The word prayer repulsed me in early sobriety, and in some ways it’s still glitchy. It can call to mind a penitent worshiper hunched over clasped hands in some austere setting – and for the non-religious, that just ain’t us! So I’ve come up with ways to make prayer real to me – since fortunately, religion has no monopoly on access to god.
It’s amazing how many people assume it does – that spiritual seeking and religion are inseparable. That’s like claiming I-5 is the only way to get from Seattle into Canada. Not true. Recently, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I jumped in and out of Canada about five times in few seconds, just for fun. You can always find your own pathway to god; the important thing is that you seek it with your deepest sincerity.
So instead of prayer, I just frickin’ talk to god. I may gab away and cuss and laugh, or I may get on my knees and weep, depending on how I feel. I may address my lost sister, or guardian angel, or the font of all that lives. Whatever works.
But what do I say?
Fear-based prayers are an extension of self – and a very natural one. All day, from the moment we wake, we’re responsible for meeting our own material needs. We engage our brains and bodies to make shit happen. I want a bagel so I open the fridge and get one. I want it toasted, so I get a knife to slice it and then pop that baby in the toaster. By applying skills, I get what I want.
Problems arise when we apply this approach to spiritual life: I feel restless, irritable, and discontent, so I gulp down some booze and get what I want – relief. Great! But fast-forward to the point where that survival tactic has quit working, so I’ve suffered agony at the level of emotional disembowelment, finally become willing, and – with god’s help – gotten sober.
Now I need new ways to fix those old pains, but I don’t know it. So it’s only natural that I try a skills approach: I identify the external problems I think are responsible – the people, places, and things I perceive as fucking up my happiness – and try to manage them to suit my needs.
It doesn’t work. Dammit! So I try harder. Still, no dice.
Now I’m freaking out. Will I ever get X? Oh my god, does this mean I’ll always be stuck with this crappy Y? What’s that I’m hearing in the rooms? Ask god for help?
Okay… I turn to prayer: “God, please put this damn life-bagel in the goal-toaster for me. It should be toasted. Surely you can see this. Thank you! Your child, Louisa.”
I may think of it as supplication rather than giving god orders. Still, however respectful I may be, I’m backseat-driving the universe. And it doesn’t work! Yes, god may make some related good of my prayers (especially if they’re for others), but it won’t involve my specific bagel. The great danger here is that I can feel ignored and get pissed… and turn my back on god.
True prayer, as Richard Rohr and others have written, is not about managing the world. It’s about changing ourselves. It’s about strengthening our relationship to god and accessing the power that god can channel into our lives.
Enter, Serenity Prayer
Thank you, Reinhold Niebuhr, for writing this gorgeous prayer for a Sunday service in Heath, MA, in 1943.* You could not have imagined the role it would play in so many lives today.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The prayer asks god to change us, to help us grow beyond whatever we ourselves can muster. We can say it over and over, thinking about what it means, how it moves us. At different times it takes on different nuances.
Here, unpacked and named, is some of what this prayer can mean for me: God,
|grant me||=||help me, because I can’t seem to do this myself; I need your love, your guidance, your gifts|
|the serenity||=||to fricking calm the fuck down about this stuff, to quit panicking, to quit judging, to let go this urgency|
|to accept||=||to allow into my reality, to acknowledge as what is, to give up shoulding on and just let it be true – because it already is|
|the things I cannot change,||=||the past, what’s happening, how this person is, what they won’t do, everything I don’t like and wish were different… that isn’t me
|the courage||=||a conviction, faith stronger than my fears, a power drawn from my inmost heart, a little spark of you|
|to change||=||to take action, to re-see, to step out into empty space, to quit procrastinating, to dare, to just do it !|
|the things I can||=||attitudes & assumptions & habits that don’t bring goodness, cycles I’m stuck in, people I hang out with, my default defects. Reluctance to begin those baby steps of action I’ve been too afraid or proud to take|
|and the wisdom||=||god-inspired honesty, open-mindedness, faith, harvest from the experiences you’ve already given me|
|to know the difference||=||to intuit what’s my business and what’s yours|
Good thing it’s a lot shorter, eh? But for me it still carries all that meaning.
I don’t know that I’ve ever, in 20 years of saying this shit, had a problem instantly vanish. With bigger issues, sometimes the best I can hope for is for me to shed a layer of denial or feel a little less pain.
But the courage part has been literal and concrete. This prayer has emboldened me to act where I’ve been scared and reluctant: I’ve made phone calls, shown up at events, applied for jobs, thrown parties, forgiven people, entered dance studios, climbed volcanoes, started a business, and walked into the mountains alone – all deeds inspired by this little prayer. And those actions do transform my reality incrementally, with a cumulative effect beyond anything I could envision or orchestrate.
Ultimately, the Serenity Prayer condenses into twenty-seven words the essence of all 12 Steps: surrendering of self and the willingness to collaborate with god to cultivate meaning and integrity in our lives.
Never underestimate it, no matter how many cutesy places you see it embroidered! It’s a compact tool we can carry in our back pockets like a humble but priceless compass.