Skyscraper in the Wind

If it moves you, does it matter what we call it?

| Winter 2016

  • Praying was no longer about reciting words by rote or surrendering power to some overbearing, paternalistic super-judge. It became a simple tool to redirect thought, a cognitive tune-up for the mind.
    Photo by PJPhoto69/iStock

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.

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