Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Power of Prayer

Last night was both the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the eve of what would have been my late mother’s 85th birthday, so I lit a Yahrzeit [Jewish memorial] candle in honor of both and thought about the power of prayer.

We’re at an unfortunate spiritual crossroad in America right now, a conflict between believers and non-believers that, in my opinion, is based on a skewed notion that rational faith is an oxymoron. The hubris of Fundamentalist Christianity has come to define all of Christianity in the minds of non-Christians, and Fundamentalist Christianity combined with Islamic Extremism has come to define the idiocy and danger of all religion, especially when it runs sufficiently amok, in the minds of those who call themselves Rationalists.

Very ironically, the Rationalists have something important in common with traditional religionists (extreme and otherwise), in that they believe in the letter of their dogma, which will not concede a difference between spirituality and religion, or that a person can be very much a rational, thinking, even intellectual, person and still engage in some aspect of spirituality. I think that's a very limited perspective.

A religious person fully ascribes to the tenets, scripture and mythology of a particular religion, a person who, as the Rationalists say, believes in the all-powerful bearded man in the sky and stories like the one about the talking snake in the Garden of Eden. I grant that there are billions of people who take this approach to religion and that since the dawn of time it has wreaked havoc on the world. But there are also people who believe in the basic principles of a religion and even enjoy some of its trappings without buying into its fairy tales, who gain personal strength and comfort from their faith and feel no need whatsoever to claim that theirs is the one and only true faith, and damn (or kill, or both) anyone who disagrees. They may not comprise the religious majority, but they exist and they’re a very different ball of religious wax from the norm.

There are also people who aren’t attached to any religion in particular, but put faith in their sense that powers exist that are both different and greater than ourselves, that science cannot explain every mystery, that the world is more than the sum of its evolutionary parts, that life is energy and energy does not die it relocates, that the part of us that feels instead of thinks is what can be called a soul, that history has produced a few particularly remarkable individuals with the power to effect positive change by the quality of their example and these role models are worth honoring (not worshiping, honoring), that what some people call God is a descriptor for a combination of love, kindness, fairness, honesty, compassion and service. Nothing about these ideas is in conflict with rational thought.

Prayer indeed has power that works in several understandable ways. For one, it is a classic example of the placebo effect: if you believe it’s true, you make it true. Give a sick person a sugar pill that he believes is a wonder drug and his body may actually heal. What we don’t know about the power of the mind/body connection could fill an ocean. Second, to pray is to clearly direct concentrated thought and thought is energy, it’s a real thing that exists even though we can’t see it, just like electricity. Humankind has learned how to harness electricity, we’ve learned a lot less about how to control the power of our thoughts, but occasionally we register a blip on the screen nonetheless. So a bunch of people focusing their thoughts on the same thing at the same time can indeed create an energy shift that can be expressed in many ways. In this sense, prayer is a form of quantum physics. Lastly, prayer is an idea that comforts, it can lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, lessen fear, loosen muscles, measure breathing; prayer is a form of meditation.

To dismiss mysteries and unexplained phenomena is to reduce the complexities of life to the three-dimensional meat and potatoes of who-what-where-when, with mixed regard for how and little curiosity for why. That’s not rational, that’s pedestrian. Art and music and elegant language are spirit. The beautiful appearance and intricate machinations of nature are spirit. The non-verbal, unconditional love between people and their pets is spirit. Enthusiasm, optimism, contentment, gratitude are spirit. Service is spirit in action. I have faith in spirit.

And in that spirit, and in the name of the Mysteries of the Universe, I wish you a healthy, Happy New Year. May all your needs be met and some of your desires realized. Rest in peace, Mama.

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