What Prayer Cannot Do

In family meetings I hear many people talk about praying and they don’t hesitate to say what it is they are praying for; they want their loved one to get sober or stay sober or simply to stay alive so there is a chance they will get sober in the future. And this made me think about prayer and what it means to us. Why do we pray and are our prayers ever answered? I recently came across the following words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, highly respected American rabbi and theologian born in Poland in the early 1900s.

Prayer invites God,                                                                                           to be present in our spirits                                                                           and in our lives.

Prayer cannot                                                                                              bring water to parched land                                                                       nor mend a broken bridge,                                                                          nor rebuild a ruined city,

but prayer can                                                                                            water an arid soul,                                                                                      mend a broken heart,                                                                                   and rebuild a weakened will.

Abraham Heschel’s poem provides an interesting perspective on prayer.  He says that prayer isn’t to make external things happen such as mending broken bridges or, perhaps, curing our children of their addiction.  He says prayer is about inviting what is holy into our lives. That is altogether different than asking God to make something happen. Instead, he views prayer is an invitation to God to enter our inner self. He implies that prayer offers sustenance for our wounded souls. Mahatma Gandhi said that prayer is not asking; he said it is a longing of the soul.

So what does my soul long for?  I believe that it longs for connection. I long to love and be loved, to feel deeply, and to respond fully. I long to experience awe and wonder, to soak up the intellectual, emotional and sensory pleasures the world offers.  I long to feel centered and grounded, and to experience an inner peace that allows me freedom from the weight of trying to control, manipulate and force outcomes. Prayer, according to Heschel, is about the spiritual world, not the concrete world. Not everyone may agree. But in the future, my prayers  will ask for patience, understanding, wisdom and acceptance.  I will ask for courage and perspective.  I will not pray that my son will stop using or stay sober or finally see the light. I will not pray that he will do what I want him to do or not do what I don’t want him to do.  Instead I will sit still and focus on what connects me to the world.  I will not ask for happiness because I cannot define the word; and, even if I could, would I be asking for my own happiness or my son’s happiness?  This doesn’t mean that I cannot mend a broken bridge; it does mean I cannot mend it through prayer.

And if I say a prayer for you, I shall ask the same; that you find water to quench your arid soul.  I will not ask that you change or that I change or that the world changes. ‘God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…….’

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