) use reasoning as a excuse for our decisions: We work out how it can be that way and why it should and why it's OK and possible and feasible, etc., and then we let it come to pass, making sure to surround its coming to pass with all sorts of reasons why it has come to pass, so that we won't suspect the power of our own decisions.

For example, I'm waiting for a phone call from Joe. I decide he's about to call. At that point, the phone rings. Instantly I decide it's Joe. I answer. It's Joe. But that's not the story I tell myself (and don't we all narrate our own lives as we go along?). No, in my narration there are no decisions. Instead I think to myself (to make the decision possible) that it's been several hours, and it does seem to be about time for Joe to call; besides, he gets home from work about this time and should be getting my message about now.... And then the phone rings, and I think (to cover up my decision that it's Joe) that this must be Joe, because I'm not expecting any other calls, etc. And when it IS Joe, I'll say "I had an intuition..." or "I knew it had to be Joe because...."

It's as if (and more than "as if") we fear that if we knew we could make things happen by our own decisions (and with nothing else required), the universe would turn flimsy on us, the walls become transparent or non-existent, all our games unraveling. (And if that were so, would we not then have the ability to put them back together, as any child can reconstruct the piles of blocks he knocks down?)

So we make decisions in covert ways that allow the physical universe to maintain its grim dignity. We give the physical universe a rationale for complying. I've described this process in the following poem:

The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind

Slouching in the Synagogue, bored,
I blow over rows of bowed heads
toward candles 50 feet away.
A second later they flicker.
I blow again pause flicker.
Impossible my little puff
from 50 feet away in a room full of
worshippers my puff making
the flame squirm? And it does it
every time.

Years later, a stifling day,
the windows wide open but no wind stirs
in the branches outside. I intend
a breeze. Stillness. I intend
harder. Still. I blow at the leaves
(20 feet away) and they stir and suddenly
there's a breeze.

The universe is our old agreement.
When we intend against our old intentions,
nothing happens. It helps to give
the universe a dignified OUT, an excuse
to do your bidding, some way to pretend
it follows only natural law. It's like
a lawyer giving the judge and jury
a legal excuse for doing
what they want to do.

Or we make the big decisions, and leave the details to God or whatever forces we prefer to leave outside our control in order to have a game. For example, we could simply agree that things are going to come out just fine, then notice (often with amusement) as the universe scrambles in ways most intricate and (if we squint) mysterious to work things out for us.

I've done this. It has drama great suspense and comedy. I once decided to do something that cost more money to do than I had or expected to have for many years. I decided to do it within a year. It was a good, clean decision, devoid of worry, effort or complex argument. I simply knew I would make it happen. It was great fun to watch how the world contorted itself to provide money and other logistics. It simply wasn't my problem. I'd given the orders to an employee trained to follow orders, without my having to concern myself with the details. Not that I didn't work for it, but that I didn't fret about it. I simply knew it would happen. And it did.

Prayer, at its best, is a process of training the universe to be a good employee. And it's training oneself to be an employer worthy of the universe's trust. After all, the trick is allowing oneself to make a clean decision. It's hard to do that if one thinks of oneself as evil and destructive. Most of us, most of the time, think "This will happen," and immediately think, "No, it won't." We don't trust ourselves. So there's much to learn about making decisions and having them work out.

There may be faster, surer ways than prayer to learn this, but prayer can help. To learn to trust ourselves, we align ourselves with that in which we trust.

Copyright c. 2003 by Dean Blehert. All Rights Reserved   

Last Updated: December 13, 2004