I have been writing and re-writing this post for months. Something that makes writing it difficult is the multiplicity of conflicting starting points. There is no one way to start it. And the decision about how to start will affect what it becomes. I have decided to begin with writing about that multiplicity, the conflicting voices, and the competing destinations for this one piece of writing. Do I begin from a position of faith or doubt? Hope or despair? Joy or pain? One draft began with how, “My atheistic twenties are behind me”, a sentiment that failed to gather enough of an inner consensus.
It would be fair to say that my atheism is behind me, as it would be fair to say that it is beside me. Perhaps I should write again, “he is beside me.” He is next to me among several other companions. I understand him, honor him, and listen to him, while knowing that what he longs for—what he points out passionately—is not always reflected in what he says. After a failed love affair, a heartbroken young man is driven toward constructing a universal argument against love. In response, we could give him a counter-argument in favor of love, which would be as cold as his own argument, or we could love him and show that he does not yet have all of truth. Is learning to pray not about learning to see the truth of love? Despite his uneasiness with this topic, I will ask him (the atheist) to be the listener throughout this writing. We will have plenty of time to talk and debate afterwards.
As I am getting closer to my forties, I find myself returning to a familiar place. Remember how Lee, the character from Steinbeck’s East of Eden, says that he finds himself becoming more Chinese as a he gets older? My return to that familiar place might be akin to Lee’s becoming more Chinese. Without knowing why, I have begun praying occasionally. It might have started with reading Antonin Sertillanges (The Intellectual Life) or earlier with C. S. Lewis (A Grief Observed) or with Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s (Genuine Pretending) or with Sam Rocha (Tell Them Something Beautiful). This has been a gradual and quiet development, without a need to talk or write about it. What is relatively unusual, and the reason I am now writing about praying, is that something has started to change in my experience of praying. I am not talking about any divine reciprocity, any “answer” to my prayers. I don’t think I make demands when I pray, in the way I used to do as a child. Before talking about now, I should say a few things about the past, about the word “prayer”, about the place of prayer, and about why I distinguish praying from making a request.
I remember once, when I was eight years old, I had broken my walkie-talkie, and I prayed for it to be fixed. That was a request-prayer, a request for a small miracle. The miracle, I reasoned, would not only fix my toy, but it would also confirm my relationship with God. I had heard more astonishing stories at school or from some distant—more religious—relatives. In light of those stories, my request-prayer seemed reasonable. I put the walkie-talkie inside a cabinet and closed it. For some reason, I had thought the miracle should not take place in front of my eyes (I was a participant in a one-sided conversation, and so I had to come up with, and test, the rules). The toy, I decided, had to be hidden from me before God could fix it, as if my gaze would obstruct God’s magic. My childish image of God was inspired by magicians who are secretive and insecure about their craft. After waiting for less than a minute, I opened the cabinet and found the same broken walkie-talkie. I felt in my chest the pain of disappointment. I thought perhaps I should wait longer. “Either the miracle takes more time”, I thought, “or God wants to test my faith and patience”. Before giving up, I had to consider some new possible rules. I opened and closed the cabinet several times in the following few hours, changing and modifying the rules as time went by. The miracle didn’t happen. Each time I opened the cabinet, I found the same walkie-talkie, untouched by divinity or magic.
Years later, in my early twenties, when I turned away from religion, I was feeling the same way about my life. Like that broken walkie-talkie, my entire life seemed untouched by God. I had suffered five years of intense pain, due to an undetected/misdiagnosed kidney problem, which was finally fixed with surgery. After years of skipping classes and receiving poor grade, I had decided to drop out of university, to accept my failure and let go of the image of myself as an electrical engineer, the image so beloved and admired by my family. I was facing a future for which I was terrifyingly unprepared. I felt distant from everyone, truly alone, in a world I didn’t belong. Untouched by divinity or magic. My health was starting to improve slowly, but I couldn’t stop being angry at having lost those years. I was angry at the doctors who had continually misdiagnosed me, my parents who passively watched my pain for all those years, at myself from trusting them. And, maybe above all, I was angry at God. I felt like a fool for having had faith, for having believed in a divine order. Had I been a naïve child, cheated by promises of my religion?
The prolonged pain had changed me. It had affected my ability to engage with life and to take pleasure in being alive. I remember feeling surprised, and somewhat alienated, whenever I saw others enjoy something—a meal, a social gathering, or a road trip. Of course, I could still find enjoyment, but their joy seemed so pure, so without worry and conflict, so empty of distrust. The things I enjoyed, my music and my books, further distanced me from family and friends, and I couldn’t enjoy them purely, absent-mindedly, and unreflectively. I enjoyed music without the ability to dance with it, to let go of suffering, and to celebrate something. I decided to leave everything behind and began drifting. It was probably a step in the right direction, to stop demanding my life to be fixed. But it was a step taken too far.
When we are grateful, we are not necessarily announcing or repaying some debt. Being grateful is a stance. And I believe it is possible to be grateful despite pain and uncertainty. I started to recognize the gifts that my pain had brought to me: The gift of patience, the gift of questioning, the gift of solitude, and the gift of looking a little more deeply into my own existence. I realized that my pain had made me more understanding and less dismissive of the pain of others. More importantly, I realized that I had misinterpreted my pain and the limitations of my life. I had taken my pain too personally. It was a mistake to see my pain as part of a conversation with God, as an unexpected an unreasonable “kick”, by Him, “to my stomach”. That painful “kick”, even if I refer to it as such, had brought me into existence. I was not the person I am prior to that kick. The mistake was to see myself, my fate, in separation from my pain. That’s what I mean when I say I had taken my pain too personally, thinking my personhood and my coming into existence was detached from my pain. I am not detached from my pain. The pain, therefore, is not His way of treating me, treating some-one who already exists. It is, rather, His way of bringing me into being.
Acceptance, and the realization that who we are cannot be disentangled from what we have undergone, has become easier with age. Although we could talk about this attitude as a “new discovery”, the significance of this new discovery is in its ability to connect me to something old. When I think about praying, and when I pray, I am returning to a familiar place. The images I have of this place aren’t of mosques or Muslim clergymen. Those are as far and alien to me as anything else could be. I return, instead, to the sights of my grandmother’s home, to the sound of the old radio she kept by her side in the kitchen, to her voice telling me we will eat lunch after her afternoon prayers. I can see her bright-colored chādor, the rays of sunlight coming into the room, the bedroom which soon transformed into a “prayer room”. I see the small, goldenrod-colored low table she used for praying. Her legs no longer allowed for the full range of movements—the cycle of standing, kneeling, and sitting. That’s why she sat at the low table to pray. And she transformed that table into a sacred object. Her restrained movements added to her sincerity and made her prayers personal. I imagine she was talking to a friend, who didn’t demand from her to move perfectly in accordance with the rules. He didn’t mind her seated position and, in fact, loved her more because of it.
That place, co-created by my grandmother and God, anchored in my mind to the sights from her home, was a place where praying was natural. In that place, praying is as natural as eating, as my feeling of hunger before lunch, as her voice calling my name, as the rays of sunlight coming into the room, and as the transformation of the bedroom into the prayer room. That is where I find myself returning to. I am returning to a
past forgotten self. It is not a visit to a different time, but to a place. And a place isn’t distinct from a way of being (and feeling and acting and…). We are aware of this when we say, for example, “She in a good place right now”, or “I understand where he is coming from”. The way we cherish, value, or avoid a place has something to do with what it brings out in us.
[To be continued]