For those who might question why I use prayer as a cipher for faith, my response is that how I pray is a direct reflection of who I understand G-d to be. And when I consider what my prayer life was like when my depression was at its most active my prayers shows that I believe in a G-d I would never encourage others to worship much less believe in. I don’t think it’s surprising that when my life was in a constant state of crisis that my faith reverted to a more base understanding with a more primal practice. Depressed Chris could not believe his depression was just a disease; it had to be some divine punishment for a sin that I had yet to discover. The guilt I experienced from such a belief sent me on a quixotic quest to find and confess what I had done that was so wrong. A faith consisting of cosmic culpability complex is bad on its own, but pair that with out-and-out superstition and you have a misery that is not bereft of company. My faith, evidenced in my prayer practices, became a sort of talisman or good luck charm. Though at the time I had misgivings about G-d and the efficacy of prayer, I still offered a hasty “if I died before I wake. I want the Lord my soul to take” while being wheeled into surgery for ECT. This is not love manifested as worship, this is fear. (Rant Warning: For those that want to go on about “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”; I would challenge your understanding of what the word “fear” means in Proverbs 9:10. Is “fear” really about being scared of G-d or might you have lost something in the translation? I wager it is the latter.) I don’t want a prayer-life that is little more than my not stepping on metaphoric cracks thus injuring divine backs. Worse yet, my superstitions, again emerging from a more base and primal urgency within me, deteriorated to the point that I believed Satan or some other independent intelligent malevolent force was vying for my soul. If I could manage to be faithful and forge ahead this malevolence would disappear taking my depression with it. Speaking on the other side of depression, yes you must engage all aspects of a person’s being including one’s spirituality. But, and G-d as my witness, do not under any circumstances suggest to a depressed person that his/her depression is solely, or in any way, the work of some devil. As I’ve written before, it is dopamine not demons and it is serotonin not Satan. Such suggestions rob a depressive of his/her agency by placing the locus of control outside of that individual. Now if I can speak to you “prayer warriors” out there, pray without ceasing…AFTER…you’ve loaded up a mentally ill person in your vehicle and are driving him/her to a hospital. (Rant Warning: I honestly don’t give a damn if fellow Christians find such a suggestion offensive. As a clergy person, I’d rather live with overreacting by taking a person to an ER than preaching that person’s funeral. I implore you to get over your need to feel like you’re a godly person in all aspects of your life when those aspects concern someone else’s health.) So, where am I now?
Presently, I cannot pray for myself or my needs partly because I wonder why would G-d answer my prayers when I would admit that there are far more pressing petitions for G-d to answer. For instance, it is hard for me to justify asking G-d to ease my anxiety or pacify my anger. I would much rather G-d’s attention and efforts were directed towards ending human trafficking, world hunger, war and anything else that could be associated with one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I know that this reveals an understanding of G-d that questions G-d’s omnipotence and benevolence. But if I got well, healthy, and could attribute that, even if only in part, to prayer; I would still feel guilty that my petitions were not on behalf of another child of G-d. Though my thinking and motivations are different, my practice is in keeping with Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew and Luke’s gospel there are two similar accounts of what became known as the Lord’s Prayer. (Other early appearances of the Lord’s Prayer can be found in such documents as the Didache.) Line by line through translation after translation, the Lord’s Prayer is consistently a prayer of intercession who’s object for that intercession is never just the petitioner offering the prayer. It is “Our Father” and not “My Father.” It is “lead us not into temptation.” It is “deliver us from evil.” It is “our daily bread” and not “my daily bread.”
I am also concerned, even if it is unfounded, that prayer might operate on a strict binary system with a finite economy. To clarify what I mean by that here is an example from a blog I kept before my wife and I adopted Sophie. It is fittingly entitled, Schadenfreude:
“For every story that ends ‘and they lived happily ever after,’ another person’s story moves from fairy tale to nightmare…. I want to be able to exist with the great joy over ‘my Sophie,’ while holding within me, always, the fact that she was once, ‘someone else’s Sophie.’ Simply put, how does one pray in one voice with great joy and great sorrow, sacrificing neither…keeping both in tension.” (Henson, 2009)
The underlying belief is that faithful prayer must be selfless prayer. For me this mandates that I pray for another child of G-d with far greater frequency and fervency. And it occurs to me that if I can encourage others to pray likewise then their petitions would lift me up as I have lifted them up. Imagine prayer as a wholly, and holy, communal conversation connecting petitioners with other petitioners and all those petitioners with G-d. I would go so far as to say that a prayer that accomplishes less than this is just someone talking to himself/herself. G-d is present in our interconnectedness, after all where ever two or three are gathered. (Matthew 18:20) I think we are all wise enough to know that gathered is more than geography. Surely, our communion or conversation with G-d is not limited to our having one’s eyes closed, with his/her hands clasped while on his/her knees whispering until we reach a suitable place to say amen. Selfless communal prayer is an embodiment of the G-d who exists as a community; be that G-d known as Father, Son and Holy Ghost or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
As a chaplain I find that I pray for others more often than I did in parish ministry. Now, I don’t for one minute believe that G-d is waiting around for one of his employees to ask for one of his children before he does something. This was never my motivation for offering intercessory prayers. My goal is to witness in the medium of prayer to my awareness and presence with those who are suffering (or celebrating). It is me saying, “I see you” and “I will abide with you.” Though a person’s present reality might be described as hell, no one has to endure such a hell alone. My prayer is my presence. I am reminded of a quote from the late Reynolds Price in his work A Whole New Life, where he address his struggles with cancer, “In that deep trough I needed companions more than prayers.…” I’ve also found that when offering prayers for patients and their caregivers that what I say in conversation seldom has the impact found in making our conversation an act of worship. I don’t know why but the impact is greater if I bookend my words with “Let us pray” and “Amen.” And if I can offer no words, I’m found no less faithful as G-d’s response to our words was the incarnation of the Word who became flesh. I would be surprised if there is a better argument for presence being prayer. When praying for others, I leave my doubts/concerns at the proverbial door and enter an intimate relationship with my patients and his/her caregivers that is less likely to burden them with my issues. When in prayer for others I am free to draw on the rich imagery and metaphor of scripture and in one motion exegete scriptures’ meanings to help those who are in need. Isn’t this essentially what preaching is? And isn’t my calling and the privilege of my ordination to come alongside a fellow child of G-d? Yes, because prayer is but one genre of pastoral care.
Still, if I were to pray for myself I would shape that prayer in light of the following:
“Tradition teaches us not to pray for the impossible, lest we damage our own faith in the Source of blessing. During the dry season in the land of Israel, it never rains. So all over the world during that season, when we reach the line in our daily prayer which asks God for the nourishment we derive from water, Jews pray instead for dew. Because rain is simply not possible (in the place where our prayers originated), and we don’t pray for things which are impossible, perhaps because doing so would be tantamount to “testing” God. Jewish tradition teaches that when one hears a fire truck going by with sirens wailing, one shouldn’t pray “please, God, let it not be my house burning” — either it is, or it isn’t, but the prayer won’t change whatever is already real. [One] who prays over something which has already happened is praying in vain. Sometimes a medical diagnosis can be like that. All we can change is how we respond to what is. When a loved one cannot be healed, perhaps a time comes when we stop asking God for healing. We can ask for perspective, for strength, for loving care. We can ask God to be with our loved one and help them find blessings in each day. We can ask for comfort, for some sweetness to mitigate our loved one’s suffering or grief. We can ask God to be with their caregivers, and to strengthen the work of their hands. We can ask for what is possible, and that has to be enough.” (“Praying for What is Possible” Barenblat, 2014)