Monday, August 29, 2011

How Atheists Can Pray, Part I

        I HAD to clean out my garage last summer.  I couldn’t put off this odious task any longer. Donna was moving in.  Who knew how much stuff she'd have?  It was June, not too hot, not too cold, perfect garage cleaning weather.  For years, I’d saved stuff I might need some day.  Piles of junk lined the walls.   There was room to put the car in, but just barely.  I needed help. 
    So instead of hiring someone, I thought of my friends named Joanie.  All of the Joanies I know are organized.   At least in my mind, they have a place for everything and everything is in its place.   I visualized my garage as if it belonged to a Joanie.  Tools hanging on the wall, the lawn mower in the corner, the snow tires in the cubbies.
    I moved the car out to the driveway.  Every day I chipped away at the project.   In a couple of weeks the junk was sorted into six piles:  trash, rummage sale, hazardous waste, recycle, giveaways, and keepers.  The job was half done!  I got rid of the piles except for the keepers.  The job was all done!  I couldn’t have done it without my mantra: WWJD or What Would Joanie Do?     
    My blog today is about prayer, and you will see how prayer relates to garage cleaning.
    We can think of four sorts of prayer:  Thanks, Oops, Wow! and Please.  These were conceived with a supernatural being in mind, but what if you “are among the one billion people in the world who agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, cynic, secular humanist, naturalist, or deist; as spiritual, apathetic, nonreligious, “nothing”; or any other irreligious descriptive.”  [Greg Epstein].   What if you think there’s nobody to pray to?
    Let’s consider the four modes of prayer without reference to a “supernatural being ‘out there’ separate from the world ...who may from time to time intervene within it” [Marcus Borg].     First, the Thanks aspect.  We can be grateful FOR things like life, health, friends, sunsets, the Earth without being grateful TO a Divine being who allegedly provided them.  Each night before we go to sleep, we can think of good things that happened that day.
    Next, the Oops aspect.  We can be sorry for the wrong we have done and make amends to those whom we have offended without reference to anyone supernatural.  We can stay away from bad influences and redirect our lives.
    And then the third aspect of prayer – Wow!  Consider our first Unitarian Universalist Source: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder...which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”   That’s Wow! and it’s non-supernatural and Unitarian Universalist. 
    The last aspect, Please, is easy for traditional Christians and other believers.  “Ask and ye shall receive.” is repeated over and over in the New Testament.
     For those of us who aren’t traditional believers,  I’m going to enlarge on my garage  cleaning story to extrapolate to three ways to say Please.    First, we can access a worthy person’s life;  second, we can get in touch with our inner knowing; or third, we can contemplate an aspect of reality.    
       My Catholic background taught me to ask the saints to intercede for me:   “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us...”   Most of us Unitarian Universalists don’t expect a miracle or even an answer from a saint or holy person, but we’re saying please by considering what some good person would do in our situation.   We all can be inspired by worthy lives.
     In other words, instead of channeling the Joanies for their tidiness, we can channel the goodness of a saint’s life.  Maybe some of us have been on a committee with a difficult person.  Listen to what St Therese of Lisieux in the 19th century (1873-1897) said in such circumstances: “How do I react when in my mind's eye, I see the defects of someone who doesn't attract me? I remind myself of all that person's good qualities, all her good intentions.”
    Do you think your life doesn’t matter?  I quote from the Therese website, the Society of the Little Flower. “‘What matters in life,’  Therese wrote, ‘is not great deeds, but great love.’ Therese lived and taught a spirituality of attending to everyone and everything well and with love.  Her spirituality is doing the ordinary, with extraordinary love."    
    Or maybe we think we’re better than people who listen to country western, smoke cigarettes, and shop at Safeway.   To get over that affront to the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we can reflect on this story from the life of  Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester who lived from 1008-1095. According to Richard Finn in The Radical Tradition edited by Gilbert Marcus. “...[Wulfstan’s] steward had sent out invitations to select and rich local dignitaries.  They were sitting at their places, when Wulfstan walked in leading a rabble of poor peasants, as many as he had been able to find, and whom he instructed to sit down and eat.  The steward, in high dudgeon at this, thought it more fitting for the bishop to eat with a few of the rich than with many of the poor.  But Wulfstan got his way.”   We can remember how Wulfstan, a real person, coped with social injustice and inequality in the 11th century and go and do likewise.  
    My next post will cover getting in touch with your inner knowing and contemplating an aspect of ultimate reality. 

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