Why do we need to pray?

hands praying

I was born in a Catholic family, that says a lot when we talk about religious practices. Catholics may be one of the most hardcore when it comes to praying. There is practically a pro forma prayer available for any possible thing you’d like to petition to God. Or, if you think your prayers are not enough, you can do an indirect approach and go pray to a saint to help smooth talk God to hear you. Other Christian denominations prefer a more spirited and enthusiastic way and each denomination have their own prescribed style of doing it. But prayer, despite its many forms, is still praying. It is humanity’s way to seek aid or have a talk with God (or gods, depending on your religion).

This aspect of praying bugs me for years, since I was a child. My issue with it has to do with why we pray in the first place. Do we need it, or is it another useless practice born from our superstitious nature?  

As a boy attending religion class (yes, we had those) we were taught that God loves us and that He is an all powerful and all knowing God. If we pray to ask for aid from God, why do we need to ask it in the first place? If He is all knowing then doesn’t that mean I do not necessarily need to pray for him to know that I need help? And since He loves us then why not help us then? Isn’t helping someone who desperately needs it one of the best expressions of love?

I asked this same question to a friend one day, a somewhat über religious friend, and she answered me like this:

God does know all and he does love us, it’s just that he moves in mysterious ways. Take it like this, since He knows everything, He also knows what is good for you and what is not. So, He only gives you what you need in order for you to be a better person.”

Well, she quoted a lot of scriptures and said a lot more things than what I wrote here, but it’s the gist of what she said; and for the life of me I could never remember the bible quotes.

My friend’s explanation did not satisfy me. My rebuttal goes like this:

A child of three or seven got raped and then killed by a psychopath; what part in the whole affair made that poor child a better person? A boy of fifteen along with his family gunned down or gassed in a chamber due to some sick ideology; what part in the whole damned, insane, series of events made those poor folks better persons by getting their heads blown up?”

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What followed after was a long and bitter argument that left us not talking to each other for weeks; but, that is beside the point and not part of the story. However, I advise you, dear reader, to only start a volatile topic only with someone you do not like (but still forced to interact with out of civility), so that you can use the argument that will follow as an excuse to not talk to him (or her) till the sky falls down and the fires of Hell engulfs us all.

Anyway, back to the point I am going for.

Since I did not get a satisfactory answer from my friend, I started googling about praying and most of the articles that pop up have this basically to say:

  • We pray because God commanded us to do so.
  • Praying is our act of submission to God.
  • Prayer is our way to talk to God.
  • Prayer invites God into our lives.

To be frank, these arguments did not impress me either. If we need to pray because God commanded us to do so or that He wanted us to submit to Him, then it totally does not make sense.

If our God is an all powerful God and He was the one who created us then it is a totally illogical and despotic (somewhat assholish) move on his part to give us free will and then command us to pray and submit or else…

If praying is our only way to talk to him, then why did he make it so hard? Ask anyone, it’s hard to talk to someone who does not answer back.

If prayer invites God into our lives, does that mean He is absent from it to begin with and He needs an invitation before He intervenes? If all these are true, then it sounds like God is some petulant child who wants attention and praising and some cajoling before he does anything.

I was never a religious person, but I do believe in God (see other post for my reasons… Yeah, I know, so cut it!), so it was hard for me to reconcile my belief and – in my eyes – the silly act of praying and all the meaning attached to it. For years I had this mindset that praying is just a waste of time, and boy was I wrong. 

What changed my mind? Science, baby! Science!

I know it is somewhat strange to have the two mixed up. Science and religion has been on opposing ends of the fence ever since someone had the brilliant opinion (insert sarcasm here) that the two could not mix. (Imagine a white bearded guy in a fancy antique get-up saying: “Hey guys, science totally makes our religion look shitty.”) But, trust me, the presence of science doesn’t really mean it will partypoop on religion’s parade. So, here me out first.

