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The Power of Prayer in an Agnostic Life

It was Christmas Eve, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

The previous Christmas Eve I had spent watching a midnight Mass outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I suppose it couldn’t get anymore “Christmas” than that. But there were snipers on the rooftops protecting the gathering from an ISIS threat and, regardless of their eerie silhouettes and the fact that Jesus’ supposed birthplace (as I’d recently learned was up for debate) was now walled off from the more privileged classes of Israel, the truth of the matter was that the Palestinians just didn’t celebrate Christmas like we did at Gramps’ condo in Sacramento.

Yet I was back now, this Christmas. For all intents and purposes, everything was the same as it had been for the past 20 years. The highly-anticipated steak and lobster dinner, the jazz, the gilded jesters covering the sizable fake tree and our polite and tedious present-opening beneath it — had all happened, just as planned. Everyone involved, whom I’d missed last Christmas, were still alive and in relatively good health. Nothing had changed. But as I sat alone beside the tree in the fading afterglow of the evening, I realized that I had.

Christmas no longer held the magic of an infallible ritual. My new eyes could now see that whatever sensations and sentiments I’d associated with the holiday since infancy were only illusions kept alive by my loved ones — and they were so very fallible, so very vulnerable.

My evolution into a rational adult has brought the growing pains of divorcing my concept of a higher power from some damaging ideas I once nurtured.

You see, between the time I had finished my semester abroad and arrived at this Christmas Eve, I had spent a summer studying in Nice, France. That summer brimmed with French wine, freedom and the warm waters of the Mediterranean, but it had also sent a homicidal ISIS recruit driving a truck through crowds of people on Bastille Day. Eighty-seven died, and I was very nearly one of them. A classmate of mine, a handsome Berkeley student from Italy I’d encountered a few times, was left laying on the pavement for hours before his body was identified. It had rained that night, and there was an image I’d crafted so clearly in my mind, against my best interests, of him crumpled up and unclaimed. It was blazing in my head when his parents flew out the next day to stand vigil with us, and I could scarcely stand it. A week later, at the top of a mountain overlooking the city, my friend told me he’d never be the same after what he’d seen down on that promenade, and I agreed with him, and it was true.

And so, the night before this Christmas Eve, I had delivered an ultimatum to God as I was lying in my bed — a god who had been slowly waning in my trust and consciousness for many months:

Whatever you are, if you exist, and if there is any goodness within you, show me a miracle tomorrow or I will never believe in you again.

The day had come and gone, the pie had been eaten and the cousins had left, and although I was presently feeling abysmal, I’d frankly forgotten about my prayer. That is, until I took a last scroll through Facebook and saw this headline:

“‘Christmas Miracle’ Comforts Parents of Nice Terrorist Attack Victim”

The article stated that, a few days ago, the parents of the deceased Berkeley student learned that two local women had stayed with him on the pavement all night long, surrounding him with candles and praying through the rain. The news had come just in time for the family’s first Christmas without their son. They intended to track down those women and thank them.

How Prayer Works

I don’t pray very often, though I should. There have only been a handful of times in which I’ve asked God for some kind of sign or intervention. Perhaps a psychological part of that is I never want to ask God for more than I believe possible, because I don’t want to be disappointed or selfish. If he doesn’t save the sick child of praying parents, why should he help me with my chemistry exam?

Also, my relationship with God has been inconsistent at best. After discovering God in my adolescent years through the fervent teachings of a Southern Baptist youth group, my evolution into a rational adult has brought the growing pains of divorcing my concept of a higher power from some damaging ideas I once nurtured.

When I do pray, it’s more often a form of meditation. As I fall asleep, I list all the things that I’m worried about and all of the things I’m thankful for. I then ask God to take care of that which is out of my hands. It is incredibly cathartic and comforting to humble myself before God (or the universe or whatever word you choose to define that higher power) and truly realize how much is beyond my control and, therefore, not worth worrying about.

Juxtaposed with secular meditation, talking to God evokes a powerful feeling of love, acceptance and connection within me. It also helps me focus on what I need to do, whether I want to or not, because it removes my ego from the conversation. There is no use in lying to God, or myself.

Prayer is a superpower that we can access to better understand ourselves and our place in the world, and you don’t have to be religious to do it.

Beyond the emotional comfort you can gift a spiritual person by offering your prayers, studies have shown that the act of praying “works” in terms of healing health problems largely associated with stress.

“Prayer is a special form of meditation and may therefore convey all the health benefits associated with meditation,” an article from the Indian Journal of Psychiatry states.

In fact, spiritual meditation has been found to be more effective than secular meditation in that realm.

More interestingly, prayer may be associated with all the benefits stemming from the “placebo response,” yielding significant treatment gains in disorders including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, OCD, Parkinson’s disease, cardiac failure and even cancer.

