Bowing before the personified impersonal: Prayer for an atheist Pagan

sadja-e-sahuLast week, I found out that my 16 year old son might have a spinal tumor.  Fortunately, an MRI revealed today that there was no tumor.  It’s not exaggerating to say that last week was one of the worst moments of my life.  As I contemplated all of the possibilities, with dozens of questions and no answers, I felt powerless and out of control.

The weight of it drove me to my knees.  Literally.

In spite of my being a non-theist/pantheist.

Ever since leaving my Christian religion of origin, I have refused to kneel when I pray.  Even when I joined my wife and children in Christian-style prayer, I adamantly refused to get on my knees.  I would sit, on a chair or on the ground, but not kneel.  This sign of submission still had power for me, even 15 years after I stopped believing in a God who demands submission.

But last week, I was driven to my knees.  And I mean that literally.  I felt a physical weight pressing down on me, a weight which I struggled against, but finally acquiesced to.

And I prayed.  I didn’t pray to any God who would heal my son.  I didn’t even pray to any god who was actively listening to me.  As much as I wished such a thing existed, I don’t believe it does.  But nevertheless, I had to pray.  I had to kneel in acknowledgement of everything that was beyond my control.

So I knelt in front of my altar.

A few years ago, I had written a prayer for an occasion like this, but I had only used it once before.  I pulled the prayer out again and read:

To the personified impersonal that is the Universe:  My son may have a tumor.  I don’t want it to be true.  I want him to be healthy and happy.  And so I pray.  Not with any belief that my prayer will change his fate.  I pray because that is all I can do.  I know that not even the power of all my feelings combined can can alter the course of even one atom.  You are as careless as you are bountiful.  Still I persist in the faith in cruel miracles.  I kneel now in acknowledgment of my powerlessness before the hidden forces and blind necessities of nature.

Then I bowed my head all the way to the ground three times.

And then I got on my feet, and read the second half of the prayer.

But now I stand in defiance of those same forces.  For reverence does not elicit kindness from you.  And you may return love with death.  If you show me and mine grace, I will kneel and give thanks.  But if you come to me as curse, there is that in me which, though you remain indifferent, will defy your mastery to the last gasp of my life’s breath.  For I know that defiance is your worship too.  So, defyingly, I worship you.

The first half of this prayer conforms to how fellow Humanistic Pagan, M.J. Lee, has described petitionary prayer: “an acknowledgment of the limitations of human action and will”.  She writes “I don’t think Nature is that which can hear and choose to answer or ignore our prayers. But I wonder if prayer might make us more open to grace, more aware and appreciative of when it touches our lives.”

But the second half of the prayer is a recognition of the other half of the equation, the power of action and will.

Combined this prayer expresses the first two tenets of Octavia Butler’s fictional religion, Earthseed: “God is Change” and “Shape God”, or — to give it a more Pagan tone — “Goddess is Change” and “Shape Goddess”.  The maxim, “Goddess is Change”, is a recognition that the one irresistible force in the universe is Change.  Thereʼs comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to Goddess in the end.   But there is also power in knowing that Goddess is malleable.

God is Power—
Infinite,
Irresistible,
Inexorable,
Indifferent.
And yet, God is Pliable—
Trickster,
Teacher,
Chaos,
Clay.
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.

The tenets of Earthseed empower us to shape Goddess when we can, and surrender to Her when we cannot.  If Goddess is Change, then She can be focused, diverted, and shaped by us.  The maxim, “Shape Goddess”, reminds us that, while Change is unavoidable, we can sometimes shape the direction or speed of Change.

A victim of God may,
Through learning and adaption,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain Godʼs victim,
Godʼs plaything,
Godʼs prey.

And I found both comfort and a sense of empowerment in this prayer.  I could bow before all of the things I could not control: whether my son had a tumor, whether it would be malignant, even whether he would live or die.  And I could stand in defiance of these things as well, in acknowledgment that I am not powerless: I can be with my son through all of this.  I can ensure he receives all the medical care he needs.  And I can love him.

Fortunately, it turns out that there is no tumor.  He will still have medical issues that need to be taken care of, but there is no longer the possibility of a life-threatening condition looming over us.  So tonight, I will kneel again and give thanks to the personified impersonal that I call Goddess.  Not because I believe She saved my son.  But because I am more grateful than ever for the unique miracle that is my boy and for every moment that I have with him.

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