Have you  heard of placebos? A placebo is a substance with no medical benefits whatsoever, but still provides scientifically observable and verifiable effects to the patient. There’s a ton of research done on placebo, involving a wide array of illnesses, and it all comes down to one thing – placebo really works even though the substances given were basically water and sugar or the like. It even works despite the patient know that he was not taking medicine, but just some shit the researchers found under their lab coats. Scientists are still scratching their heads how the fuck this whole placebo thing do what it does. What they do know, though, is that it involves our mind and that it all has to do with believing – really believing – that what we take helps ease our suffering. And in some bizarre, still unfathomable way, it does make us better. It appears that our mind is hardwired to take-in our beliefs and physically manifest it in some way.

What does that have to do with prayer, you ask? Put it this way, if someone told you that prayer will help ease your suffering, and  you believe it so strongly, then chances are it will. I know, weird right?

Here is another relevant  research worth mentioning:

Two groups of rats were put in separate cages. On the cages’ floor ran an electric wire which turns on and off every now and then. However, on one cage there was a switch which, when clicked, turns off the electric current; the rats in this cage were taught how to work the switch and know that by clicking it the pain will go away. The rats with the switch emerged in relative good health (even though they did not use the switch quite often, or never even used it at all), unlike the other group, despite the severe dose of electricity they received and even when the rats were given the same dose of electricity with the other group.

The researchers concluded that the rats with the switch faired better because they believed that they can control their situation by just using the switch. “Control protected the health of the rats with the switch, and the lack of control stripped their hapless brethren of even their own internal protectors.” 

So, again, what does that have to do with prayer? Well, prayer is our switch, it is our means to have a sense of control over our situation in life. If we believe that the mere act of praying, in some way, helps us face the adversities we have to face day by day, then something in our heads just click and it makes us feel much better. That’s why we hear so many people say that they feel better after muttering a good prayer, that’s probably it.

How about if I pray for a loved one, you ask? Well, sadly, no… It does not work like that. Of the many research done about the effects of prayer for a third person there is not a shred of evidence that points to its effectiveness.

What does that mean? It simply means, to my mind, that prayer is not so much for or about God, or for or about other people, but more about us. It appears, if I interpreted correctly the findings of science, that prayers are for the prayor and not the prayee.

In one of my odd voyeuristic moments I surfed over some prayer request websites and you know what I noticed? What people pray says a lot about who they are.

(Note: I’m talking about personal prayers here and not the kind done in front of an audience)

Prayers, as I see it, focuses the mind of the one praying and what he utters are those things that really matter to him. One can see clearly what we want in our lives by the mere act of praying. Praying forces us to confront our lives, to look deep within us and see what our hearts truly desire; discarding the inconsequential, the irrelevant, and highlighting the meaningful, the valuable.

Praying is not so much about talking to God, but more about having a conversation with ourselves, a moment where we give ourselves a time off from the trivialities of our existence and really hear what our heart whispers. Praying helps us find ourselves in the tangled mess of our own indifference.

What does your heart tell you? What do you say when you pray? Is it petty or mean, or is it something else? Find it out and maybe then you will truly know who you really are. And if you did not like what it tells about you, then maybe it’s time for a change of course.

Whatever the case may be, it seems we do need prayer. Not for God, mind you, but for ourselves. Why? Because Science, that’s why!

youngladyinaboat

Dead Son

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Dr. Mallory hated this part of his job. Telling people the bad news that their loved one passed away was something that he studiously avoided, if it can be helped. It was the emotional outpourings that drove him off. It annoyed him. He often delegated this kind of stuff to junior residents, unfortunately for him none were available at the moment to do his dirty work.

Too many years with the dead and dying and the grieving had left him with a harder constitution along with a well calloused heart.

It is not my fault, he reasoned when a friend commented on it, I am just a victim of circumstance.

He first saw a man die when he was just seven, stabbed to death by some guy high on meth. Who wouldn’t be desensitized with death with that kind of start in life. Being born poor and having a hard life can sometimes do strange things to people. Suffering was a common theme throughout his younger years. He needed to be tough to be at where he is now: a made man.

