Prayer Without Religion
No personal god needed. No expectations needed, either.
For much of my life, and in my experience of the culture I live in, it seemed to me that prayer was not for me. I had no need to depend on a god. I had no need for religion. I had an interesting upbringing that took me on an atheist track. Yet here I am, middle-aged, agnostic and writing about prayer.
My dad told me that shortly after my parents’ wedding, the priest who officiated the ceremony took my dad aside and said, “Just bring them to us between the ages of two and five and we got’em for life.” My mom was a Presbyterian at the time, and the wedding was held at her local church. Her dad was also a policeman, and I’m pretty sure he made a strong impression on my dad.
But that didn’t stop my dad from mocking religion. On some weekends we’d go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to visit. And if it was a Sunday, he’d point to the people leaving the church as we drove by, and I kid you not, this is what he said, “Look at the funny church people!”
So for much of my childhood I was not into religion. I had no interest in it. I saw Davey and Goliath and was seriously spooked by it. We had babysitters that told us that God was always listening and that he knew what I was thinking. I read the Bible and I felt like I was reading a fairy tale. My pubescent little brain just could not shake the thought of an all-knowing, all-seeing god long enough to ever think about going to church again.
As the years went by, I developed a firm sense of atheism. I was rather sure that there was no god in my life, for why would God leave me blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. Why would any god permit so much suffering in the world?
As I grew into adulthood, I found pot. I found sex. I found debt. I found work that I really didn’t want to do. And I bounced in and out of meetings.
Then one day, I noticed that I was in debt and couldn’t stop playing games with the creditors. I had a wired phone connected to an answering machine, with the following message, “Hello, unless you are a close friend or relative, this number has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you think you have reached this number in error, please dial again…”, followed by the right tones to cause the automatic dialers to drop the call and note that my number was not in service.
I was addicted to debt. So I went to meetings again to learn how to get out of debt, and I did. I got out of debt. But along the way, I learned a few things about prayer. I learned that “god” could be whatever I wanted it to be. I learned to develop my own understanding of what God is to me. I learned that prayer was about my relationship to the universe. I learned that prayer is not about asking for what I want. Prayer is about opening my mind to the possibilities.
I can recall how we’d say The Serenity Prayer at the end of the meetings:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
I was fine with that for a while. And then someone added one more line:
Thy will, not mine, be done
At first, I didn’t like that line. I felt like I had already been beaten down. I’d already lost so much. Why did I need to lose my will?
But as I dwelled on it, turning it around in my mind like a 3-D puzzle, I came to see something that was until then hidden from me. That last line was about relinquishing all expectations. That last line was about keeping my prayers open-ended. Like this:
God, please grant me knowledge of your will for me and the power to carry that out.
When I heard that prayer, another light turned on in my head. I could see now, what prayer was all about. Prayer is not about asking for what I want, prayer is about knowing what the universe has in store for me. Prayer is about releasing expectations so that my eyes are open to the opportunities around me. Prayer is about relying upon a god of my own understanding. Prayer is not about sending requests to or making demands on that god.
If I pray for anything more than God’s will for me, then I’m making God my servant. That’s a role reversal. But if I pray for knowledge of God’s will for me, then I’m volunteering to be of service to God. Service is baked into our genes for our mutual survival, our mutual benefit.
To me, “God” is the universe. I’ve tried looking for a god of my understanding for awhile. I thought it was once the sun. Then a tree. Then I noticed that I had “higher power envy”. So I just made my concept of god the universe, for once you’ve said “universe”, what else is there to add?
Prayer is how I relate to the universe. The universe has given me everything that I need to sustain consciousness up to this point. And since I have received so much, it is up to me to be of service to that universe. It is not for me to ask the universe what I want. It is for me to ask the universe, or God, knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry that out.
I keep my prayers open-ended so that I have no expectations, so that I keep my mind open, so that I avail myself to the universe, entirely at the service of God, if there is one.