Bless me, Father, for I have sinned: I don't pray anymore.
That is, I don't know how to pray anymore.
I was raised Roman Catholic, which is an enormously popular religion, but over time I have observed that the Roman Catholic philosophy pretty much amounts to this sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
In my youth I so overwhelmed myself with Catholic psychological self-flagellation that I eventually Romanticized the concept of my own suicide, and fortunately before I blew my brains out or drained my death into a small bathtub I found a few writers whose writings were nourished by a philosophy of living life productively, wisely, and with an eye toward the god and the beast within—striving for internal and external betterment here on Earth and letting the existential chips fall where they may upon the ever-after.
So now church is pretty much out of my life, for between the lines of nearly everything said and sung there I've found a face-drubbing denial of the idea that life could ever be lived boldly, as a celebration of itself, and hearing all that life-hate now makes me sad and angry—and also bored.
But I can't seem to get rid of prayer. If Catholicism is a family home I've walked away from, then prayer is the family pet that has followed me into the world, biting me at the cuff of my trousers in a plea to at least keep me company in the lonely wilderness.
I have personal proof and disproof that prayer works—I have had prayers miraculously answered and sobbingly ignored—and frankly I still do it, pray, or at least try sometimes, because it's what I do when there's nothing else I can do.
That is, extremely rarely.
My belief in prayer—the reason I tolerate the ankle-biting dog—is because I truly believe in the idea that we are all connected somehow. I believe there are connections between us that haven't been discovered by scientists yet, and it is because of that interconnection that I believe it is possible for prayer to have actual benefits in this world.
Additionally, prayer, or at least the kind of praying I do, allows me to center my thoughts on the things I find most important, which, even if there are no undiscovered "connections" between all living things, still has the benefit of letting my subconscious mind deeply consider how to best serve the most important aspects of my life.
Was it Prometheus or prayer that brought us the gift of controlled fire?
Nevertheless, nearly everything I've said so far is based on nonscientific conjecture, so please know I understand that these ideas stand on a very sandy foundation, but please also understand that people wrote about being able to fly long before airplanes were invented (on a beach).
What I'm really trying to get around to, however, is, supposing my nonscientific conjectures above are accurate, and a properly prayed prayer can affect my or another person's life, what exactly, then, should I be praying about?
The answer, despite how easy the task sounds at the outset, is more difficult to discover than I first thought.
For instance, let's say my fictional friend Rosemary announces her first pregnancy. You would think that, among other things, because I value Rosemary's friendship and happiness, I should pray for the health of the mother and the father and the baby, but what if, at that time, Rosemary is, for whatever reason, not ready to be a mother, and ends up passing on a lot of her worst attributes to a child that eventually kills itself when it's fifteen? And it turns out that what I really should have been praying for was for Rosemary to have several miscarriages before finally successfully birthing a baby that, because of the miscarriages, she takes much more seriously and loves much more fully, and does everything she can to—.
How can I know what to pray for? If I pray for "the best possible outcome," how do I know if that won't involve me or my loved one going through something horrific, or even just extremely tedious and boring, in order to figure out something that proves to—? I highly value wisdom in people, but if I pray for "wisdom" it's the same thing: Both Jesus and Buddha went through the Highs and the Lows of the human experience, and if I am wishing wisdom upon someone I am partly wishing them ill fortune, with, at the bottom of that particular Pandoran Box, Tenacity playing the role of Hope.
Either way, it's kind of fucked.
Because if I pray for someone "to be happy," then sure, you'd think that would mean that things would go their way: They'd get that job, buy that house, have that baby, win that lottery . . . but happy people are content, and content people don't challenge themselves, and happy, content, unchallenged people are some of the worst company in the world.
I would be praying for my loved ones to become unbearable to me.
There are no free lunches: Every step forward we make is because we are chased by death. I've never met a piece of wisdom that entered my soul painlessly.
So what should I be praying for?
My mother has always told me to "put it in God's hands"—meaning I should be praying for God's will to be best served.
Sometimes it is cathartic to imagine putting all of my troubles into God's hands, and sometimes that makes me feel like I am some sort of existential puppet. And I don't want to feel that way, so I need something else to pray for.
It's hard for me to even pray for anything extremely broad, like, "For Life!" Because after all, debilitating diseases—parasites, viruses, and bacteria—are all technically alive. Would I be unintentionally praying for them to thrive as well?
Or does God or The Godly Aspect Of The Human Brain know what we really mean through seeing between the lines and looking at the heart and spirit of our prayers? Is the goodness of my intentions enough, or should I be enlisting the aid of linguists and philosophers to get the wording exactly right?
But what is the wording anyway!
Perhaps I have figured it out:
"I pray that I and my loved ones are given sufficient strength to endure the perils that precede improvement."
But wait: no. That prayer is heavily shaped toward my own, limited viewpoint, so in other words I would be summoning transcendent powers in order to quash my own psychological projections.
A wasted invocation.
How about this?
"Dear God, Read my heart and help me fill in the gaps."
Hmm. Not bad. It's a chance to momentarily reverse the relationship—for The Puppet to hand an enigma back to The Puppetmaster.
I like it.
But would God? The human billions? The trillion others?
Will it suffice?
I don't know. I'll try it and also keep searching, for these are increasingly desperate times, and more and more my hands are forming steeples.
Nothing else has worked.