“Relevant to the context of prayer and healing, the placebo response is influenced by personality traits and behaviors such as optimism, response expectancy, motivational concordance (i.e., the degree to which the behavioral rituals of the therapy are congruent with the motivational system of the subject) and degree of engagement with a ritual.”

So we know that prayer is good for us. But what about those times when our prayers lead to inexplicable coincidences — or even miracles?

Prayer, either for oneself or others, is an act of love.

My apparent miracle from God on Christmas Eve of 2017 was not the first that I had received. When I was 12 or so, my grandfather succumbed to his battle with cancer while I was away at science camp. The funeral was held just days later and not wanting to pull me out of the experience, my parents left me there. I’m sure I agreed with their decision at the time, but in the weeks to follow my guilt over missing the funeral and never telling my grandpa I loved him was eating me up inside. To me, he’d always seemed kind of grumpy, and it wasn’t the kind of relationship for verbal affirmations. But I did love him. And every night for weeks on end, I prayed to God to let him know that.

Then, one night, I had a dream. I was in a space of complete nothingness, but the nothingness was filled with white light and a feeling of absolute peace that I’d never experienced before or since. In that space was my grandpa, healthy and handsome with all his hair, and he was smiling at me.

“I love you, Grampy,” I said

“I know,” he replied.

We hugged, and I could feel the texture of his polo shirt and smell the familiar detergent. It was unlike any other dream I’ve ever had and, in my mind, it still remains the last time I ever saw my grandpa. I didn’t mourn him anymore after that.

Then, there are the “miracles everywhere” people. You know, the people who swear up and down they receive divine images on their toast or a certain song on the radio told them to invest in real estate. It’s easy to scoff at these people, especially when God doesn’t intervene in the direst of circumstances — even in their own lives. Their loved ones still die, they suffer from chronic illnesses, and they don’t seem to be any luckier than the rest of us who don’t have the Almighty on speed dial.

But the truth is, how we choose to see the world can shape our own reality and that of others. For better or worse.

In 2004, when Marvin John Heemeyer was fortifying his Komatsu bulldozer to demolish the town of Granby, Colorado for the perceived wrongs its residents had committed against him, he said he prayed often for God to stop the vengeful plan if it was against His will. Apparently, no such sign ever came for Marvin, who effectively smashed through his warehouse wall when the door wasn’t big enough for the dozer to fit through.

Maybe God wanted Marvin to cut gun ports into his bulldozer, endanger the lives of many and commit suicide in the driver’s seat. Or maybe Marvin, at the core of his being, wanted to commit this act and chose to believe it was God’s will.

I want to believe in a benevolent, omnipotent force. I want to believe that life is worth living, in part, for these moments of divine revelation. And I think I’m a better person for it.

Disturbingly, many of the heinous crimes carried out by religious people have involved “instruction from God.” I wonder if the driver in the Nice attack, who was willing to die for his cause, believed he had received such signs. Or if he ignored them.

We can’t know what is really going on in other people’s heads. But perhaps we can conclude that a person’s prayer is only as good as their own moral character — that a sign from God is really a message sent from one’s own deepest self, rooted in desires that we may or may not be consciously aware of.

Which brings me to wonder: on that Christmas Eve, had I not prayed to God the night before, would I have seen that fateful Facebook article? I don’t know. But I do know that I would not have considered it a miracle, and it would not have provided me with the profound hope that it did.

In my heart of hearts, I want to believe in a benevolent, omnipotent force. I want to believe that life is worth living, in part, for these moments of divine revelation. And I think I’m a better person for it.

Why We Should Pray

Some may find my theory of prayer reductive, but it isn’t meant to be.

The human brain is an expanding enigma, and everything we experience — even a genuine miracle from God himself — must pass through it, be translated and interpreted by it. If it is true that signs from God are really a heightened awareness of our own inner selves, an organic organ providing us with a transformative experience, then what could be more divine?

Prayer is a superpower that we can access to better understand ourselves and our place in the world, and you don’t have to be religious to do it.

My own ideas of God are continually evolving.

Of late, I’ve begun to think of Him as the fiber that holds us all together. The Force. That voice in your head that tells you to do the hard thing, because it’s the right thing. The middle-of-the-night idea that takes on a life of its own and rides you around until you see it through. An epiphany. A serendipitous quote from Goldie Hawn. An apology and forgiveness. The Dalai Lama saying for the billionth time that altruism is the root of happiness, and this time it sticks. It’s admitting you’re wrong. Learning a better way. It’s peace in knowing you will do all you can, and nothing more.

Prayer, either for oneself or others, is an act of love. If done in earnest, it’s an act of unadulterated honesty. Love brings more love. Honesty brings insight. Insight yields real change. I think we could all use a little more of that.

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