It’s been years since I’ve used language to directly address a higher power in prayer. I was raised in the Catholic Church where it was common to hear, “Please pray for us,” or, “We’ll be sure to pray for you,” when a church member was in tragedy’s tight grip. As any good Catholic kid, I dutifully prayed at night for the people around me in need. That is, I used words to speak directly to a higher power.
In college I began to wane in my belief in using language to speak to God or whomever runs this show. It’s not because I felt my prayers were unanswered — I’ve lived an easy life. I also didn’t ditch praying with words because I, like many college students in the throes of Nietzsche and Derrida and other nihilistic texts, started to doubt the existence of a higher power.
I just wasn’t convinced that sitting alone or with others at church and saying words into the universe was the kind of prayer that set the world on fire. The most beautiful and effective way to communicate my joy of existence, or my desire for the alleviation of pain in someone’s life, was action.
My heroes of prayer are the doers. Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Ghandi, Henry David Thoreau, for example, all seemed to have lived their prayers through daily action. Yes, they prayed through language, too. They were brilliant writers. But for me, their words were secondary to their bold actions. Martin Luther King Jr and company prayed with nonviolent protest in Bull Connor’s Birmingham. Ghandi made salt in direct defiance of the British Empire as his graceful prayer. In his humble cabin, Thoreau tried to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” That idea of living deep, what a prayerful action.
So years ago I quit praying to a higher power through words and attempted to pray with action. A hike on a fall day in Northern Maine to communicate my thanks of existence on a habitable planet. Listening to a student whose life is falling apart — listening fiercely while holding back judgment. Pulling over during a snowstorm to help push a stuck car out of a parking space. Snow-blowing my neighbor’s driveway while he’s in the hospital. Waking early to let the dog out and feed her so my wife can sleep longer. These are my daily prayers.
Following Monday’s tragic explosions at the Boston Marathon, the word ‘prayer’ has been invoked in speeches by the President and other politicians and in Facebook and Twitter statuses.
Watching the footage of the explosions and the immediate aftermath that ensued, I, like countless other Americans, witnessed the powerful form of prayer in the way of direct action. Facebook statuses have been riddled with the urgency that instead of watching for the people fleeing from the scene, we need to pay attention to the men and women rushing to the bomb site. Men and women pulling down barriers to get to the victims, lifting scaffolding, kneeling next to the wounded who were enduring pain beyond understanding. Some of these ‘helpers,’ as they’ve been called, were police officers, some off-duty doctors, while others were simply citizens leaping into action.
I think of the doctors praying right now through their work to save the lives and limbs of victims still undergoing surgery.
I’m ever learning how to pray properly through action. Thankfully, the citizens of Boston have been teaching me how it’s done since the tragic moment when the first explosion sounded.
Like that once-Catholic kid trying to understand how to best communicate with a higher power, I’ll continue to look to the people of Boston for guidance over the coming weeks.
Stay strong, Boston. I know you will.