But his friend had a point, it’s part of the job to be gentle and caring. Since he was not, he made it a point to act as close to what will pass-off as one, and he was damned good at it. People liked him. His higher-ups liked him even more, promotions were as constant as the sun.

We are very sorry Mrs. Parker,” said Dr. Mallory in his best imitation of regret and commiseration. “I am sorry for your loss, Ma’am, but there was nothing we can do.” His voice was mellow, gentle, caring – perfect. He bowed his head and shook it a little to emphasize his deep regret in their failure to save the boy.

The doctor’s words was met with silence.

After several heartbeats had passed without hearing a reply he raised his downcast eyes and looked at the woman sitting on the chair: her head down, her posture a picture of complete exhaustion. Mrs. Parker’s shoulder length hair, almost all of it were already prematurely gray, partly covered her face. But the part that showed, wrinkles and all, was a tapestry of emotions – fear, regret, exhaustion, pain, sadness – woven over a fabric of love and loss.

Mrs. Parker?”

Yes, i heard you.” Her voice was flat. Emotionless.

Are you alright ma’am?” Dr. Mallory made sure to add a tone of concern for added effect.

She gave a feeble cough. “I am as fine as I can be under the circumstances, doctor.”

I am deeply sorry for your loss, Mrs. Parker. If there is anything…”

She bowed her head even lower, her hair now totally obscured her face. “Can you bring back the dead?” asked the woman in the same flat tone.

No, ma’am,” replied the doctor in his best neutral but mellow voice. Frankly, he was astonished by the question. He barely repressed his irritation. This woman is going bonkers, he thought to himself. Better notify the nurse later in case she does something odd. It is always best to cover all the bases.

It would not be good for his reputation if people will think that he failed to report something he noticed. Better yet, it would be great if I reported it and something bad will happen. It would surely mean more promotions. He repressed a smile at the thought.

Then you can do nothing for me, doctor.”

I’ll take my leave then, Mrs. Parker. Just tell the nurse in the station if you need anything.”

The woman barely moved. She just slumped in the chair and stared at the floor.

Tell me doctor, have you ever lost a son?”

I have no children, Ma’am. I never married. No siblings too, I was an only child.”

A parent, then.”

My father left us when I was young. It was my mother who raised me.” Dr. Mallory was feeling very uncomfortable with the talk they were having. He did not like opening up to people, he thought of it as something soft and wimpy. An unforgivable thing, being soft. He had learned that in life softness will always lead to despair, it was always the sharp and the tough that flourished. Hell, his mother was too soft and look what that got her. She let her husband trample her around, she didn’t even sue for alimony. She did not look for a new husband that could help pay the expenses after the bastard left them for someone younger. She did not even look for a higher paying job for, as she reasoned out to him, ‘it would mean more hours away from you, honeykins‘. He appreciated what her mother did for him but the truth still remained that in his eyes his mother did not amount to much because she was too soft. Life could have been better for them if she was tougher.

He started towards the door.

Aah. YesI remember. Where is she now?” Mrs. Parker’s voice became more subdued and more distant, it was almost a whisper, as though she was deep in her own reverie and recollecting something from her long distant past.

Who?” Replied the doctor; his hand was already on the doorknob.

Your mother.”

I really don’t think ma’am that…” he twisted the knob. The door was locked. It would not budge. But how? These doors don’t have locks.

Just humor me doctor. Spare a moment for a poor woman who just lost her son. I have no one with me now. No friends. No family. Only my son… he was my life.”

The doctor’s hands became clammy. Fuck! He practically screamed inside his head. Why can’t people just hold their shit together. His thoughts raced to the trainings he had at medical school: first rule of thumb when confronted with an insane person, never agitate them. He forced himself to smile and turned around to face Mrs. Parker.

Uh, she’s old now, so I had her live in a Home. Green Groves, it’s the best, they can take better care of her there.”

