I have been a member for 20 years, and I’ve held many positions in the Church: Relief Society president, seminary teacher, and so forth. I often feel the Spirit, especially when I teach, but I’ve never really felt it when I pray. So what does this mean? I have faith in prayer. I want to talk to my Heavenly Father, I’ve seen miracles and great blessings in my life, and I pray several times every day. First of all, I’m not a dope, I know how to pray, I know that answers come in many different ways, I know the Spirit manifests itself in many different ways but I’m talking about getting nothing. I’ve spent ages sometimes in pleading agony for just the smallest touch from the Spirit when I pray, but still nothing. I love listening to others’ testimonies of prayer but I’m starting to wonder if it’s all true or just mass hysteria. Or could there be something wrong with me?
Amanda in Australia
This is a moment when I wish I had actually read all those books of Tibetan Buddhism my sweet husband offered when we started dating. I tried, really, just as he tried to read the Book of Mormon. He really did try. But all those “and it came to pass”-es proved difficult for a dyslexic Jewish guy who could barely make it through the stacks of graduate school anthropology texts on his desk. I think he made it to the book of Mosiah before giving up. Just like I gave up when the Tibetan Book of the Dead got to the part about the four-fold path, with its fifty-pointed lotus, and the 120-sided jewel of truth guarded by 4,000 demigods. All that gorgeous but arcanely mysterious detail just boggled my mind.
You see, we Mormons like to think of ourselves as very pragmatic people. The mechanical engineers of the theological world. Leave the speculation and mysticism (and most of the art and poetry as well, sigh) to other faith traditions. For us, it’s about what works. Irrigation canals. Food storage. Indexing genealogical records. Hands-on stuff. We’re not even supposed to look into the mysteries. Ours is an intelligible God.
And yet, there are aspects of faith that defy mechanical understanding. Just the other day, my six-year old daughter asked me: “If God is like us, how can God be everywhere?” She was referring of course to Mormonism’s radically anthropomorphic concept of God—in our faith tradition, God is not an abstraction but a set of loving Heavenly Parents, a Father and Mother. I looked at her in the rearview mirror, knowing very that the most satisfactory answer I could muster would come from the chapters in the Doctrine & Covenants when Joseph Smith starts talking about light being a form of matter, and even that didn’t really give me what I needed to answer her question. So, I swallowed hard, and I said, “Honey, it’s sort of a mystery.” To which she said, “Maybe the answer is that God is in our hearts.” “Maybe,” I told her. “Maybe.”
Prayer is another matter that defies mechanical understanding. Like, does God really hear actual words we pray? If so, how does God actually listen to all of us, around the world, and in worlds beyond, at once? In my mind, I imagine a giant old-fashioned switchboard, with lots of ancestral helpers pushing buttons and plugging in lines—and even this image cannot possibly suffice. Then there is the matter of the words themselves. Does prayer really happen through words? My friend Liz once asked a deaf person how she experienced prayer, and she described directing wordless waves of feeling toward God. I love that image, and yet even that image cannot tell me how God might answer in a transactional way pleadings from billions if not trillions of souls.
At some point about a decade ago, I redeveloped my own practice of prayer. I felt personally that it was rather vain and wasteful to pray in a transactional way: to ask for this, and plead for that, and offer up a grateful phrase in order to be pleasing, and expect some concrete return. I mean, I knew good Mormon people who were praying for successful real estate transactions—it was the height of the housing bubble, after all. Who am I to judge, really, but that didn’t work for me. So while still using conventional prayer language, I switched from thinking of prayer as a transaction to thinking of prayer as an exercise, a discipline. I opened my heart and quieted my mind and tried to tune in and say a few words that would at least not chase God away with their craven humanity. I dropped most of the personal specifics, unless prefaced by an “if it be Thy will.” The Quakers of old used to place great emphasis on speaking very carefully and with great discipline so as not to obstruct the “opening,” their word to describe how the Spirit directs and enters our lives. I was pretty much working on that model too. And I believe it has created a quiet centering that orients my life in ways that I hope are good for creation. That’s what seems to work, and I’m going with it.
As for you, what works for you? Amanda, you seem to feel that prayer is not working because you do not feel the Spirit in the more elaborate way others profess they do, or as you do when you are teaching. You are frustrated, and you are hungry for some reassuring contact with God—who isn’t—but you are assuredly not a “dope.” You express disappointment in getting “nothing” when you pray, and that’s striking to me because lots of faith traditions describe the experience of divinity as an experience of clearness, openness, nothingness, and quietness. What if profound stillness is how you experience God in prayer? What if you too backed away from a transactional concept of prayer, from the idea that you are supposed to feel something specific in return for praying? What if you released yourself from that expectation, and just prayed for the heck of it?
You know, there’s a terrible bumper sticker and t-shirt slogan one sees in the United States, usually in some proximity to tie-dye and outdoor music festivals. It reads: “Dance like nobody is watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like nobody’s listening.” Only here at Ask Mormon Girl would such a cheeseball bumper sticker slogan find its way into an earnest discussion of prayer, and yet . . . here I go, heavens forgive me:
What if you prayed like you never expected an answer?
Perhaps if you released your focus on a specific transactional emotional outcome and drew a wider lens you might find evidence of God’s love and mercy in the world around you all the time—like “letters dropped in the street,” as the poet Walt Whitman said?
Would that free you to experience prayer differently? I may not be able to explain the mechanics of how prayer works, but I do believe God does not want you to beat yourself up over it. That much is no mystery to me.
What about you, readers? How have you experienced prayer? What advice do you have for Amanda? (And, no, pray harder is not an acceptable answer!)
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