Today was the National Day of Prayer and the township I work for sponsored an ecumenical service to mark the occasion. I know people get all hot and bothered about separation of church and state issues but, last I checked, all the Constitution stated was “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By not favoring one creed over another or establishing an official American faith, this allowed people to practice whatever religion they subscribed to in private and public. Personally, I think the Founders made a good call, but that doesn’t stop the annual hysterics over displaying a Nativity Scene in front of town hall. Since local faith communities give boatloads of stuff to my food pantry, however, I thought it would be apropos to attend the event. Luckily, I didn’t have to speak. 

The service was set to begin at noon and, if the promise of touching the transcendent wasn’t enough, the organizers were serving free lunch. Even agnostics will show up for that. Looking at my watch, I got up from my desk to go downstairs when my office doorbell rang. It was a client looking for food. I idly thought of saying, “Sorry you’re out of luck. I have to go to a prayer meeting,” but something told me that’d piss off The Man Upstairs. Of course, the client took forever, making me worry that all eats would be gobbled up by the faithful before I set a foot out the door. 

Luckily, one of my volunteers showed up and I made it to the tail end of the service as rabbi was saying prayers in Hebrew. Noticing an empty seat by an Iman, I sat down and listened as the rabbi completed his spiel. When he finished, he walked over, looked at me, and then sat down on the other side of the Muslim cleric.  Sitting in the warm sunshine, I listened attentively as the Inman, a minister, and a nun said their prayers, thinking it was nice to see religious pluralism in action for once. Then we sang “America the Beautiful” and broke for lunch. I was among the first in line. 

“You swiped the rabbi’s seat,” my boss said with a smile. 

“Oh,” I said. “That’s why he looked at me funny.” 

When I got to the head of the line, the woman serving asked me what kind of sandwich I wanted. “Turkey on rye please,” I said. Then she proceeded to carefully plate half a sandwich in a manner that stated, “And that’s all you’re getting.” I thought about making a quip about the miracle of the loaves and fishes but relented. She just wanted to make sure there was enough to go around. But still. 

Walking around the lunchroom, I said hello to some ministers and made nice with a couple of long time donors and then took my sandwich upstairs to my office. “Where’d you get that?” one of my volunteers said. ‘Believe in God and you get fed. Atheists get nothing!” I cried. Luckily, my volunteer is used to my sense of humor.

After polishing off my sandwich, I still felt hungry and ventured downstairs for seconds. The love of free food was baked into me during my clerical days because, if you didn’t feed us seminarians when we came to do a vocation talk or help with a prayer service, we’d get downright ornery. Munching on my second gratis sandwich, I remembered raiding the kitchen of a monastery late on Good Friday when we were all cloistered for our Holy Week retreat. Though we’d constructed monster sandwiches and liberated copious amount of beer, we just sat and looked at our feast because it was still a day of fasting and we couldn’t touch it. Then one of my classmates jumped on a table, moved the hands of the kitchen clock to midnight and cried, “Let’s eat!”  Needless to say, we were never invited back to that monastery again. 

Chuckling at the memory of our thievery, I chucked my paper plate into the garbage and went to the bathroom to wash my hands, looking forward to the oatmeal cookie I’d scored for dessert. In the washroom mirror, however, I was shocked at the older man staring back at me and remembered that felonious feast was almost forty years ago. My goodness how much has changed since then. When I was a kid, I believed you could ask God for stuff and he’d sometimes deliver but, as I got older, I realized that was pure and utter nonsense or, as Jim Morrison famously put it, “You cannot petition the Lord with Prayer.” 

First off, when you treat God like Santa Claus or a slot machine, contradictions will inevitably arise. Take for instance, two mothers praying for the safe return of an abducted child. If one comes home safe and sound while the other’s found dead in a ditch, you’ve got to wonder if God plays favorites. “Oh,” some religious will say, “It’s all part of His will. It’s a mystery we don’t understand.” Sorry, don’t help me find my kid while helping someone else find theirs and I will write you off forever. Then you’ve got people who say, “God doesn’t always give you what you want, but he always gives you what you need.” If that was true, my food pantry would be out of business, but people still starve to death every day. And let’s face it, people find it easier to pass the buck upstairs by sending “thoughts and prayers” instead of actually doing something. 

God, being omniscient and all, knows everything we ask him, but the only ones who answer prayers are, you guessed it, us. When I had cancer, I certainly asked God for help, but the one who actually saved my bacon was the Indian immigrant kid who paid attention in science class and grew up to become a surgeon. The only reason one of my coworkers is alive today is because some people took chemistry seriously and helped develop drugs to cure her cancer.  And, in a small way, I know the only reason some people are still standing is because I helped them at the moment they needed it most. People answer prayers and if you count on Deus Ex Machina, you’re probably gonna be out of luck. 

Catholics and Protestants, to oversimplify greatly, differ somewhat when it comes to doctrines regarding faith and good works – “Faith without works is dead” versus you “You are saved by faith alone,” They’re both right of course, but not in the way most people think. If you have all the faith in the world and never lift a finger to help your fellow man, then you’re nothing but a pious fraud. But what about people who do good works but are not Christians or don’t believe in God at all? Are they going to burn in Hell just because they don’t have faith or fail subscribe to a particular brand of it? But, as it was explained to me by a very wise man, “You are indeed saved by faith alone, for the only reason anyone does good works at all is because they already have faith within themselves.” So, whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Zoroastrian, atheist secular humanist or believe Xenu is going to take you on a spaceship the Promised Land, those who seek to alleviate suffering and want are moved by faith, even if they wouldn’t describe it as such. 

Prayer is simply getting to that place in our hearts where we can experience what is Truly Real. Does that mean spending long hours kneeling in church, fasting on Ramadan, observing High Holy Days, or chanting “Ohm” while doing yoga? It’s those things, sure – but the Real is also found in nature, art, music, and literature. It can be heard in the cry of a newborn or holding the hand of a loved one or stranger as they pass away. It is found listening to someone in pain, dancing at a wedding, tucking your kid in at night, or doing what’s right with no hope of reward for yourself. But no matter what it is, you will only find the Truly Real in reality

Sorry, God is not interested in helping you become rich, thin, and successful no matter how much you ask him. He doesn’t favor one football team or country over the other, He just Is. Now, that may sound like God’s some kind of remote figure who doesn’t give a shit, but that’s not it at all. As St. Augustine once wrote “God became Man so Man could become God,” and the only way that could happen is if God is human too, although on an infinitely greater level.  Admittedly, this is a Christian perspective, but it tells me that in order to get in touch with The Real, you have to strive to become more human, not less. And what better way to do that than to help people? Humanity answers prayers, not devout gibberish, or casual promises of “positive energy and good thoughts.” Prayer, whatever form it’s in or whether it’s recognized as such, is how we get in touch with our faith in each other which, if we let it, moves our hearts into action.

If that’s not The Divine, I don’t know what is. 

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