by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor
I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer: what it does, how different people practice it, if it works. Mostly, I’d like to know why it worked for me for so many years, then it didn’t. I cannot place the moment it happened, but over time, when I bowed my head to pray, the words rolled around my mouth like rocks, felt ill-fitting and awkward.
Eventually, I stopped trying.
Prayer was a ritual I would practice every morning, every evening, and in the day when I felt compelled. I prayed before meals, with friends, alone. How did it become almost nonexistent? When did it become reserved for times when my family asks me to bless our holiday meals, deferring to me as a qualified person to connect with the spirit of God?
And how to say that out loud to them? Or anyone?
My mother often asks whether I am still going to church, or at least still putting my faith in God. She worries over how I am managing my depression, and she often checks to make sure I am not having “those thoughts” again. Even though I am not, and haven’t in years, I can see the concern in her eyes, and I hold back tears when she tells me she prays for me daily.
Are her prayers the ones that have kept me well all this time?
Although nearly a decade old now, this line from Childish Gambino still hits me square in the chest: “My mom likes to text me Psalm verses / but she don’t look at me like I’m the same person.”
One of the initiations for leadership in the faith tradition I grew up in was for boys to read scriptures and say prayers before the congregation. Growing up, this was the highest honor to me. I spent hours the night before, poring over the verses to be read or the words I had scribbled down for the prayer. On the morning of, I missed everything in the service leading up to my part, my heart racing in preparation for thirty seconds that meant the world to me. When I became a young adult and was invited to preach, I only felt this childhood excitement magnified.
It wasn’t until I left that tradition that I realized women in my church had no similar experience to initiate them into the body of the church.
In January of 2018, I traveled with my seminary to El Paso for a weeklong class on the intersection of faith and justice in the Borderlands. During a night of spiritual reflection, I was asked to lead the group in a prayer. I don’t know what opened in me, briefly, like a flower in bloom, but while I prayed I felt the presence of God for the first time in years.
When I finished, our professor asked why I was not planning to be a minister, to which everyone agreed. Although this moved me deeply, I felt whatever it was closing again, like a book I was not meant to open, not to see into, not anymore.
I was always drawn as a teenager to the bands whose spiritual references were more on the skeptic’s side of faith. Although I tend to locate my crisis in my mid-20s, I was only 16 when I found myself inside of the As Cities Burn lyrics: “Remember we used to speak / now I’m starting to think / that your voice was really my own / bouncing off the ceiling back to me.”
Reframing who—or sometimes, what—I am praying to helps to clarify the form of prayers. Mary Ruefle says that poems, prayers, and letters all share a sense of urgency, originating in “the pressing need to make a message directed at something unnear, that the absence of the unnear be made to appear present—that the presence of absence be palpably felt.”
In this way, some may pray to God, while others may pray for health to return, for the spirit of loved ones to return, for a distant friend to know you are keeping them close to the chest. As in The Color Purple, Celie’s letters shift from addressing God to her sister Nettie, as Nettie becomes more real to her than her image of God-as-white-man. Thus, prayer may take a variety of forms, and may address a variety of intended receivers.
Yet so many of us, feeling that God is not on the other end of the line, stop petitioning altogether, do not call out to any ear or wait for any voice to reply.
Throughout his album DAMN., Kendrick Lamar laments over and over, “Nobody praying for me.” Lamar carries the weight of being a leader for his generation, at one point rapping, “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ‘em / but who the fuck praying for me?”
Near the end of the album, in his cousin Carl’s voicemail recording, Carl reminds him: “I love you, and I’m praying for you.”
I wonder often if Lamar meant for listeners to hear this voicemail as a corrective to his belief that no one is praying for him, or a reminder that even when a loved one is praying for you, sometimes the feeling of isolation remains. That sometimes, no matter who tells you that they are praying for you, you need those prayers to be nearer than they seem.
Depending on the day, I can hear it either way.
Anne Lamott has frequently written that the three best prayers she knows are, “Help, thanks, and wow.” But Mary Karr, when asked about a poem she had written called “The Obscenity Prayer,” felt differently: “The best prayers are fuck you or fuck this shit. Or fucking help me / him / her / them / us.”
I hope there is room for both. The prayers of my youth fit into the format of my upbringing, a reliance on God that my prayers would be answered, which required me to be patient, understanding, trusting. As I grew older, I found that a prayer could be a container for anger, hatred, cries for justice, mercy, a more active love. Sometimes the person who needed to answer prayers was me, other times people in power who do not use it justly.
I think there is more room for a multitude of prayers than I knew, and more room than often seems allowed by others.
After a white supremacist executed nine Black worshippers in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, the media that followed was quick to highlight the family members of the slain worshippers who forgave the murderer. The idea that forgiveness is necessary because we must rely on God’s justice to happen on its own time and in its own way has allowed a history of unforgivable acts by men to go unanswered for on this earth, the only one that we have.
