The Heart’s Voice – Prayer for Theists and Atheists

My dad read voraciously.  Before I learned to read, he read books to me – books way beyond what should have been my comprehension level.  My mom signed me up for the Dr. Seuss reading club and I anxiously awaited those periodic packages containing classic picture books like Go, Dog, Go and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.  By the standards of the day, I was a quite well-read individual.

My parents enrolled me in kindergarten in a local church basement. My sole memory of the experience was a less-than-inspired finger painting of a truck.  Apparently after a few months, the teacher asked for a conference with my mother.  She suggested that my mother withdraw me because I had grown quickly bored of the program being offered.  So, I spent the remainder of that school year reading Sam and the Firefly and other gripping illustrated novels.
You can imagine my disappointment, then, upon entering First Grade and being introduced to basal readers and the middle class whitebread world of Dick and Jane.  Every day we read the exciting exploits of this little boy and girl, Mother, Father, Spot the dog, Puff the cat, and Tim the teddy bear.  The books relied on the whole word reading method (in contrast to phonics) and repetition, using phrases like, “Oh, see. Oh, see Jane. Funny, funny Jane.”  The turgid plots and cardboard characterizations scarcely inspired awe.
Little did I know that these primary grades readers were a centuries old tradition in education.  Primers date back to the earliest days of the republic.  Book aficionados may be familiar with McGuffey readers, which sold 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960 – easily the biggest selling textbook of its kind.  But, primers go further back to the late 1600’s, and have clearly influenced dozens of generations of school children in countless ways.
One such influence impacted my home life.  When I was very young, my parents taught me to pray.  I vaguely remember grace before the occasional meal (although that practice died away at an early age).  But, every night for many years I knelt at the side of my bed and said:

     Now I lay me down to sleep
     I pray the Lord my soul to keep
     If I should die before I wake
     I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Who would write such a prayer?  I mean, seriously, looking back on it now, this seems like some twisted stuff.  No wonder I had nightmares sometimes as a child – the last thing I considered before drifting off to sleep was my own death.
The prayer first appeared in the New England Primer in the 1700’s, clearly showing our Calvinist roots.  A child, even a baptized child, couldn’t be expected to know whether he or she belonged to the chosen or not. So, prudence would warrant a request for divine intersession if needed.  The New England Primer was the first and most widely used textbook in the American colonies.
The day finally dawned when I realized for myself how messed up this petition really was and I stopped praying. To this day I struggle to pray, perhaps subliminally recalling my own infant mortality.
Sadly, my education could have been different, for there are actually many different versions of this prayer.

     Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
     If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
     If I should live for other days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways.
This version, while still somewhat morbid, at least ends on the hopeful note that God direct one’s potential future, however long that may last.

     Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
     Guard me Jesus through the night,
     And wake me with the morning light.
In this version, the threat of nocturnal casualty remains. But, now our prayer pre-empts the menace with Jesus, the ultimate ward against boogeymen.

     Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
     When in the morning light I wake
     Teach me the path of love to take.
Now we’re getting closer.   Gone is the threat of imminent demise and remaining is the promise of divine guidance at the dawn.
But, it wasn’t just the semantics and gloomy theology I found troubling. I found that the expectation that I pray every night before going to sleep removed all of the motivation.  I felt that prayer should somehow involve my own determination regarding not only content, but choice on the time and place of my petitions for holy intervention.  We prayed at church every Sunday morning, and the adults prayed at Wednesday night congregational meetings in our homes.  But, no one taught me to pray at other times.
Of course, kids figure out other good times to pray: before a test in school; on the eve of the expected run-in with the playground bully; certainly preceding the gift-giving Bacchanalia of Christmas; and whenever an older sibling deserved a fresh meting out of justice.  My prayers were all intercessionary in nature, asking God to give me something, prevent something, or to somehow step in and change the course of events.  Prayer seemed less religious and more negotiation.
That’s exactly what my childhood prayers were – negotiations with God.   Please give me this and I’ll do that.  Of course, I did some of the obligatory “I love you, God” prayers.  And at least on turkey day, I thanked God for my mother’s stuffing and a carb-loaded, sleep inducing meal.  But, I never talked with God…I only talked at God.
In part, my one-sided conversation probably made my gradual shift away from a belief in God easier.  If the other end of the phone offers only silence, I can easily believe that you simply put the receiver down in favor of other diversions.  Only a small step remains to imagine that no one ever picked up the call at all.
So, how can I find prayer meaningful in my life now?   I might explain that my view of the cosmos can, in a way, encompass others’ vision of “god.”  Nature, the universe, mystery…if calling those “god” makes someone happy, great.  But, I cannot see myself praying to Nature, or to the universe, and certainly not to the mystery of existence.
Then it occurred to me.  Maybe I’m just using the wrong preposition.  Could it be that prayer isn’t about praying to anything?  Perhaps prayer is about talking with something or someone.  When I minister to you, the action goes in a single direction.  But, when I minister with you, then we are in conversation, whether that conversation includes spoken words, exchanged glances, the touch of hands, or simply a shared silence.
For several decades, Dr. Larry Dossey has studied the impact of prayer on the recovery of patients with severe illnesses. His research follows meticulous standards and is regarded by many as convincing evidence that people who are th  object of prayer have a statistically better chance of surviving disease than those who do not.
I find scientific research into the effects of prayer on healing fascinating. If I believe in prayer with, then the potential for the collected prayers of a group of people to help someone with an illness exists. As such, prayers could actually infuse some form of energy, a spiritual sustenance, into one’s life force.
Imagine a time in your life when you faced enormous adversity, perhaps a decision with the power to alter your life.  You might have gone for a walk to “clear your head” and consider your options without life’s distractions interfering.  One might call this prayer about.   Prayer about represents spiritual contemplation about actions and consequences with the goal of making a “right” choice – not necessarily the statistically correct choice, but the one most consistent with your morals, your philosophy, your inner essence.
Can you remember a time when someone close to you experienced a great trauma, or the potential for pain from loss or despair?  Nothing you could “do” would help, but you still wanted to “be” with that person in their time of emotional need.  Perhaps you thought about them, sent them messages of encouragement, or helped them in other ways so they could focus their energies on the big problem.   To pray beside someone is to target a specific person, opening a spiritual conduit between you to allow your positive energies to flow into them, and for their negative influences to escape their mind or soul.  We pray beside those we want to help for whom we can offer little tangible assistance.
Do you ever do something outside your normal or expected routine – something that would surprise others about you, but that you feel compelled to do?  For me, as well as for many of my ministerial colleague, a call to ministry provides one example of such otherwise often inexplicable behavior and massive shifts in life directions.  You might agonize over your motivation, or your inability to control irresistible impulses.
You may search within yourself for guidance, for understanding, for reconciliation.   I think we pray despite ourselves when we contemplate the unexpected, when we search for spiritual knowledge to explain our actions.  We pray despite the burden of expectations when we search for empathy, to comprehend how the pieces of our lives come together to form a greater picture.
Sometimes, we don’t want to pray to anything or with anybody.   Imagine yourself at the symphony.  You close your eyes and allow yourself to leave your body and just become with the music.  Normal space and time go away and you dissolve into a disembodied spirit exploring a transcendent place and moment.   Your mind’s boundaries drop away, leaving you open to that wonderful flush of epiphany.  When we open ourselves that fully, unafraid of consequences or limitations, we pray during. Perhaps we pray during while walking wooded paths listening to the chirping cicadas, resting quietly on a beach watching the circling gulls, or driving long and empty highways.
What about those times when life becomes unbearable?  Ups and downs call on our reservoirs of resilience throughout our lives, often when most consumed with the pain of grief, betrayal, hurt, and anger.  At times of inner strife, perhaps we pray from.  We may ask for deliverance, but know that nothing will extract us from our difficulties but our own strength and resolve.  So we pray from our pain in order to relieve its burden, and perhaps to weaken its grip on our souls.
And then we all face times of uncertainty, when the future holds a vast unknown of potential for good and bad.   We examine choices and weigh our options.  But, we face paralysis by analysis, locked like deer on the headlight of the oncoming future – a future that can be anything from the dawn of a new day to the lamp of a speeding train.  At these times, we pray upon our futures, clearing our thought of data and argument, of rational weights and logic.   Prayer upon lies in the sphere of intuition, that marvelous and unique gift of our humanity.  When we pray upon, we trust our natures to point the way, to signal the path.
When we speak to each other, we don’t just listen to our words.  We look for that slight smile or twitch of frown; we sense emotions underlying the conversation; and we listen for variances in tone and pitch.  Our mouths speak with many voices.  So, why should our hearts not also speak with many voices?              “Prayer” is one of those words that some Unitarian Universalists find difficult; loaded words with trunks of baggage from discarded theologies and outmoded social constructs.  But, we can resurrect prayer if we allow the chorus of our heart voices to sing.  Maybe you already pray with.  Perhaps you regularly pray about and beside, despite and during, from and upon, but simply lacked the acceptable label.  Consider prayer as spiritual practice and listen to your heart singing.

2 thoughts on “The Heart’s Voice – Prayer for Theists and Atheists

  1. It's been a long time since I've read Gandhi, but I think I remember work itself being a way to pray. I suppose, if it were worthy work. I think making art is a kind of general attitude of praise, but I'm sort of fuzzy on all that.


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