The Day Prayer Changes from "Please" to "Thank You"
I'm not proud that, in my time, I've tried to harness the power of prayer to fit into a pair of jeans. I wasn't raised to pray like that. Having grown up Catholic, my prayers were scripted—memorized and deployed in church and before bed. As a young adult, I veered off script and talked to God more plainly. And by "talked to," I mean that I basically asked for things to turn out the way I wanted them to. I was sure I knew how my story should unfold, and I just needed to get God on the same page. But this strategy broke down when I was 26. That was when my mother became terminally ill; when God seemed to ignore my prayers to save her, that shattered my faith. I didn't pray for years. Why bother?
But prayer—as a manifestation of our fundamental need to hope and believe—has a way of...waiting for you. After all, the option to pray never goes away. I ended up returning to it reflexively, in my next darkest hours. And, brought to my knees, figuratively and literally, by losing a marriage and a dream job simultaneously, I started petitioning with "please" again. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and in the foxhole of my divorce, I found solace in walking to St. Patrick's Cathedral and lighting candles. Somehow the doing of creating light coupled with the asking felt more potent. And what I asked was this: "Please show me what I'm supposed to do and who I'm supposed to be." Sometimes I just said, "Help."
Maybe releasing myself and the Lord/Universe/Insert Your Favorite Higher Power Name Here from explicit requests was helpful for both of us. Because, with a lot of pain, rejection and perseverance, creative fulfillment and love eventually emerged in my life.
The love came largely in the form of my now-husband. The fact that he's Jewish did not stop us from lighting church candles in every country to which we traveled during our breathless first year of courtship. We'd only been dating for 10 months when I informed him, at an altar in Hong Kong, that I was praying we'd have a family. We prayed for healing after my first miscarriage. On our honeymoon, months later, I was pregnant again, and my groom used his best Italian to sneak us into vespers in Florence and Venice so we could pray that the weeks-old life inside me would grow into the little boy we have today. Through rounds of IVF, I prayed at our neighborhood's Church of the Blessed Sacrament, always at the foot of its Mary statue, because she's a woman and probably gets it even if she definitely did not do fertility treatments. I asked God for a healthy baby. An answer arrived in my daughter.
Sometime in the last year, without my really noticing it, my prayers changed. Recently, I observed the 20th anniversary of my mother's death. I wore her Celtic cross necklace and braced myself for a deeply sad day. And I did cry, many times that day. I cried when I dropped my son off at kindergarten and he made x's and o's for me with his fingers from the "waving window" in his school stairwell. I cried when my daughter sat on my lap as her nursery school class sang "You Are My Sunshine." A dear friend—also motherless—took the day off from work to meet in the park so we could laugh and cry together about missing our moms. I wiped away tears as my best male girlfriend, who's also my kids' godfather, walked with me to church and assured me that my mother was part of it all. And more tears gathered, hot behind my eyes, when my husband stood behind me at Blessed Sacrament, lighting candles, as I knelt at Mary's familiar feet to pray.
And here's the prayer that came out of me, after the 20 years of missing Mom, after all the day's tears:
That was it. I surprised myself by not needing, or wanting, to say anything else. My heart was full because my life is full. My prayers had turned from "Please?" to "Thank you."
Because, I realized, my sadness came from longing for my mother to be a part of the wonderful life I have now. That I cried because I want my mom to know her grandchildren and my husband and to know me as the woman I've grown up to be makes me very lucky indeed. “Hashtag blessed,” as they say.
Now, having a lot doesn't mean you have it all. We're experiencing troubling employment question marks in our family that make our future uncertain. Projects to which I've devoted myself, sacrificing priceless time with my children during their earliest years, have not panned out. I'm headed toward 50 and have never fulfilled the dream of owning a home. My father and I are far apart on what makes America great again—or ever. Friends have died. What I'm trying to say is that life isn't perfect just because I've illuminated and supplicated. And God knows I'm not perfect, or even very evolved, since I've invoked a higher power while dueling with tight jeans.
What I know about prayer is that it can never hurt. That it clarifies things, because, at least for me, it's about figuring out what you want, for yourself and others. "Please?" is good. It's honest; it's vulnerable. But what I pray to remain my prayer is "Thank you." Being okay with what we've lost and about the not-knowingness of the future (I guess that's called faith). "Thank you" is when prayer becomes about not what we don't have, but what we do have.
Faith Salie is the author of Approval Junkie: My Heartfelt (and Occasionally Inappropriate) Quest to Please Just About Everyone, and Ultimately Myself and appears on CBS News Sunday Morning and NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! She is also the host of Science Goes to the Movies on PBS.