Although the murderer was jailed, the ideology he represents has gone unchecked, and has even been revitalized and propped up by American cowardice. The inability to face that which many are sure we’ll never have to account for is killing people, while we wait on God’s justice, somehow out of our hands.
A few years ago, a former student of mine was shoved from a sidewalk at her college and called a racist term. It was within weeks of the 2016 election results, when hate crimes against marginalized people spiked. During a march at the school following this attack, she told the crowd that she prayed for the student who shoved her. Later, I asked her why she did this, and this is what she said: “In that moment, I decided throwing more fire to the flame wouldn’t help the situation; only love can do that. And even though that person was wrong, God continues to show the rest of us grace and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be shown the same amount of grace.”
I think there are other ways to see this that aren’t wrong either, but in that moment I saw the sustaining hope of prayer for those whose experiences differ from mine, whose torments are not merely internal but societal.
In her short lecture on prayer, Mary Ruefle differentiates between prayers that require raising our voices and prayers that require lowering our voices. Different volumes and frequencies are sometimes necessary to be heard properly.
I found that one way of translating “amen,” the common ending to a prayer, is “so be it.” As in, willing something into reality. Or accepting what is. Somewhere in between, depending on the prayer.
In As I Lay Dying, one of William Faulkner’s characters articulates how prayer is felt differently by people whose experience of faith is an intellectual exercise as opposed to those whose experience of life is more trying: “She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”
I still bristle at the question that people used to ask whenever I or anyone else was going through something: “Have you prayed about it?” When I look at the ways I have fought to be here, alive today, I think about saying aloud how I was not okay to those who love me, the therapy I finally entered, the people I leaned on when I could not stand, the music that carried me, the days I got out of bed and went outside, the days I did not, the person I am and am becoming still.
I would like to say that, yes, in these ways I have prayed every day. My prayers look nothing like anyone said they would, but they are mine.
Sylvia Plath’s protagonist in The Bell Jar expresses her exhaustion with the shortcomings of a life centered only around a religious identity: “The only trouble was, Church… didn’t take up the whole of your life. No matter how much you knelt and prayed, you still had to eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world.”
I recently spoke with a friend who lives across the country but holds me accountable to staying in touch, which is a quality I need in my friends. We talked about how each of us now have jobs that we are passionate about, yet each day falls somewhere between mundane and even mediocre. We love our work, but most days seem less special than we anticipated and possibly hoped for. We wondered how to honor the ordinary in our daily lives, how to hold each day up as something close to sacred.
I read somewhere that if we were to each make a book simply by collecting all of the pieces of writing that we like, we could learn a lot about ourselves. I think that this practice is something like a prayer. After all, one function of prayer is to know ourselves better.
Kafka once posed a question about his Jewish identity: “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
I don’t know the context of Kafka’s words, how much his Jewish identity defined him, but I resonated with this quote: What do I have in common with Christians? I am still surprised sometimes when I stumble upon a quote I underlined, shocked that it resonates, reminding me of some piece of myself I was unaware of, or had locked away. Each time I have underlined phrases and entire passages, these must be my prayer that the words stick to me somehow, that they will cling to my bones and alter my being.
Charles D’Ambrosio: “It seems not only possible but desirable that not-knowing would be the first condition of prayer.” Or, in Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homecoming, about the legacy of the slave trade from its beginnings to its effects into now, she describes one character’s prayers as “a language for those desires of the heart that even the mind did not recognize were there.”
Perhaps we should all try to know ourselves more, and be humbled by the difficulty—the impossibility—to do so.
Although I lost the source, the idea about collecting the writing that we like came from an article where the writer argues that we are not allowed to choose only a few pieces of writing from one author but must include as many as we like, even if a whole book is full of just one author. So I must not apologize for the authors who appear time and again, as they are the ones who brought me through this time in my life.
Kurt Vonnegut admitted candidly: “The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And if I die—God forbid—I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”
I pray to know the good news while I am here. I pray I recognize it, but I also pray it surprises me constantly. I pray even to be wrong.
It seems increasingly the case that America as a nation is a failed project and we should focus instead on fixing it at local and very particular levels. From e.e. cummings: “Better worlds (I suggest) are born, not made; and their birthdays are the birthdays of individuals. Let us pray for individuals; never for worlds.”
When I delivered an early version of this nonsermon to my friends, I asked them to participate in a ritual of walking about the house where we met, reading poems concerning prayer that I had placed around the walls of each room. In this way, we invited a wealth of voices considering manners and forms of prayer: Ilya Kaminsky, Momina Mela, Marin Sorescu, Carly Joy Miller, Mary Karr, Ellery Akers, Ernest Sandeen, Francisco Alarcón.
