by Charlie Sutphin
What should a person pray for? Anything—or only things that are important? Can you pray to win the lottery? for me to win the lottery? for my son to gain admittance into a good school or my sister not to wither to death but melt into remission? Can I pray that the person who murdered my father is apprehended, prosecuted, and locked in a cage for the rest of his life? (Possibly not.)
In good conscience, what should a person pray for? What are the rules? Is it permissible to bargain? Can I pray for something and condition the response upon promising to attend church for a year or recite a hundred Hail Marys or never again to curse or drink alcohol? Since bargaining is a time-honored technique in constructing a relationship with the divine, people bargain. The classic manifestation goes something like this:
Dear God, Help me stop puking and I will never drink again. I don’t mean never, but I won’t get this drunk again: I swear! What I mean is—if you help me stop barfing, I won’t drink liquor for at least a year.
Dear God, If you help me score a date with Laura Rich, fire demon of my dreams, I’ll do whatever you want for the rest of the month: I’ll forego milkshakes, I’ll stop cheating in school and try to behave better if you’ll just let me touch that fire-headed wraith one time. I’m not asking for more, but if I could, I would do other things … and sacrifice accordingly. Amen.
Is there recompense for good behavior? Every six months without mortal sin, every month without a venial mishap, you receive a mark in the Big Book and after accumulating a set number of marks (minus demerits), you’re entitled to one major “favor” as defined by Answered Prayer. And if the system were predicated upon good behavior—wouldn’t it be wise to husband your loot for a big-ticket item?—life and death, love and marriage—rather than spend it on smaller concerns: a green light so you won’t be late to work, rolling a strike in the tenth, serving an ace when it really matters!
Dear God, help me not to be late to work and not to receivea speeding ticket or double-fault to lose the match. Amen.
Here’s the point: I cannot explain why the prayers of some people are answered while others are not. Nor do I know how to manipulate the system to my advantage. Is the entire process a lottery wherein some succeed and others fail based upon variables invisible to the eye? I find no rhyme or reason behind one person’s misfortune and another’s success: One mother prostrates herself for a child to live, another prostitutes for subsistence with varying results: one lives, one dies; both live, both die. Who can say!?
Maybe certain individuals lack proper sincerity – aren’t pious enough: maybe that’s the trick? Maybe prayer works best when you’re kneeling on the floorboards beside your bed or next to a grave in a cemetery or huddled in the cold or, better, on your knees inside a sanctuary within a cathedral dedicated to the suffering of the Living Lord! Conversely—if you pray in the comfort of a bed beside your wife before slipping into sleep, is the effort worth one-third the value of a graveside lament? What about the pleas of a thief or rapist or pedophile priest? Are the prayers of those who are holy of greater esteem than the ministrations of the iniquitous? Or does the opposite hold: does God listen to the remonstrances of the worst of the worst with greater intensity than those of the pious whose soul He already possesses?
What happens if you fall asleep while praying: does the prayer become negated if you don’t say Amen? Do you receive partial credit for good intentions or does the incompletion count as a debit as contrasted to the value of a finished prayer with final flourish intact? Amen. And what about picking your nostril during the midst of a soliloquy? If you pick your nose, is it sacrilegious? Is it better not to pray at all than simultaneously contemplate the texture of a booger? Does form matter so much to the Creator of the world, master of the big bang, that there are some functions that go untolerated? Is pooping and praying a mortal transgression, a venial one or none at all? Do such foibles negate the veneration of prayer—or empower it with the virtue of our humanity? I don’t know.
And what of a prayer delivered daily like a litany of good will? Though God hears all things, some pleas merit clemency from the chaos of the world while others fall on deaf ears: some bodies recover, others do not. And prayers that float impotently into the universe—do they waft without substance like a Wandering Jew forever cursed? Do they accumulate to the benefit of the Soul in an account paying dividends… in another dimension—or fall forever fall upon deaf ears like the wails of Cassandra… or a seed discarded in a field of weeds?
Does salutation matter– the manner in which you solicit the Divine? Dear Lord or Heavenly Father or Father God who art in heavenhallowed be…? What about verb – does verb choice alter the potency of the prostration? Help me, Lord… I beg you, Lord… I hope and beseech… Not only do I hope and beseech, but I pray. Can you trick God with the selectivity of your verbiage? I really want this and need this but am not going to make a direct appeal because it’s not an issue of life and death. I trust You will reward me for not outright demanding this intervention and thereby respond affirmatively to my not-so-furtive plea.
At the end of the day, perhaps the most-effective strategy for cultivating the grace of God is not ambiguity but a direct admission that the prayer is ignorant of “best interests.” In accordance with Thy wishes, Thy will be done. Maybe the most authentic expression of faith is to believe in divine providence, regardless of how antithetical the result might seem? God the Creator reigns over past, present and future. His power moves forward and backward across heaven and hell through every soul now and forevermore. While the death of a murdered dad or a cancerous sister, or the paralytic trials of a loved one injured in an accident or tortured by tendrils of madness makes no sense in the secular world, perhaps in the land of the numinous Truth floats transcendent for the angels to exalt in the beneficence of God’s grace: His perfect love. Amen.
Charlie Sutphin has lived in Indianapolis for more than 50 years. His cobbled career includes editor, journalist, writer, attorney, professor, investment manager and venture capitalist. Married for 30 years with two children, he earned degrees from Yale University, Butler University and Indiana University and taught for 20 years at the University of Indianapolis. His fiction was published liberally in the 1990s and recently in The Flying Island and The Helix Literary Review.
One thought on “A Short Meditation on Prayer”
uhhhh. . . . the line should read: “or fall forever fallow upon deaf ears like the wails of Cassandra . . . or a seed discarded in a field of weeds?”