On Prayer

Our search for order in the darkness

A friend of mine just left her husband. She told me that she had been unhappy in the marriage for a long time but couldn’t find a way out. “I had seen a psychologist and a lawyer,” she said. “But I couldn’t act—it was too confusing, too painful. I felt overwhelmed. Then one day last week I was driving down the street and I said, ‘God, please give me a sign. Give me some sort of sign and I’ll leave.’ It was a street where I’d always wanted to live. I was driving and praying, and I looked up and saw the poster that said For Rent. I knew what to do.”

Though I wanted to be a good, supportive friend, I have to admit that a part of me secretly recoiled at these words. Did she really believe that a for-rent poster could be a sign from God? What was going on? She was a smart, accomplished, rational person—just like me. Had she gone a little crazy?

And then I realized that I had done the same thing just a few weeks before after I’d gotten a callback on my mammogram.

Prayer in a Panic

“The doctor would like you to come back for a second,” the nurse had said over the phone. “It’s very common. We just want to get a closer look. Maybe we’ll do an ultrasound too.” Her voice had the carefully practiced cheer of someone used to calming the crazy. “Can you come in tomorrow?”

Tomorrow? What was going on? What did they want to look at? The nurse was carefully, excruciatingly vague.

The next day, I sat in the curtained-off waiting area in my cotton smock as the x-ray technician took the newest slides to the radiologist who would tell me if I needed an ultrasound or a biopsy—if my life was about to take a radical, unexpected turn. I sat alone, behind the curtain dyed in calming beige tones and began, in my own way, to pray. “Let me be okay,” I said. It was not directed to anyone in particular—it did not have the poetic and direct form we use at synagogue: it was simple. “Let me be okay. I will be grateful for everything. Just let me be okay.”

Not the First Time

“The prayers I’ve spoken at moments of darkness or chaos have meant more to me than the ones we say in synagogue, or the ones we intone over the bread at Shabbat meals…”

That was not, in fact, the first time I had ever prayed like that. The truth was that I had uttered a very similar prayer when our son was two months old and began throwing up at every nursing. Worried about a stomach bug or virus, my husband and I carried him over to the neighborhood pediatrician, who took one look at him and put us in a cab to the hospital.

I remember watching while the technician at the hospital took an ultrasound of our son’s stomach, looking for a blockage there. I remember intoning the same blunt prayer then, over and over again: “Let him be okay. I will be grateful for everything. I will not complain.” It was as though all of my thoughts converged on a single, crucial point: Let him be okay, and I will be grateful.

The prayers I’ve spoken at moments of darkness or chaos have meant more to me than the ones we say in synagogue, or the ones we intone over the bread at Shabbat meals (“Ha-motze lechem min-ha’aretz. We thank God for bread. Amen.”) The traditional prayers seem automatic; I chant them along with everyone but they don’t mean that much to me.

These seem like the real prayers to me—not the elaborate ones that we say at our places of worship, the ones passed down to us, but the simple ones that we make up ourselves. These made-up prayers may be opportunistic, perhaps, but they capture everything that great religions are supposed to. They emphasize the basic. Let me or my loved ones be okay. Not beautiful, or brilliant, or rich, but okay. They assume humility. I will be grateful for everything. They give a path to change. I will not complain.

We stumble about our lives and try to control the uncontrollable. Our made-up prayers, I think, are the most tender ones—they are our own way to try to find order in the darkness, and how we try to focus on what is truly beautiful.