Tony Hoagland writes that we might all benefit from choosing twenty poems that we believe could save America. As my friends and I moved about the house, being moved by the words of wiser writers, we found poems that might save prayer. After all, what is any poem if not a contemplation, an opportunity to slow ourselves down and meditate on the words before us?
I’ve a friend who tells me often that she is praying for me, even though she has also experienced her own crises of faith and does not belong to a particular faith tradition but finds God outside of the walls of the church she grew up in. She once told me that prayer is a monumental and powerful act in the face of despair.
Along with my mom, this friend is the only person who tells me she prays for me. I believe that she does, and I believe that it works.
If our language about prayer is that we want them to be answered, does that mean that every question for which we do not have an answer is a prayer? “Nobody gets what they want,” Jorie Graham writes, “What you get is to be changed.”
Although prayer does not look like it once looked for me, I have come to practice a new ritual that has quite the same effect for me: instead of prayer in the traditional sense of the word, I hold space for people. This may make some people cringe or scoff, but when I tell my friend or anyone I am praying for them, I hold space for them in my mind and heart. I stop whatever it is I am doing, I consider whatever it is they are going through, and I hope for them to get through it in time and with care. I sit with their pain, even if I cannot directly feel it. I don’t usually wish for anyone to not experience pain—I feel that is asking too much of this life—but only that they may experience and respond to pain in healthy ways. I hold space for ways that I may help, that I may be invited into the process with them.
I daily hold space for each of my loved ones, and I often find that my reverence for that person increases as I carve out room in my heart for them.
In 1963, James Baldwin wrote about the loneliness of being an artist, how it comes with the awareness that you “do not belong anywhere” because you must be aware of the truth of the world and its horrors in a way that others are not. In this way, I think, a lot of people can be artists without ever picking up a canvas, a pen, or a microphone.
Because of this awareness, Baldwin continues, “your uncles and your parents and church stop praying for you. They realize it won’t do a bit of good.”
Though he doesn’t say it explicitly, I read the rest of what Baldwin writes in this essay as an articulation of how an artist begins to pray for themselves. Facing their hurt, the artist understands that pain’s only utility is in its ability to connect us to a broader human community.
Seized by pain, then confronting, articulating, and understanding its connection to other people’s pain, you begin to discover the universality of human hurt. You begin to understand what it takes to be released from it, and to help others be released from it. “We are all one question,” Mary Ruefle declares, “and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things.”
Baldwin confirms what I suspect is true of coming to know oneself through prayer, that in doing the above you come to “your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.” Baldwin believes that by understanding yourself, you come to understand everyone, and you are then responsible for taking “hard positions” on the world in order to hold a mirror to it.
He says not to do this so that you might help him, or anyone else, but that you must do it for yourself. For there is no one that we can save, really, except ourselves.
I try to hold this in tension. I hold space for my friends and family so that their conditions might change for the better, but the only conditions I am capable of changing are my own. Perhaps the conditions of others change for the better when we first changes ourselves for the better, be that through confronting our own internalized practices of oppression or seeking to know our own pain more clearly. I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out. But I daily make room to contemplate the shape my soul is taking, and this has become my own ritual of prayer.
May we hold space for ourselves, and for one another, that we may grow, that we may be transformed, that our world will change, that we will shape our corner of the world, that we will hold some moments close, that others let us go, that the past informs us, that the future not paralyze us, that those who are distant will draw near, that the pain which haunts us will become distant, that we find ourselves in the midst of what we cannot control to exert a little attention over that which we do.
So be it.
- Childish Gambino’s “All the Shine”, Camp (Glassnote Records, 2011).
- As Cities Burn’s “Contact”, Come Now Sleep (Tooth & Nail/Solid State Records, 2007).
- Kendrick Lamar, (Top Dawg Entertainment/Interscope, 2017).
- I read Anne Lamott’s idea of three best prayers being “help, thanks, and wow” in one of her early books, but she has a more recent book that focuses entirely on the idea, entitled Help Thanks Wow.
- Mary Karr’s interview with Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69895/qa-mary-karr.
- William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (Vintage reissue, 1991).
- The story about my former student (and her quote about prayer) came from my interview with her about the incident: https://bentaylorblogs.com/2017/02/21/walking-the-talk-a-conversation-with-natasha/
- I learned of the Kafka story about not having anything in common with himself by way of an interview from a different author (Viet Thanh Nguyen) who liked the story and said it is passed around often among people who are identified by their heritage, etc. This interview was published in The Believer, where Nguyen and author Paul Beatty were in conversation: https://believermag.com/paul-beatty-in-conversation-with-viet-thanh-nguyen/.
- Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (Tin House, 2014).
- Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (Penguin/Random House, 2016).
- Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (Seven Stories Press, 2005).
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963).
- Jorie Graham, “Prayer,” Poetry Foundation online, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47197/prayer-56d2277b19acb
- James Baldwin, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/04/13/james-baldwin-the-artists-struggle-for-integrity/