I have never had much of a relationship with prayer. My parents are devout atheists, and although they raised us to be Jewish, the emphasis was always on cultural preservation rather than spiritual development. My grandparents, who were Orthodox, fled Germany for their lives during World War II and ended up in a refugee camp in Shanghai, China, where my father was born. I’ve often wondered at my grandparents’ decision to bring children into the world under such dire circumstances. Today, I see their decision as a form of prayer. When a murderous dictator is on a mission to expunge one’s entire race from the planet, procreation becomes a political act, an act of resistance, an act of faith—an insistence on and reclamation of both life itself and one’s right to participate in the continuation of life. Choosing to procreate today is just as brazen considering the growing threats of climate change and global fascism. Bringing children into a broken world may seem outrageous at times, but in a way it is the ultimate act of hope. It’s choosing to not only believe but actually place your biological stakes in a better future.
My father rebelled against the religious dogma he grew up with, first as a teenager by binging on non-kosher hot dogs on his way home from Yeshiva and sneaking off to the movies on Shabbat, then as an adult by abandoning the lifestyle altogether. He never strayed far from his roots, however. He said Kiddish every Friday night and demanded we attend synagogue on the High Holy days. But he mocked the prayer with his recitation, distorting the words and making funny faces to signify his irreverence. In services, he would whisper in my ear that it was all “ a crock of shit” as the rabbi removed the Torah from the arc. His relationship to Judaism was pained and schizophrenic—celebratory and joyful, at times, certainly, but spiritually bereft and tinged with resentment. Judaism had not given him a sense of meaning as it had my grandmother; it had merely suffocated him, belittled him (via my authoritarian grandfather’s admonishment and abuse), and alienated him—first from the rest of the world by restricting him from experiencing life in its fullness, and then, once he rebelled, from his family, including his five brothers and sisters, who considered him the black sheep.
Now that I am grappling with my own spiritual bereavement, I wonder if my father ever mourned what he gave up, for though he preserved the Jewish traditions in his own relaxed way, he never sought to cultivate a personal connection to a higher something. Rather, his resigned atheism rendered him cynical and detached. I imagine my father must have been quite angry at God before he chose to deny His existence altogether. Traumatized first by his early years in and dramatic departure from China (my grandparents placed him and his baby sister in a rickshaw and ran alongside to catch one of the last planes out of the country before the communists took over), and later by his father’s verbal abuse, he sought refuge in drugs and alcohol, pain medication and antidepressants throughout his adult life.
I filmed an interview with my Orthodox grandmother a few years before she passed. She was ninety-two years old, under five feet tall and shrinking but full of liveness. In the video, she appears like a quintessential bubbie out of a children’s book, her white hair peaking out beneath her tichel (a head-covering worn by married women), her gray irises glistening beneath her cataracts, a mustard yellow throw blanket covering her shoulders. Her storied hands, blue veined and nearly a century hold, are always in motion; her fingers strum the air as though conducting an invisible orchestra. “Why did you choose to become religious?” I asked her. She teared up at my question, moved by her connection to the divine, and, I suspect, saddened by my lack thereof, which she rightly attributed to my father’s atheism. “Because without Hashem, what is there? There’s the earth, there’s the sky, but what is there?” She raised her arms and grasped at the air, then pounded her fists against her heart.
At the time I was drawn to earth-based spirituality and suspicious of Judeo-Christian ideologies whose inherent dualism seemed to permit environmental neglect. I wanted to shout at her, “But the earth and the sky are enough! This life is full of meaning without an imaginary God to deem it so!” But as I’ve rewatched this interview over the years, my focus has shifted to the pounding on her heart. “What is there?” she asks.
What’s there is the soul, and when it is neglected through cynicism or denial or overwrought engagement in secular materialism, it suffers.
Or so I’m discovering as I enter my fourth decade and find myself in a vital inquiry about prayer.
Anne Lamott writes that prayer begins “when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe miraculously, we just release our grip slightly.” Indeed, the sensation of helplessness—of “I surrender!” is what ultimately brought me to my knees. Nearly a decade of scattered searching, heartbreak, loneliness and let down have left me feeling so lost and hopeless that the only place to turn is towards the heavens. I feel like a walking three-dimensional embodiment of the bewildered iPhone emoji with her shoulders shrugged, arms raised, palms facing upwards. Except that occasionally, the pain in my gut causes me to double over, forehead to the ground, arms stretched out overhead, pliant and humble in my desperation for divine intervention—a concept I barely believe in but secretly cling to, hoping despite myself that something beyond my understanding will pick me up off the ground.
Having been raised with the notion that prayer was essentially a “crock of shit”, I’ve had to rewire my rational mind in order to begin to flirt with such a timeless yet senseless endeavor. Or at least that’s how I’ve perceived it. To my rational mind, prayer seems senseless. Who am I speaking to? What results am I expecting? What function does this serve? How does it work?
My friend Eve, a fiercely intelligent and unpretentiously spiritual woman who was also raised by atheist Jewish liberals with an aversion to superstition, reflected, “Prayer is adding my voice to the forces that shape reality. All mystical traditions agree that the universe was born of sound. There is a liminal space between what is possible and what transpires, and I pray so that my voice can reverberate in that space, and thus in my lived reality.”
Eve’s discussion of liminality reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s rationalization of hope born from uncertainty: we cannot predict the future, and in the space of uncertainty, we have room to act. Blind optimism and resigned cynicism both excuse inaction. Hope is an invitation to act in service of the reality we are hoping for.
Prayer is similar. By stating—out loud—our deepest longing and desires, we create a forcefield of accountability. It has been stated, it has been put into motion. Now we must do our part. In a mystical sense, our voice has been added to the liminal space between what is and what can be, altering the vibrations of reality at the subtlest level. In a not so mystical sense, prayer transforms behavior, demanding that we meet it halfway by aligning our thoughts, words, and actions with the prayer itself.
Prayer is invocation. By reciting the reality we wish to inhabit, we do our part to bring it into being.
As a spiritual technology, prayer focuses our being, sharpens our intention, channels our energy on a cellular, acoustic, vibratory, psychological, mythopoetic, erotic, conscious, subconscious, unconscious, superconscious, cosmoconscious level.
Prayer is paradoxical. By adding our voice to the chorus of liminality, we feel some semblance of control, but prayer is also an act of submission—we toss our agency into the universe in the hope that it might be returned to us fortified, like a boomerang, bathed in the primordial smegma of the very cosmos before which we kneel. There is freedom in this submission—we give back the crushing weight of our illusory autonomy and enter into reciprocity with the universe.
Prayer is hypnosis.
Prayer is gratitude.
Prayer is devotion.
Prayer is communion with the wisdom of our higher selves.
Prayer, ultimately, is humility. It is an acknowledgment of the limits of our control, of our profound dependence on forces largely imperceptible to us, of our interconnectivity, of the great mystery that eludes comprehension. It's a technology of engagement, hope, and alignment.
Considered in this way, the mechanism of prayer doesn’t seem so mystical after all.