Why I Don’t Pray

'infinite lights' by LiveFromAmsterdam via Flickr

When I was a kid I prayed all the time. I prayed for world peace and universal understanding; more specifically, I prayed that my grandparents and my parents would live forever, that my dying cat would stop coughing, and that my classmates would forget to torment me. When I got a little older, I prayed to propitiate the Almighty. I thought that if I made myself sufficiently craven, I could shame Him into pulling His punches. I apologized so often and for so many things that I had to devise a special shorthand to get them all in. I was obsessive, to put it mildly—in fact I was perseverative (the clinical term for the uncontrollable repetitions of words or gestures). Nowadays they medicate kids who act that way and that’s not a bad thing.

In time, I learned to still the chatter in my head. I stopped worrying so much about being punished and stopped asking for special dispensations. Once in a while I experienced moments of real exaltation—in the beauty of James Joyce’s prose, the timbre of Pharoah Sanders’ tenor saxophone, in the shattering wisdom of the Book of Job—intimations of what Christians called the Mysterium tremendum and what the Hasids that I encountered in Yiddish stories called Ein sof (without end). When I was a sophomore in college I read W.T. Stace’s Time and Eternity (1952) and the phrase “that than which there is no other” really stayed with me. By then I had stopped praying altogether because I no longer believed in a God who was a projection of my fears and desires, but provisionally at least in one who was truly other and genuinely incommensurate with me.

I know that many people approach their spirituality in a completely different way and I have no argument with them. I have a dear friend, a Lutheran minister, who rolls up his sleeves and wrestles with demons from time to time and actually carries on two-way conversations with the living Christ. I know Jews—believers and non-believers alike—who derive tremendous satisfaction from davening. I don’t disdain prayer; it’s just not something I do. Maybe if I had been raised observantly, or if I had praised more and pleaded less when I did pray, if I had loved rather than merely feared God, it would be that way for me too.

The God I choose not to pray to is the source of the infinitely vast and the impossibly intricate—of the Spiral Nebula and the double helix; of redwood trees in nature and the dendritic trees in my brain. We stand in relationship to each other, this God and I, but we don’t have a relationship, any more than one of the cells in my liver could relate meaningfully to me.

It’s not that I don’t feel the breath of the eternal when I look at a sunset or into my children’s eyes. I do. But if I prayed, I don’t think that I would.

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.