secular prayer

My mother went through a Christian fundamentalist religious phase — years of it, many different flavors, and during a prolonged period when she was doing the most hideous, unspeakable things, and knowingly allowing even worse things to be done inside her house. One phase was particularly weird to me; the gist of her preacher’s message was that God wants His people to be wealthy so non-believers would want to follow. Because who would look at poor, down-in-the-mouth Christians and think Gimme some of that! There was a very specific verbal construction she and her fellow church members would say: “I’m believing on the Lord for a new XYZ.” (on the Lord?) So, for example, “I’m believing on the Lord for a new Cadillac.” “I’m believing on the Lord for a new refrigerator.” “I’m believing on the Lord for a bigger house.” “I’m believing on the Lord for those designer shoes.” It was always stuff they were “believing on the Lord” for, never humility, or forgiveness, or an open heart. They seemed to understand God as the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. (And I don’t recall new Cadillacs, or refrigerators, or new houses, or designer shoes magically or unmagically appearing, except perhaps for the preacher.)

Prayer always felt deeply urgent to me as a little kid. I once lost a birthstone ring Mother had given me for Christmas and I was so completely terrified about what she would do to me when she realized I’d lost it. And as an indicator of the specific kind of gaslighting Mother did to us (among other things, she told us she knew everything we were ever thinking or doing, even when we weren’t in her presence), I believed that God knew exactly where my birthstone ring was and was laughing at me, and wouldn’t let me know where it was because I deserved what was coming to me. But how urgently I prayed, how desperately I prayed. Please God, please let me know where it is. It’s going to be so terrible, please, just please let me know where it is. I promise I’ll quit being an evil person. Just this one time, please just this once please show me where the ring is. (I was 8.) OR Please God, please let the Longhorns win so Daddy won’t hurt us. Etc.

My prayers were always of that desperate kind, when I was young, up to the winter night in a freezing alley when I was 15 and completely lost my faith and replaced it with a belief that everything in the whole universe happened in a random way, and there was no Other out there. Because if there was a God who knew what was happening to me, either (a) he could help but instead he just let it happen, in which case screw that, or (b) he knew but couldn’t do anything, in which case what use? or (c) he had no idea what was happening to me, in which case what use? I found so much more comfort in random, because random shit can just happen to everyone. And it does.

But still I pray, constantly, and it always takes this form, now: “Please let the next box hold my third music stand!” “Please let that be the last fork in the dishwater!” “Please let it be chilly tonight!” Sometimes it’s more like “Please please please please please let the next box hold my third music stand!”

I laugh at myself every single time. Oh silly, sweet little queen.

One of Anne Lamott’s thinnest books was Help, Thanks, Wow, which I read at the end of November, 2012, when I left New York and returned to Austin. The point of that book was that she has only three prayers, really (she’s very religious, but in the good way, with good politics): Help! Gosh, thank you. And wow, that’s amazing. I resonated to the book because my prayers are mostly of the form thank you, and WOW. Wow. The trees. Wow. Clouds. Wow. My grandchildren, my daughters. Thank you, my grandchildren, my daughters. Thank you, trees and clouds. Wow. Thank you. I don’t turn to prayer for help except in this silly way (please please please, let the next box hold my third music stand!), because I don’t really think the world works like that. It’s easy enough to feel gratitude and awe, and to allow that to take a spiritual form — but while I might like to think there is some Force Out There that will actually help a woman out now and then, I just don’t have that framework.

But really, pleasepleasepleaseplease let my third music stand be in the next box. Come on. I’d really appreciate it. 🙂

Happy Sunday, y’all. xoxoxo