Help. Thanks. Wow.
You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s.
Nothing could matter less than what we call this force. I know some ironic believers who call God Howard, as in “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard be thy name.” I called God Phil for a long time, after a Mexican bracelet maker promised to write “Phil 4:4–7” on my bracelet, Philippians 4:4–7 being my favorite passage of Scripture, but got only as far as “Phil” before having to dismantle his booth. Phil is a great name for God.
My friend Robyn calls God “the Grandmothers.” The Deteriorata, a parody of the Desiderata, counsels us, “Therefore, make peace with your god, / Whatever you conceive him to be— / Hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.”
Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to. Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or Howard; to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in; to something unimaginably big, and not us. We could call this force Not Me, and Not Preachers Onstage with a Choir of 800. Or for convenience we could just say “God.”
Some of you were taught to pray at bedtime with your parents, and when I spent the night at your houses, I heard all of you saying these terrifying words: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake . . .”
Wait, what? What did you say? I could die in my sleep? I’m only seven years old. . . .
“I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
That so, so did not work for me, especially in the dark in a strange home. Don’t be taking my soul. You leave my soul right here, in my fifty-pound body. Help.
Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, “God help me.” This is a great prayer, as we are then at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable.
Or I might be in one of my dangerously good moods and say casually: “Hey, hi, Person. Me again. The princess. Thank you for my sobriety, my grandson, my flowering pear tree.”
Or you might shout at the top of your lungs or whisper into your sleeve, “I hate you, God.” That is a prayer, too, because it is real, it is truth, and maybe it is the first sincere thought you’ve had in months.
Some of us have cavernous vibrations inside us when we communicate with God. Others are more rational and less messy in our spiritual sense of reality, in our petitions and gratitude and expressions of pain or anger or desolation or praise. Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.
We can pray for things (“Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz”). We can pray for people (“Please heal Martin’s cancer.” “Please help me not be such an asshole”). We may pray for things that would destroy us; as Teresa of Ávila said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” We can pray for a shot at having a life in which we are present and awake and paying attention and being kind to ourselves. We can pray, “Hello? Is there anyone there?” We can pray, “Am I too far gone, or can you help me get out of my isolated self obsession?” We can say anything to God. It’s all prayer.
Anne Lamott is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Grace (Eventually), Plan B, Traveling Mercies, and Operating Instructions, as well two other works of nonfiction and seven novels, including the trilogy composed of Imperfect Birds, Rosie, and Crooked Little Heart. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, and a former columnist for Salon, she lives in Northern California.