Why (as a Naturalist) I Pray

Meditation builds the energy and opens possibilities. But the reaching out? That is more the domain of prayer. Through prayer, we reach out to what is beyond our control, to what is beyond our sense of self, to the mystery of life itself.   — Ken McCleod

Over the course of my upbringing and early adulthood in the religion of Christianity—as well my work as a clergyman for nearly thirteen years in that tradition—prayer became a habit and a regular part of my spiritual practice. Even after letting go of Christianity and a sense of a personal deity over the past decade, prayer remains important to me.

You may wonder as I have, “How come? Is anyone listening? Does it even make a difference?” I offer this observation: Prayer is at least a psychological exercise that helps me adaptively manage my subjective interaction with my thoughts, feelings, body sensations, my work, other people, and the universe. I also know about myself that I am an external processor—I think best by speaking out loud. Maybe this is one reason I find praying helpful.

What is prayer anyway? J.D. Moyer writes: “Prayer is any kind of thought that addresses Other instead of Self. It’s a subtle but powerful shift in thinking mode.” Prayer can be the heart’s conversation with Nature, with my true self, with love, or with everything.

On the premise that any power greater than my own ego can restore me to sanity, I am agreeing that the heart’s address of “not-me” is what is helpful in prayer. Anne Lamott wrote a book about prayer called, Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers. Asking for help, giving thanks, and expressing wonder or complaint. That pretty well sums the “what” of prayer. 

Now, what about the “how” of prayer? I mean, how does one actually pray? Religious people often address their prayers to someone: “Our Father who art in heaven…” “Hail, Mary full of grace…” “I surrender to you, Lord Ganesha…” “Mother of all things, watch over me tonight…” “Bismillah ir rahman ir rahim.” I have been helped by the Buddhists in developing my non-theistic prayer life. It is possible to pray addressing the Other without addressing anyone in particular. Some examples:

“May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.” (Help prayer.)

“I give thanks for this day and all that it holds; its joys and its sorrows; its pain and its peace; its challenges and its opportunities. I give thanks for the love of my friends and family. And for the earth that sustains our lives. Amen.” (Thanks prayer.)

“I rest in awe of the beauty of Nature. The majesty of the mountain and the tranquility of the mountain stream. The rain falls and waters the earth. Trees stand tall. Butterflies blossom. Amen.” (Wow wonder prayer.)

“I can’t take it anymore. Life feels unmanageable. I’ve lost my wife, my job, my truck, and my dog. Now my health is on the rocks. I’m angry, I’m sad, and I feel alone. What am I going to do? I need help! Amen.” (Wow complaint prayer leading back around to a Help prayer. Also, possible lyrics for my debut as a Country songwriter.)

Don’t get hung up on the words. Honest expression is more valuable than particular content. For example, in the 2011 film 360 Anthony Hopkins plays a recovering alcoholic who is looking for his daughter. Sharing in an AA meeting he says, “The fastest most powerful prayer in the world is ‘F*ck it!’… it’s a prayer of release and serenity and I felt the whole weight of the world going off of my shoulders.”

“Amen” just means “let it be so” and is a fitting way to conclude any prayer. 

If you are still wondering, “So what?” let me say two more things about the “why” of prayer. One is, don’t take my word for any of this. I invite you to try praying and see what happens. My experience has been that whatever effect prayer may or may not have on other phenomena, reaching out into the unknown through prayer changes me subjectively in ways I find helpful. Which leads me to the second thing about “Why pray?”

I do have an actual effect on countless other phenomena in this universe. Homespun sayings like, “Be careful what you wish for!” become commonplace idioms for a reason. They are used in our common speech because they arise in our collective awareness from our common experience. I actually knew a guy who lived in a tumble down mobile home near the Mississippi River and prayed he could find another place to live. Sometime later a flood came and washed him out and he was forced to find another place to live. Be careful what you wish for!

Now I am not suggesting that the flood happened as a direct result of his asking for it. What I am suggesting is that the thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting energy a person invests into the interconnected web of phenomena in our universe makes a difference. Things would not happen as they do without each interrelated phenomenon being what it is and doing what it does—wishes, dreams, and prayers included.

“Because that is what prayer is—it is a wide believing in the power of Love at work in the world, a believing that encompasses the pain and struggle and loss that come to all of us. More particularly, prayer for another also includes naming the work that must be done for change to happen, and then doing it.” (Diana Trautwein)

Whether alone, with my wife, with my best friend, or with the people in hospice for whom I am a chaplain, I use prayer as a technology for letting go—for accepting things the way they are instead of how I wish they were. I use prayer as a way of being with people and expressing love for them. I also use prayer as an inspiration and catalyst for change in myself and in the world.

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This article is inspired by the following works:

– J.D. Moyer’s, Why (as an Atheist) I Pray: https://www.jdmoyer.com/2011/07/25/why-as-an-atheist-i-pray/
– Say a Little Prayer, by Ken McCleod https://tricycle.org/magazine/buddhist-prayer/
– An Atheist’s Prayer, by Sally Fritsche: https://news-archive.hds.harvard.edu/news/2017/07/17/sally-fritche-atheists-prayer
– Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers, by Anne Lamott: https://www.amazon.com/Help-Thanks-Wow-Essential-Prayers/dp/1594631298
– A Wide Believing, by Diana Trautwein: https://shelovesmagazine.com/2018/a-wide-believing/
– 360 (film): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/360_(film) 

2 thoughts on “Why (as a Naturalist) I Pray”

  1. I like this essay. Several years ago I rediscovered the actual purpose of mealtime prayer. The mealtime grace was a source of mild amusement, regarded as an anachronism throughout my life. Now I make a point of praying when I sit down to eat. I feel more centered, more focused on what I’m doing, and appreciating both the food and my meal companions. A brief respite from a busy day. In addition, I’ve recovered my ability to know when I’ve had enough to eat – not a small accomplishment!! Thank you for your thoughtful words, James.


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