Why can’t I say “pray?”

A friend once invited me to her church to see her son in a Christmas play, and I half-seriously joked that I worried about being struck by lightening when I entered churches, since I don’t subscribe to the specific tenants of that church’s religion. Luckily, I seem to have gotten over that; on my trip to France recently, I found some wonderful moments of peace and reflection in some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. These visits, and a variety of sad news from friends in the last few weeks, have got me a’ponderin’ about something.

Living in a state/region that is often called the Buckle of the Bible Belt, stereotyping Northeasterners might expect me to say that because I don’t belong to a church, I am ostracized around these parts. Nothing could be further from the truth.

True, when I first moved here, a few folks did ask me if I was a member of a church. But when I answered, somewhat shamefacedly, that I wasn’t raised with a specific religion, have explored a few faiths in my life, and don’t claim any church as my own, they smiled and moved on. Maybe I’m missing some subtle shunning, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God. I do. But God doesn’t have a face or a gender to me, and I’m not even sure about assigning human characteristics to him/her, but when I am outside, among the trees, mountains, lakes or oceans, I feel a tremendous connection to, and awe of, something bigger than me. At the beautiful Mont St. Michel and Bayeux Cathedral in France, I found myself overwhelmed by the idea that those buildings had stood for hundreds of years, sheltering people searching for guidance from God. As I stood on Omaha Beach, trying to imagine it a war zone, I felt the peace and sadness of God all around me. When I hear of a great kindness, I believe that is God. And I believe all of us who strive hard to do good, be better people and treat others well are serving God.

So why, then, can’t I say “pray?”

When I hear of a death or hardship falling on someone, I generally want to say or type:

My thoughts and prayers are with you.

But then, for some reason, I amend it to say “my thoughts are with you” or “I’m thinking of you.” I take prayer out of it. Why is that?

Mostly, it’s because it feels hypocritical to me. Because, in that scenario, I am not asking God to help the person who is suffering. I’m not saying “God, please make this better for this person.” This is mostly because I don’t think God has much to do with our day-to-day lives. I am, however, hoping with all of my heart that this person will find comfort from whatever source, human or heavenly, that might be available.

Is that prayer? I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like what we traditionally define as prayer, and so I don’t feel I can lay claim to it.

What do you think? Does prayer have to mean the same to everyone?


PS: It is my sincerest hope that I don’t offend anyone with my statements here; religion is a subject that I usually avoid. But I find myself with an interesting human puzzle working itself out in my head, and wonder if others struggle with this same thing.

PPS: As I finish writing this, I can’t help but remember a line from a baseball movie I watched this weekend:

God, I always said I would never bother you about baseball, Lord knows you have bigger things to worry about. But if you could make this pain in my shoulder stop for ten minutes, I would really appreciate it.

8 thoughts on “Why can’t I say “pray?”

  1. I really appreciate you’re honesty, Jodi. It’s better to say “My thoughts are with you” because you’re telling the truth and you mean it. “My thoughts and prayers are with you” is a more standard phrase to people rather than truth.
    Because I am a Christian, I mean very well when I say “I’m praying for you.” That’s because I do believe that God is involved in our lives, only if we let Him.
    Also, prayer doesn’t have to be this lofty speech. Most of the time, it’s like I’m talking to someone, God. Sometimes it is a request, sometimes it’s of thankfulness, sometimes it’s just a passing thought.

    What really counts, at least to me, is that the person is telling the truth. If you want to say, “My thoughts are with you” then go right ahead.

  2. Jodi what a lovely post. I have so many things I would like to say because I’ve been in that same space struggling with the idea of prayer. I like to think of prayer as that moment when I hold those I love and care for “in the light of love”. When I am in awe of the beauty around me I recognize it as a prayer of thanks, and when I enter a cathedral and I am silenced- that too is a prayer. The writer Anne Lamont’s favorite prayer is “Help me, help me, help me, Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

    1. Angie – thank you for reminding me of that help me…thank you prayer. I’ve always loved that idea. And yes, I feel the same way you do – by holding someone in my heart and thoughts I do believe I, along with everyone else doing the same, can help. If that’s not God, what is, right?

  3. Jodi, my thoughts are with you too. You have summed up something that I have wondered about as well. It seemed to come up over and over again this Christmas season, with all of the loved ones of friends that have passed over to the other side. I agree with your friend AJ that the purity of sentiment is most important. What I’ve started to come around to. is that there is power in the sum of humans focused on a positive outcome for someone that they care about. In the world of me, me, me, the practice of truly caring about someone else’s struggles long enough stop thinking about yourself for a while is pretty powerful. I think its a way of thwarting some of the evil that is out there – whatever ‘evil’ is. I’d say that might be another blog post.

    1. I love you, LGI! I agree; if a bunch of people with good intentions and a desire to alleviate suffering making a difference isn’t God, I don’t know what is.

  4. The long-held societal belief that prayer should be some sort of ritualistic utterance has always baffled me. If God exists and is in fact able to “help” us here on earth, does it stand to reason that this entity would require us to speak 2000-year-old incantations in order to receive His/Her aid? I say no. If an omniscient, omnipresent supreme architect is out there, I doubt He/She cares too greatly about how we express our desires, needs, and/or requests for guidance, intervention, and support; I would tend to think what matters most is that we express these things at all and that do so with love. I’ve never been sold on the idea that semantics play a large role in how God interacts with humanity. And I choose to believe that God can hear our “prayers,” regardless of how we decide to articulate them. I also believe being kind, showing love, having compassion, etc. are forms of prayer – and are probably more effective than spouting verses. That is not to say scripture isn’t necessary, comforting, and beautiful; scripture is all of these things and more. It is simply to say that I doubt a scripted passage is the only way to commune with God.

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