Losing God and Discovering Prayer

Whether invoking one god, many gods, or no god, prayer is about silencing the chatter and finding truth.

The prayer beads were in my nightstand, just beyond my secret stash of chocolate and under some cards and letters. It was a bout of anxiety that had sent me searching for them — too many moments of angst where I couldn’t string together two peaceful breaths. I needed some outside assistance to find peace, and the beads had helped before.

Six years ago, I’d crafted the strand — a sort of rosary-meets-mala — anchored by a polished thumb of pink stone where a crucifix or guru bead would normally sit. From that stone, I’d created a circle of smaller beads bookmarked by larger ones leading back to the flat stone. I’d used them for a bit, then just stopped, moving on to another path to peace.

But that night, as I rubbed the large stone with my thumb, I tried to recall the practice I’d created for the beads. The large stone was for entering in, I dimly recalled. For focusing on the process ahead and silencing the chatter in my head. The original purpose of the rest of the strand eluded me.

I expected little in return other than to know I was loved or at least known by name. That was the promise of my faith, and I believed it.

What I did remember was why I, a then-new Unitarian Universalist still stepping away from my Christianity and its accompanying god, had created these beads. Back then, these beads echoed a practice that had comforted me for decades: prayer to a personal god. Prayer that praised, petitioned, thanked, and interceded. Prayer with a receiver who listened: formally in churches and around the dinner table and informally in cars, before exams, during sleepless nights, in labor, and while nursing my children to sleep. Prayer, to varying degrees and in assorted styles, had carried me through peaceful and troubled times since my teens.

And then it didn’t.

Over a handful of years in my early 30s, I started to wonder about truths I’d held mostly mindlessly since youth. After college, get married, work a job, and have children. Parent those children as you have been parented, and that will be sufficient. Love and be faithful to your husband, and love and fidelity will return. Go to church, believe in God, and pray to that being. Praise, thank, petition, and intercede for others to this god. Expect nothing in return, but know that God’s ear is always there to bend and that God cares about me. After all, consider the lilies of the field and all that. How much more was I than they?

It was simple then, believing in a god who knew me and loved me. Prayer was simple. It was conversation with God, sometimes formalized in Mass or around the table for grace, but often some mix of initial formal invocation followed by the pouring out of the heart. I expected little in return other than to know I was loved or at least known by name. That was the promise of my faith, and I believed it.

Until I didn’t.

It took a marriage that floundered, children who struggled, and a world that seems to be filled with more pain than this benevolent listener who really never seemed to DO anything could or would fix. Aside from the mysterious wonder of unconditional love, I’d not expected anything for myself from prayer or God, but with planes crashing into towers, bombs being dropped on those already bombarded by poverty, and a son who struggled to find his place in the world, it seemed that a god, or at least one worth praising, thanking, petitioning, and interceding should do something. And this God clearly didn’t. I prayed, it seemed, to thank someone who let the world just happen, and that seemed at the very least, useless.

Prayer is a deliberate step both inward and outward, a move toward the heart of what matters and a move away from the treadmill of the mind.

Prayer fell first. My faith followed, dropping away in pieces. I mourned the loss of both, but, even years later as an agonistic in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, it’s the prayer I’ve often missed, the process of quieting the chaos in my head and rediscovering the abundance in my life — abundance present even when all seems to crash down in proverbial flames.

Prayer is a deliberate step both inward and outward, a move toward the heart of what matters and a move away from the treadmill of the mind. Whether invoking one god, many gods, or no god, prayer is about silencing the chatter and finding what is true.

It can involve beads, candles, mandalas, meditation cushions, mantras, or music, or perhaps nothing but our own selves.

It can be a solitary venture in silence, a sitting still with the breath or walking through nature, attending to what is and leaving behind thoughts of what is not or what it seems should be.

It can be a song or a story, a painting or poem, for creativity requires focus on only the work before one.

It can be a moment with others, one ego dissolved into another: petting the cat, laughing with a child, crying with a friend, or lying with a lover.

Prayer may be whatever brings a sense of peace and oneness with the universe.

For a few nights, I tucked my prayer beads under my pillow. Before sleeping, I held the large flat bead with my thumb and forefinger, repeating a phrase from Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn that helps me silence my mind. Present moment, only moment. Breathing in with the first phrase and out with the second, I felt my mind quiet. The failures of the day started to fade.

Prayer happens the moment we’ve transcended, even for a moment, our worries and concerns.

Once quiet, I moved to the first small bead and paused. What to do? I’m prone to focus on struggles and worries, so, starting with my older son, I spend time recalling a positive encounter with each family member. While tempted to name it and move on, I forced myself to linger, strengthening the memories as I did so. After sitting with thoughts of my sons and my husband, I hit a big bead. Again, I wondered what to do. Perhaps I was worth a positive memory moment as well. It’s hard, looking at yourself and finding yourself lacking, but the peace I felt by allowing myself the luxury of some self-approval was worth the self-conscious look. I returned to the large stone, feeling I’d found myself where I wanted to be, and repeated my mantra. Present moment, only moment. In a few breaths, I was asleep.

Agnostics and atheists have full access to prayer, as prayer requires no god or goddess. Prayer happens the moment we’ve transcended, even for a moment, our worries and concerns. It is where we see the possible in what once seemed impossible, where we let ourselves love what we love, including our own messy self. It is when ego drops away and we’re one with the universe and all with whom we share it.

Atheists and agnostics, theists and deists, spiritual seekers and doubters, let us pray.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sarah Butler
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