I read a friend’s post on Facebook the other night, and I was immediately compelled to respond. He wrote: “Can you pray for someone without being religious?” This got me thinking about the nature of prayer and where I stand on this issue.
The concept of prayer is troubling to me. I grew up (mostly) in the church, and I grew up praying. I knew how to recite The Lord’s Prayer when I was five or six. Back then, my understanding was that you pray to God for forgiveness, or share your sins when you pray. Prayer was like a conversation between you and God, and sometimes God was like your parent more than a friend.
Many people I know today really, truly believe in the power of prayer — the power, that is, to change the outcome of a difficult situation. I am not mocking this position. I wish I could believe this. I’ve recently gone through a pretty tough life event, thus my thoughts on prayer have changed. Today, I feel that expecting prayer to magically solve a problem is negating the true power of prayer.
Lately, when I do pray, I don’t talk of sins or forgiveness or any of that. I figure if there’s a higher power out there, he/she/it knows what I’ve been up to. He/she/it knows I’m trying to be a decent human and that I also make mistakes. Instead, I just talk. I express gratitude. I ask for help or strength or compassion. I never ask for things.
I don’t like to throw around the term “I’m praying for you” because it seems insincere — at least when I say it. I may not “pray” for you in the traditional sense, but I will send you all the love and good vibes I have. I will come visit you in the hospital. I’ll text you and see how you’re doing or take you out for coffee. I’ll bring over a meal. This is because I think prayer without action is worthless. Mindless prayers to a God who can’t control the outcome anyway seems pointless. People who offer “prayers” but can’t even bother to text you to check on your welfare seem inauthentic. I know that for many Christians or spiritual folks, this seems harsh. But let me explain.
On May 3, I lost my favorite little person. I lost my fifteen year old daughter. I had hundreds of people across the country, people I knew as well as strangers, praying for her. I prayed. My church prayed. Her friends prayed. But still, cancer would not desist. Prayers didn’t work — at least not in sparing her life.
During this challenging time, I didn’t always pray in the way that I did as a child. I didn’t ask for tangible things. But I did pray for strength. I prayed for her to know she was loved. I told God or the Universe or the Divine — whoever is out there — that I was grateful for the love and kindness of people who were supporting us through this challenging time. I prayed for peace — for my daughter and for our family. During this time, instead of just praying, people brought food. They sat with us. My neighbors walked with me every day for several months. Friends called and texted and emailed and sent cards. These kindnesses were all forms of “prayers,” even if these prayers aren’t what we were taught about in Sunday School.
Prayers are more than just words: prayers are actions. Prayers are acts of solidarity, support, and empathy — love sent out into the universe on a person’s behalf. So back to the initial question: Can you pray and not be religious? Here’s what I think: Yes. Absolutely. Because sometimes even the smallest gesture is a prayer, letting you know that you are loved and you are not alone.