The woman was still slumped on the chair. Still staring at the floor.

How is she?” her shoulders slumped even more.

She’s fine. Great, actually. Never been happier! Lots of people her age to mingle with. Professional health workers round the clock. The best money can buy. Only the best for my mother.” His forced cheerful tone was irritating to his own ears. He hated it. I’ll have a word with fucking maintenance after this. Fuckitty fucking door!

Do you visit her often?” The woman’s voice had slightly changed. It was no longer as flat. There was a little emotion bleeding into her words.

I hardly have time to do that Mrs. Parker. But the management sends me a quarterly report along with some pictures. And I call as often as I can.” It was a lie. He hadn’t talked to his mother for months;  she had dementia, and for Dr. Mallory there was not much sense in talking to someone who hardly knows the day of the week. He haven’t even read the last three quarterly reports.

It had been awhile since he thought of her. It’s not my fault, he reasoned, I’ve been busy lately. Maybe I’ll call her later. It’s her birthday in a few days, after all.

That is good, if you did. To be alone is a wretched thing, doctor. The coldness of death is preferable to living a lonely life.” Mrs. Parker stood up.

Dr. Mallory stiffened a little, he was taken off guard by the sudden movement.

The woman walked to the window and placed her hands on the ledge. The setting sun was beautiful. Enticing in its bouquet of colors: shades of violets, blazing orange mixed with different tints of red, and luxurious golden accents all-round. Fluffy clouds were lazily floating about in the sea of colors, but Mrs. Parker did not notice its splendor, her head was still bowed down.

It was a hard life, doctor, but I shouldered on for my son. He must have the best, I always tell myself that. He must have the things that I never had and never will, but I could only do so much. But he is now gone. I have my fears that it might be so and that it will end like this, but I deluded myself into thinking otherwise. He was always a precious boy, but as he grew older I fear he grew more distant, but I never gave up on him. To finally hear those words from you puts a finality to it that gives me closure, doctor. My son was long gone, I know that now.”

Dr. Mallory felt a chill ran down his spine. The woman was giving off some weird vibe. Marbles totally gone down the drain, stupid twat! He slowly stepped back towards the door while still eying Mrs. Parker warily. His back finally hit the door, his hands on the doorknob. He tried twisting it again, but it would not give.

Tock. Tock. Tock.

Someone was knocking on the door.

“Sir?” It was a female voice. Far off, but becoming clearer.

Tock. Tock. Tock.

Thank God, they’ve found me! “Yes! I’m here! Open this damned door!” he hollered back.

Tock. Tock. Tock.

Sir?”

He woke up drenched in sticky sweat. He was slumped on his desk, disoriented for a moment. He looked around him: on his left was a wall lined with diplomas, certificates and awards, on his right were ceiling to floor windows that framed the setting sun – bathing the room in a somber color of deep, almost red, orange. He was in his office. Relief flooded him. Fucking dream!

Sir?” Someone was knocking on his door. It was his secretary.

He cleared his throat before answering. “Yes,” said Dr. Mallory gruffly.

I am sorry to disturb you sir. There is a call waiting for you. It’s from Green Grooves, they said it was important.”

Ok, patch it through.” He took the phone out of its cradle and pressed a button. “This is Dr. Mallory, what can I do for you?”

Dr. Mallory, this is Arthur Pikes, the Director of Green Grooves.” The speaker’s voice was deep and courteous, but the tone he was using had a familiar ring to it: consoling, mellow, gentle, caring. “I am sorry sir. Mrs. Mallory, your mother, died a couple of hours ago. She was feeling off for several months – we sent you the report awhile back – we did the best we could…” But Dr. Mallory no longer heard the rest of what Mr. Pikes said.

He bowed his head. A soft sob escaped his clenched lips. The phone fell from his hands and hit the armrest of his chair, it went on loud-speaker. The kind and caring – well practiced – voice of Mr. Pikes rang throughout the room. “May I extend my heartfelt condolences for your loss…”