How to Pray
I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 16 of 100.
In the latest season of Silicon Valley there’s a storyline that involves that idea that in northern California, you can be openly polyamorous, or put micro-doses of LSD in your cereal, and everyone would be cool with it; but it would be social suicide to come out as Christian. I am not Christian, but I do think it’s a little dangerous to post an essay with a title so non-secular as to imply that there may be Something out there with which (with whom?) to communicate.
I don’t know if that’s it, exactly, either. I “communicate" a fair amount, but I am not sure I’m directing my thoughts in any specific direction. Sometimes I say the word “you” in my communications. Sometimes I say “God.” These are just words, though; they’re placeholders for what I don’t have the words to explain. Since I am a human, my tools for prayer are necessarily, pathetically language-driven. Other animals have an easier job of it, I imagine. And trees? Forget about it.
But, whatever. I’m doing it. I’m coming out here and now as someone who prays.
Are you still there?
Because I know that the praying thing makes a lot of you a little queasy. And this makes sense, because religion has historically been oppressive, exclusionary, or, at best, something to appropriate.
My generation is less religious than the last one, and the high schoolers I teach shy away from God stuff even more than my friends and I did. It was popular among folks I knew a few years ago to declare oneself an atheist. I think my dad called himself an atheist for a while. I have, in the past, definitely used it to describe my belief system. These days, I hear “agnostic” — the belief that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena — more often, and I like that much better.
Because “atheist” is a declaration that You are It. Your life is all there is for you. It’s a pretty egotistical stance. Perhaps you are arguing, “No, Sophie. I think consciousness is It. Thinking is It. Humans are It. Science is It.” But humans have believed so many silly “scientific” things, even in the past hundred years! We thought the earth was definitely flat. We thought that barnacle geese grew out of barnacles under rocks because their nests were so hard to find. As I age, it is clearer to me that humans are in process. We are not It. There are too many things we don’t know, and so to decide that there definitely is or isn’t a god seems arrogant to me.
This week I have been at Ox-Bow, which is a sort of hippie-dippy (she said lovingly) artist’s colony near Saugatuck, Michigan. There are candy-colored cabins and there is vegan food. There is a salad bar that has sprouts, and the sprouts never smell rotten.* Chickens wander around and they hop up on tables and look at the magazine you’re reading. People drink out of jars.
I’ve been here under the guise of helping one of my favorite teachers of all time, Peggy MacNamara, teach her Scientific Illustration class. But I have not really done that. She does not need my help at all. I suspect she invited me because she thought I would think that Ox-Bow was beautiful, and that I would like it here. I do. At this very moment, I am watching a nutria gnaw at a stick while it perches on a lily pad. I can see a hummingbird nest. (This is a feat. They are small.)
The main purpose I seem to have served Peggy is that she likes to sit early in the morning and pray. In Chicago, she does this at her sister Dot’s house, at a semi-public (in that everyone can come, but it’s difficult to know about it) Prayer Porch. I also go to the Prayer Porch. I am terrified of telling my friends that I do this. I say I “go to sit on a porch with some wise ladies,” and leave it at that. Because technically, that is true.
We say the Serenity Prayer, and then there are a few readings, and then that’s it. Prayer Porch is a half hour long. And Prayer Porch Travel Edition (Ox-Bow) is even shorter, but it’s nice to sit here and face the lagoon. Yesterday we got a flock of blue herons and a king fisher. Those are the kinds of things that make you believe in God, because why not? As Peggy says, “Birds are so beautifully designed.” And they do seem to be designed. Even if Evolution is the designer, there’s no denying that Evolution has done a damn good job.
This morning I got up at 5:30 to take a sunrise walk through the woods. I wanted to see an owl. I really get off on seeing owls, but it can be a difficult thing to do. I hiked up in the dark and startled many deer, and heard the hermit thrush, who sounds like a mysterious cave in the Zelda video game franchise. (Don't take my word for it! I made a video of the sounds, posted below.) I reached the summit: no owl. Not really even any interesting birds. A few monarch butterflies, and that was it, and that was enough. I thought about the idea that there are places in the world where people believe that there is a new sun every day, and you have to make a good day for it. What a nice thing to believe. So much more practical than the barnacle geese thing.
So I looked at the sun and I said thank you to it out loud and this felt good. It felt like a little surrender. I would so greatly prefer to be small than huge. I have met people whose whole worlds are themselves, and it seems like such a painful way to live. We really are too tiny to hold all that. Praying might be the simple practice of releasing the idea that You are Everything. And in the release, you can be imperfect. (Because aren’t we all? And isn’t perfection poorly defined?) You can say hello to strangers. (Because we belong to each other, and everyone is wandering around just as scared and lost as you are.) It’s nice to shrink down like that.
And then, of course, right as I finished communicating (praying), the owl swooped down in front of me, and it dipped into the gulch, beyond what I could see. Call that synchronicity, or energies aligning, or happy coincidence. Or call it God. It doesn’t matter what you call it; as I said in the beginning, I do think all this stuff is outside of language. Luke says (and he stole this from an essay by Michael Pollan about orchids) that we humans have a “consciousness bias.” I love that. Mycelia (networks of mushrooms) apparently communicate with trees about poison and storms and things like that. We don’t know how they do that. My guess is that mycelia have some shit figured out that humans can’t get to.
But if we HAVE language, and that’s really all we have, we might as well use it for something good. I pray in the morning and I pray at night. I don’t to know whom or what I am praying, and I do not care. I have no foundational belief saying that my prayer is going anywhere, or that it will affect anything. I just trust that, since I am driven to do it, I ought to sometimes do it. If nothing else, it brings me into a moment that I would have otherwise easily let slide right on by.
*When I buy sprouts, they last for exactly eleven hours and then they putrify, as though they are in direct protest of my specific fridge. “The chickens will eat you,” I say. “We’d rather go down like that then have any part of your sandwich,” they say.