In 12-step practice, when you resent someone, you are told to pray for them. I remember the first time my spiritual guide suggested this – I was highly ticked off and she said with her serene grin:
“Well, just pray for them to have everything they want and need to be happy and free. Do it in the morning and at night for two weeks.”
“No way,” I said.
When she first took me on, she had asked: “Are you willing to go to any lengths for your recovery?” At the time, I’d nodded my head, sure, yeah, any lengths, I thought.
Here was the payback: “Didn’t you say you were willing to go to any lengths?”
I hedged: “Yeah, but….”
“No buts. Go pray,” she said and walked off.
I called one of my newly sober pals to complain about my spiritual guide. She said; “Be careful, or you’ll have to pray for her too.”
My friend noted that her spiritual guide had said you didn’t even have to be nice about the prayer, you could just say: “Higher power, please give that jerk everything she wants and needs to be happy,” and it would still work.
I tried it, including a few choice phrases. I did it for the requisite two weeks. After the first few days, I could use the person’s actual name. After a week and half, I actually meant it. After two weeks, I was stunned to realize I could be in the same room with the person and not only be almost totally serene about it, but also want good things for that person.
It was weird.
Over the years I’ve slowly learned how to pray. For me, it’s generally been a regular chat with the Spirit, with a few requests for help with my addictive behaviors. Sometimes it’s as brief as: “Help!” Other times it’s a long conversation. Occasionally, I even prayed for people I wasn’t angry with. But it wasn’t a habit or a practice, more of an on-the-fly, if I thought of it, kind of thing.
One of the oddest (and most moving) things that happened when I started to tell people I was going to seminary was that people would suddenly ask me to pray for them or their friends/relatives.
I mean, I’ve been asked to pray for people before, randomly in my life (mostly when I lived in Indiana), but this was somehow different. Maybe this sounds precious or whatever, but it felt like a kind of sacred responsibility – a kind of trust made tangible.
I don’t think being in seminary, or being a minister, means that those prayers somehow have more weight or anything. But I do know that more people have asked me to pray for them since I started talking about/going to seminary. I realize that praying for people is a regular Christian practice (at least in the churches I attend).
One of the sweetest moments for me in seminary so far was when I was flipping out about something, one of my fellow seminarians said: “Uhm…do you wanna pray about it?”
I at first thought, oh god, no. But I then recognized this as an invitation to intimacy, or as an act of love and I said: “Uhm ok.”
We looked at each other awkwardly, kind of giggling, and she put her hand on my arm and started talking to God (or Spirit etc.) It was beautiful, and when she was done, I felt loved and safe and grateful.
It used to irritate the heck out of me when the fundamentalist people would mention that they were praying for me – generally to be cured of my lesbianism, I think. It felt like a kind of violation – I wanted to say: I don’t consent. But that experience stays with me when I think about praying for other people. It has seemed somehow arrogant to pray for people to get what I think they need. So generally, when I have prayed for them, it’s been a short: “bless so-and-so” or “please help person x.”
So I’ve been thinking a lot about my own spiritual practices lately in preparation for Lent and I decided maybe that I should make praying for people (that I’m not angry at) a regular thing. This of course brings to mind a Norman Rockwell-esque picture of the little kid in footie jammies kneeling in front of her bed, hands tightly clasped, saying “god bless mom and dad, and my brother, and the dog etc.” (Which really isn’t a bad practice, when I think of it.)
Anyway, I decided I’d pray for five people a day, just to test it out. I once heard a woman describe her prayer practice as imagining a person wrapped in something warm and soft held up to God, and I always thought that was kind of lovely, so I tried that, but it wasn’t quite right for me.
What occurred to me was that when I think I know what I need, or what others might need, I sort of close off the path of inspiration. I charge ahead and get really focused on “getting it done.” This really hasn’t worked well for me. It appeals to my ego – oh, look how insightful I am! Or: Look how people need me. Or: I’m such a great big hero. Not my better self, really.
For some reason, I started thinking about love – what do you think about when you’re thinking about someone you love? For me, it’s those little quirks or expressions everyone has – their obsession for barbershop quartets, or how she lines all the books on the table just so. These images are a kind of emotion snapshot – this is how I love, this is who I love. So I started holding those images of people in my mind; holding those moments of love for that person up to God/Spirit/Celestial Wonder Dog. At first I started with the people I loved most. I didn’t stop at five – the images just kept floating into my mind, and pretty soon it wasn’t just the people I loved and liked, it was just random people, even a few that I don’t like so much. I had a glimpse of the interconnectedness of my life, a tapestry of love and possibility.
I don’t know if prayer helps the people you pray for, or if those prayer chains work, or whatever, but I know this: The day I started this practice was a day that had held a major disappointment for me; I was feeling really sad and stupid and not a little sorry for myself. Somehow though, sharing my love with God in this practice made me feel a sense of wonder, gratitude and connection. Kind of like an invitation to intimacy with God.