According to [Ask the] Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, in a recent New York Times Magazine article, “A lot of people in their late 50s begin to feel small. Some feel existential angst. They want to relate to a higher entity. We call that ‘prayer.’”
We want to relate to a higher entity.
It seems, I have read, that this happens just about the time in our lives (with kids gone, careers winding down, etc.) we finally have time to think existentially and when our brains are perhaps best tuned to ponder Life’s imponderables. It happens, too, others write, when our less spiritual journeys hit dead-ends, i.e., when we ask, like a generational Greek chorus, “Is this all there is?”
Prayer is definitely one of the more benign responses to this cultural malaise. I have noticed others: drinking, drugs, extramarital affairs, depression, and a variety of food, exercise, and health obsessions. But as a life-long practicing Episcopalian, I am not comfortable demeaning prayer this way, placing it among that group of unhealthy responses to Life’s inexorable realities and disappointments, suggesting Marx might have been right when he called religion the opiate of the masses.
This newly reported trend – everyone over 50 trying to figure out how to pray -- also raises a question: just what the hell I have been doing in church all these years? And if, in fact, I have been praying (we are a liturgically-grounded denomination, after all), shouldn’t I be better at it? Shouldn’t I be the guru the Spiritual Johnnys-Come-Lately are turning to? At the least, shouldn’t I have the aura of one who hangs out with a higher power, a kind of orgasmic peace to which others might aspire?
I would have thought so. I mean, I learned the syllables that make up prayers when I was a toddler, even though I knew no more what “soul-to-keep” meant than the syllables I belted out when, on road trips, my parents sang their college drinking songs. “Coke-cane- fiend,” for example! But no, I confess, there are days I feel like a novice, too, a lowly seeker just like everyone else. Seeking, just like a rat in the maze, the “right” words and the “right” things to pray for, even the “right” reasons. As if, if we get it “right,” we’ll be “saved,” even if we’re not sure what we’ll be saved from, or saved for, even if we suspect salvation is too-long deferred gratification for demanding baby-boomers.
Seeking often sounds a little bit too much like that Waylon Jennings song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Sad. Desperate. Misled. And legion. Lots of unhappy folks with totally messed up lives are hungry for that higher power now – and under the guise of spiritual self-improvement, taking classes and meeting with mentors and spiritual directors, priests, rabbis, yogis and gurus and imams to learn how to access it, how to talk to their God in a personally meaningful way. Let me not sell everyone short; I am sure, among us, there are some seeking from God a Word about how to save the world in the time they have left on this earth, and not only as if Saving the World might be the icing on their cake, the last accomplishment to check off on their To-Do List.
Such cynicism isn’t pretty. And it’s not entirely honest, either. For I, too, have been studying the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer in recent years and thinking from time to time that, while many are disarmingly timeless, universal, and poetic in the holistic way they reflect the human condition, often the sorry-ness of the human condition throughout the ages, they lack something, something that would speak to me in a way which suggests I know this God I’m praying to and He or She knows me.
It could be, however, that they are not missing anything at all, that it is, instead, I who find myself lacking. I am the one after all who is having trouble making this leap of faith; I am the one failing to comprehend a God I’ve been told answers prayers for new cars and bigger houses alongside those for peace and protection from the plague. I am the one trying to make sense of the things I learned in Sunday School as the so-called Gospel Truth which aren’t, it turns out, true, really, after all, at least not literally, or historically; but true in the sense, (stay with me here) that they were told to help others make sense of the world in which they found themselves, so maybe they have something to teach us, too. I call that stretching the truth. And then there are the riddles: how a message of love is so often used to invoke hate; how there is but one God, but also an Allah, a Christ, a Buddha, and prophets who mix it all up; how in virtually every religion the faithful are called to feed the poor and still we tolerate hunger; how a God introduced as a father figure can seem distressingly paternalistic; how prayers for healing do not yield miracles, nor often, cures, but do, somehow, heal. It goes on and on and on, around and around in my mind. I cannot embrace it completely; I cannot let it go. I need the higher power. That’s what I have come to understand.
And that higher power is. . . within me, within us all. It is my heart; mine and yours and his and hers and theirs. It is our hearts, beating, beating, beating, day and night; it is our hearts breaking and mending; it is our hearts growing; it is our hearts connecting; it is our hearts loving; it is our hearts working – in tandem with our brains and in relationship with others; that’s the higher power we seek. That’s the higher power we need to know. That’s the work we have to do. This is my prayer: that I can and I will; that we can and we will.
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by Ann Sentilles
September 29th, 2009