Praying hands
Photo: Bananastock/Thinkstock
I grew up in an atheist family. While my parents were raised in religious homes—my father in a kosher Jewish house, my mother in a devout Christian Science one—as adults they renounced their adherence to organized religion. They raised their daughters in a religion-free zone.

But I was born spiritual. I longed to belong to some sort of tradition. I used to sneak away from home on Sundays and go to Catholic Mass with my best friend's family. While I had no education in prayer, I prayed all the time. I prayed over dead birds in our suburban neighborhood; I bought gospel music records; I hung a photo of JFK in my bedroom after he was assassinated and prayed to him. My sisters thought I was nuts.

I once heard an Irish writer say that "an essential element in the life of a writer is to have been an outsider in childhood, to have been given the gift of not belonging." This man's gift had been a father whose job kept the family moving from one town to another. This made him an acute observer of people, and, he said, a better writer. My own childhood predicament of not belonging to a religion, of not being given answers to the big questions, awakened in me an intense yearning to understand the mysterious nature of life and death. I went looking for answers everywhere. I became especially fascinated by prayer: how different people pray, to whom they pray, the answers they receive. Over my many years of searching, I have prayed with Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, with Muslims in Egypt, with Buddhists in Nepal, with Hindus in India. I have engaged in prayer rituals with Native Americans, goddess worshippers, pagans and shamans.

What it really means to pray