Chatter turned to silence as twenty women encircled me. Most bowed their heads, while a handful snuck me a smile. Trapped dead center, I shifted from foot to foot, flushed and antsy. I was supposed to be touched by their kindness, but the truth was, I hated prayer chambers. They reeked of creepy tent revivals on TV, where preachers in white suits spit scripture and women swoon as they’re overtaken by the Holy Spirit. I wanted to scream, “This isn’t me. I’m a lesbian from New England.” I wanted them to know that all this God business was a bunch of bullshit, and that prayer was nothing but a Band-Aid to make us all feel better.
But to say that would have been rude, and the hard, humiliating truth was, after twelve weeks in this metaphysics class, I wasn’t so sure what I believed anymore. The idea of being bathed in good intentions wasn’t altogether unpleasant—especially before my breast surgery in the morning.
Shoving my hands deep in my pockets, I closed my eyes. In a strong, sure voice, our teacher began with Dear Sweet Spirit…and my classmates joined her in an orchestra of voices. While some people muttered quietly under their breath, others spoke at full volume, and I was soon submerged in a humming beehive of prayer.
My first prayer was uttered as a freshman in college, sitting on the edge of my twin bed, counting days on a calendar. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty one… When I hit forty-four, the calendar slid from my hands. With blood pounding in my ears, I began pleading. Out loud. “Please, God, oh please, if you’re up there, I’ll do anything; just please, God, don’t let me be pregnant.” The word “God” floated awkwardly in the air, and I remember feeling ashamed at my duplicity. I was supposed to be an avowed atheist, yet there I was—at the first sign of trouble—dragging God out of obscurity.
Through my twenties and thirties, prayer was reserved for moments of high drama, when—like the night I drank too much and found myself driving on black ice—life seemed to hang in the balance. Those desperate petitions always felt foreign on my tongue, and unbidden, as if they’d been locked in the basement and let out by some stranger. Generally, they began with a disclaimer—God, I don’t believe in you, but just in case you’re up there—and ended with some grand bargain—You do this for me [say, keep me alive], and I’ll do this for you [stop drinking, start volunteering, call my mother more often].Despite my momentary sincerity, it’s fair to say, my promises were quickly forgotten once the trouble was averted.
Praying as a condoned form of begging changed when I stumbled into Inner Light Ministries—a woo-woo, new-thought, omnifaith spiritual community in the California redwoods. Despite a lifetime of misgivings about church, I went to a Sunday service at the invitation of a friend, and faster than you can say “but I don’t believe in God,” I became a regular. After a few months in the back pew, in the shadow of the balcony’s overhang, I spotted a class in the Sunday bulletin called “Fundamentals of Metaphysics.” The sixteen-week course promised personal healing, transformation, and in-depth exploration of universal spiritual principles. It made no mention of prayer or, for that matter, God, so I whipped out my Visa card and signed up.
In Week 5, prayer was introduced as one of the universal spiritual principles, and I took to intensive doodling. But as the weeks pressed on, I lifted my head from my notebook as prayer was ripped from the grip of religion and reconstituted into something I could actually stomach. Praying was no longer about reciting words by rote or surrendering power to some overbearing, paternalistic superjudge. It became a simple tool to redirect thought, a cognitive tune-up for the mind. So I tried it—in the privacy of my home and heart, anyway. Only after locking the front door and drawing the blinds would I sit cross-legged on the floor of my office, close my eyes, and silently move my lips.
My classmates, however, weren’t so reticent. Nothing inspired a roomful of prayer practitioners faster than a medical crisis. So when I opened my big mouth and announced that I wouldn’t be in class the following week because I was having surgery, I might as well have climbed a watchtower and bugled for the cavalry. Knapsack zippers went quiet. Twenty people stopped what they were doing and turned toward me.
When the teacher said, “Let’s do a prayer chamber,” I imagined the wheels of my Jetta spitting gravel as I peeled out of the parking lot. A prayer chamber? Weren’t they for people whose lives were in tatters? Was mine? I wasn’t worried about cancer. Somehow I knew—accurately as it turned out—that cancer was not my fate. But the scalpel scared me. The surgeon had been honest. “We’ll be going through the nipple. The aftermath is going to make your toes curl. It’s going to hurt.”
My car keys were heavy in my hand as I looked up and saw a tableau of compassionate, kind faces—waiting, willing, wanting to help. The keys jangled, then landed with a thud in the bottom of my purse.
En masse, we moved to an open area in the social hall. A circle formed around me and the praying began. Twenty people’s voices rose in unison as the sour smell of stress escaped my collar. At first, I felt pummeled by theirs words, dissonant and biting. I sloughed off their kindness as wishful thinking. Words—even if delivered with goose bump-inducing conviction—didn’t have the power to change the composition of cells or redirect the surgeon’s knife. I clenched my fists in my pockets and felt guilty that my classmates’ good intentions were wasted on me.
But time passed and I acclimated. Taking a deep breath, I willed myself to relax. When I remembered that these weren’t fundamentalist zealots, but kind people with generous hearts, something shifted. Their disparate voices merged into a whole, and I was submerged in a chorus of resonant tone. Words became a wave of something I couldn’t name. Sensations in my body suddenly screamed louder than the cynical chatter of my mind. My insides were vibrating; my legs were shaking; every hair follicle was standing at full attention. And like a skyscraper in the wind, I was swaying in soft, gentle circles, blown by some invisible force. I pulled my hands from my pockets and widened my stance to keep from tumbling over. With my palms open to the swelling prayer, it occurred to me that this chamber was exactly where I needed—where I wanted—to be. Their words were medicine. I was being tended to. Lifted up and loved.
As the voices went quiet, I blinked my eyes wide and shook my head to clear it. My face was hot; my mouth was dry. I flapped my hands and rolled my shoulders to discharge the electricity shooting down my arms and legs. My entire body was quivering. One by one, my classmates hugged me and wished me well, their warm arms tethering me back down to earth.
Afterward, sitting in my car in the now empty parking lot, I stared out the window in wonder. What just happened? At the start of the prayer, I’d been like bone-dry soil—unyielding, crusted, and crack-hard. Drops of nourishing water had skated on my surface, repelled and unwelcome. But when I softened, allowing in the kindness, the hope, the love, I drank with a thirst I didn’t know I had. As I drove home, winding along the deep ocean’s edge, I wondered what was at work in that prayer chamber. Quantum physics? God? Love? And, was there a difference?