Why I Pray

Why I Pray October 22, 2015


I pray. I pray a lot, my first words upon waking as my feet touch down on the gray wool carpet. If I forget, I lift them up again, in a do-over of gratitude. Thank you. Thank you, God. At 50, I take no day for granted. Then I stumble into the hushed temple of morning where I worship alone, in silence, while my husband and two teens sleep, more devoted to the gods of the midnight hours.

Sometimes I pray while the hot water flows over earthy grounds in that first communion with coffee each day, my prayers held up like a shield against worry for my son and his math test, (let him do well); for my daughter in her evening soccer game, (keep her safe); for my husband’s therapy client whose name I can’t know, only that she didn’t want to live yesterday, on an autumn day as glorious as God.

I push the plunger on the French press, the resistance of water as familiar as my own around religion. Then I turn to look out the kitchen window at the silhouette of the tamarack tree, branches joined in the sky in a perpetual stance of prayer. I hold myself in stillness, in the fading vapors of my wishes turned words turned breath again before it goes, where? Where does it go, this improvised poetry of spirit that asks nothing of me, beyond belief?

Growing up, my sister and I were taught belief through the weekly mass, mostly tedious except when we stood and solemnly spoke, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” Words so easy that I felt a flicker of belonging to that “one holy catholic and apostolic church” that I wasn’t even sure I believed in. The same words I spoke as I kneeled by my parents’ bedside each night; under my mother and father’s watchful eyes, I whispered that prayer as if casting a spell against their anger, as real as religion in our house.

Across the hall in my own bedroom hung a wooden plaque with the Children’s Bedtime Prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

What exactly did I believe through that inheritance of faith that never felt like mine? I believed that I certainly could die before I woke, spurring years of midnight praying. I believed that if I died, I’d at least be free of my pious father who went to 7 o’clock mass every morning, giving me one hour of respite from his anger, but came home each night to launch an attack in what felt like the opposite of prayer.

At dinner, the fights drove me sobbing into my room. With my father slamming plates and my mother turning her back to light a cigarette–the smoky incense of her addiction forever pervading our house–I shoved aside shoes and my Barbie camper and burrowed in the back of my closet, a tight confessional where I shut my hands over my ears and begged God, “Pease make them stop!” and, “I hate them, God. I hate them!”

Then, cloaked in shame, I bowed my head and prayed to be forgiven for breaking the fifth commandment. “And please, dear God, don’t banish me to hell.”

Sipping my coffee in my cathedral of calm, I turn on the radio and listen to the worries of the world. Syrians landing in precarious boats on the shores of Lesbos, others swimming in on their own current of faith. I listen as I prepare my toast, unable to give much at that moment from my well-stocked kitchen but a little more prayer.

I pray for rain.

I pray for sun.

I pray so much it’s hard to remember those decades when I didn’t pray. They say it takes 90 days to break a habit, but mine took one. One Sunday on the second week of college I realized I didn’t have to go to church anymore. From the safe distance of three states, my parents couldn’t punish me for missing mass. So I kicked off my good jeans and flicked on the television.

It would be nearly six years before I prayed again in a real way; on my knees in my Tokyo apartment, my forehead pressed to the tatami floor, I begged God to cure my debilitating bladder illness. The next morning, a colleague handed me a health magazine. In it, a holistic cure.

I still pray often for my father, three decades deceased, and my mother who passed on a June day two years ago. On that morning I sped to Connecticut to see her body laid out on the very floor I once kneeled on each night as a child. “Our Father who art in heaven…” I began.

I pray because I grew up Catholic, because this is what I learned to do, and in my most needy moments, still come upon prayer like discovery. Oh wait, I can pray! I pray because it is nighttime and, huddled in my worry for my health, the world, my son, it’s what I have.

I pray on my yoga mat: Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.

I pray at the funerals of my mother’s friends: May she rest in peace.

I am not so pious as I am desperate. Not so religious as hopeful. Not so certain as I am lost and looking for my path. Dear God, help me find it.

I draw a breath and hold it inside until my heart hurts. For this I pray.


(Photo by Sandra A. Miller)

Sandra A. MillerAbout Sandra A. Miller
Sandra A. Miller’s essays and articles have appeared in over one hundred publications, including Spirituality and Health, The Christian Science Monitor, Glamour, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. One of her essays was turned into a short film called “Wait” starring Kerry Washington. You can find out more at SandraAMiller.com.

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