The Praying Habit: Week 1

Well, this is embarrassing. I forgot to pray on Ash Wednesday. I went to mass with two coworkers (the cathedral near our office had a service at a more convenient time than any of the Protestant churches near me), but completely forgot to offer personal prayers once I got home. I realized my mistake as soon as I woke up for work on Thursday, and did a quick “thanks for everything, please bless and protect my friends and loved ones, please forgive me for not being a better person” and then scrambled to get ready for work.

You’d think after messing up the first night I’d be more on top this commitment on Thursday, but I forgot again. I blame this on travel. I took an early evening bus to New York City after a full day at work and passed out once I reached my final destination. I woke up Friday morning and instantly realized I’d forgotten to pray and proceeded to offer the same perfunctory meditation I gave on Thursday morning.

Friday night I finally remembered to pray before falling asleep. While I still had my go-to prayer format firmly established in my brain, the words didn’t come as easily as they used to when I prayed regularly. I have a pretty nice life overall–my family and friends are wonderful, I’m pretty happy with how  my long distance relationship is going and I’m in good health. I certainly wouldn’t mind a more mentally stimulating (and higher paying) job, but I’m able to cover my bills and have pretty solid benefits. I tried to acknowledge that I’m grateful for all of these things as my opener each night, but because I prayed as I was starting to doze off I found myself mentally rambling a bit.

Following prayers of thanks was tough, I think because my theology has changed a bit. I used to believe in a God that intercedes in human affairs. My personal proof was that when I prayed for my grandfather who was diagnosed with brain cancer, his oncologist noticed that the tumor had stopped growing. In retrospect this seems foolish. Why would God intercede on my grandfather’s behalf  but not prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks, which occurred about a month before his death?

I now find my beliefs aligning closer with an idea articulated by a former pastor of mine. He compared God to a loving parent: someone who wants the best for their children, but recognizes that forcing them to do what the parent might think is the best thing takes away their agency. What kind of love is it if you’re afraid to let your children make their own way in the world? This appeals to me, but now I’m not sure the best way to ask God for help.

Maybe God can’t beam a cure for HIV/AIDS directly to Earth, but can He bestow wisdom and patience on the scientists and doctors searching for one? Can God truly comfort someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one?  Like most 20-somethings, I’m still figuring out what exactly my purpose on this planet is — can God deliver encouragement, guidance and clear-mindedness to me as I puzzle over this? When ask God to bless certain people in my life, do they get some kind of mental or spiritual boost? These aren’t specific “products,” like asking God to have your boss to give you a raise or for your football team to win the Super Bowl (yes, I prayed for this when I was in elementary school), so maybe these vague requests are kosher.

And then there’s the whole asking for forgiveness bit. I can believe that God can offer forgiveness for my not attending religious services, or not putting more energy into cultivating a spiritual life, but I’m skeptical of the idea that I can be forgiven by God for how I act toward other people. I find the Jewish tradition of seeking forgiveness from the people you’ve wronged to be much more compelling.

As you can probably tell, I’m not feeling particularly close to God or getting any sort of spiritual high from my first week of this Lenten discipline. I’m not terribly surprised, given that I’m out of practice and uncertain, but hope that praying like a Mormon this coming week will help shake out some of my flakier habits.

Carolyn Browender is an activist and seeker living in Washington, D.C. She was raised Lutheran by a practicing Christian mother and secular Jewish father. You can also find her on Twitter.