In the summer of 1825, young Ralph Waldo Emerson took a break from his theological studies to work outside Newton, Massachusetts in the fields of his uncle Ladd. There he met a laborer known to history only as “a Methodist named Tarbox,” who told Emerson a simple but memorable truth: “that men were always praying, and that all prayers were granted.”
In contrast to the brain-crushing theological arguments Emerson was being subjected to in Cambridge, Tarbox’s statement is what, in his excellent Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr. calls an insight delivered from the “uneducated to the unenlightened.” And while this is the only recorded encounter between the two men, Tarbox forever remained at the top of Emerson’s list of the people who had influenced him most. Little wonder: The idea of constant prayer was probably not new to Emerson, writes Richardson, but he “first felt its force for real life” there in his uncle’s fields.
What is prayer? In its simplest form, prayer is an address to a deity. But in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson says that “prayer is in all action,” and he gives as an example the farmer kneeling not to ask God for a bountiful harvest but simply to weed his field.
The more I read and thought and talked to people about prayer, the more its definition broadened. And so did the definition of the faithful: Sure, those who pray include people who bend the knee in a church or mosque or synagogue, but the number of prayerful people in this world exceeds by many multiples that cartoon image of the man in his pajamas by his bedside, asking God for smarter kids or a merger with the XYZ Corporation or maybe just a good night’s sleep. Everyone prays, but in different ways and with varying degrees of success.
I mean to describe here how people pray and what they get out of it. You may discover a way to pray that’s right for you, though it’s more likely that you’ll learn that you’ve been praying your whole life, even though you’ve never called it that. I’ll also use examples to show the utility of prayer, even for non-believers like myself. Because the best thing about prayer is that it works whether you believe in it or not
Nearly everybody likes the idea of prayer. In that sense, prayer is like orthopedic surgery or web design—you don’t do either one and you don’t even think about them most of the time, but you’re glad that others know how to operate and write code and get God’s ear.
I wrote a book in 2009 about rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard, and from time to time he and I would talk on the phone. There are several Little Richards, and I never knew which one would answer, the angry and suspicious one (“Everybody took advantage of me my whole life long!”), or the friendly altruist (“What kind of car do you drive? Is it a good one? Does it have good tires?”), or the Little Richard who was merely indifferent (“I’m tired, David, and I don’t have time to talk to you”). In recent years he’d had a hip replacement that apparently hadn’t gone well; he was grumpy more than half the time, and our conversations became shorter.
The last time I talked to him, I found myself speaking to Richard the altruist, the one who always inquired about my wife Barbara (or “BAH-bruh!” as he always called her). “How’s “BAH-bruh!” he asked. Doing well as can be expected, I said, considering her mother had recently died. “Oh! What was her name?” said Richard. Clarencena, I replied. “Spell it!” he said, and as I began, he said, “Hold on a second—I need to find a pencil.” I could hear him rummaging around in a desk, and when he got back on the line, I spelled out “Clarencena” letter by letter as Richard repeated each one after me. When we’d finished, he said, “David, I’ve got people with me now. But when they’re gone, I will pray for her.”
So here is a founding architect of rock ‘n’ roll, as he is often and justly called, a man who began life as a poor black gay cripple (one of his legs is shorter than the other) in a little town nobody ever heard of and became a global superstar until the night in Sydney, Australia, when he saw a burning Sputnik satellite in the sky and took it as a sign from God to quit showbiz and become an ordained minister of Christ, promising me that he will pray for my mother-in-law.
Now imagine God sitting at his big desk in heaven, and his phone is all lit up, and his secretary comes in and says, “There’s a fourth grader who wants to get an A on his science quiz and also a girl who wants her boyfriend to propose even though he treats her badly and by now she can’t stand him, either. Oh, and Little Richard, too.” Whose call do you think the Creator is more likely to take? Can you imagine God saying anything other than, “Line three, Audrey—I’ll take line three.”
See how prayer works? I don’t believe in God, but I still love to think about Him talking to Little Richard.
If it’s uplifting to think of one person praying for you and yours, how much better is it to think of many doing the same thing. In the fall of 2003, on the day I was to receive a major award from my university, I awoke feeling light-headed and feverish, and by the time of the ceremony, my only hope was that I could get on and off stage without throwing up on the president as he handed me my plaque. The next morning, I could get around only if I put my hands on the walls.
It turned out that I had somehow contracted West Nile virus, the cure for which consisted largely of sleeping, drinking lots of fluids, and waiting for the disease to work its way through your system, which, in my case, took around five weeks. West Nile is a particularly discouraging condition; unlike, say, a cold, which bottoms out after three days or so and then recedes as the patient regains health, West Nile bobs up and down like the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a turbulent market period. I found myself feeling much better after several days, but then the aches and nausea would return with a vengeance.
Many things shaped my recovery for the better and cheered me on the days when I felt I was making no progress at all: sunlight, reading, calls from friends, Barbara’s tender care, Clint Eastwood movies. But one of the things that made me feel best when I learned about it, and continues to make me feel good to this day when I think about it, was a prayer circle formed by one of my students.
What that prayer circle practiced was Praying 101; those people asked for one thing (my return to health) from one being (God). No hippie high thoughts and good feelings here: instead, a direct plea, one vibration multiplied by the number of those who prayed, which was about twenty depending on the evening. These group prayers started the week I got sick, and the supplicants stuck by me the whole time.
See how prayer works? In its narrow definition (“an address to a deity”), I don’t believe it works. But I love to think of people praying for me.
So it’s possible to pray individually, like Little Richard, or in groups, as at a weekly service or in a prayer circle. What about constant prayer, though? Several years after the West Nile incident, I found myself in the vestibule of a little church on a hill outside Florence—Italy, not South Carolina. A brother of the Franciscan order is just coming off his shift at a perpetual prayer vigil; he pauses when he sees me and smiles, so I ask him why he and the others pray all night. “That’s when the devil’s out,” he says.
Good answer, yes? The young Franciscan also says the rates are cheaper then, and when I ask what he means by that, he says it’s like long-distance calling, at least as it used to be: Everybody prays during the day, so at night there’s less traffic. During the day, he says, students pray for good grades, women pray for grandchildren. At night, he says, it’s just us.
Montaigne would have approved of my priest’s good-sense approach to petitioning the divine. Indeed, Montaigne had a favorite all-purpose prayer. “All necessary petitions” are contained in the Lord’s Prayer, he said: Give us our daily bread, forgive our wrongdoings (as long as we forgive others), and keep us from harm. It’s the one prayer that is applicable “in all places and conditions,” says Montaigne, which is why “I have no other entirely by heart.”
Actually, most Catholics in my experience have at least one other prayer by heart, the Act of Contrition that begins, “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee.” Mishearing this prayer as a child, I substituted “partly” for “heartily” until a scornful nun pointed out my error. Then again, I was only five when I learned the Act of Contrition, and I didn’t know what “heartily” meant. The main thing is that I was only partly sorry for almost all of my juvenile misdemeanors: I knew it was wrong to eat my brother’s half-finished candy bar when he left it on the kitchen counter, but I remember to this day how good it tasted.
Thus I would have not met Montaigne’s standards as a just petitioner, for our souls must be filled with “calmness, patience, and devotion” as we pray, he says—certainly we must never ask God’s help in out pursuit of our “vices” and “unjust designs,” or otherwise we will be like the young prince of whom Marguerite of Navarre tells, who, on his way to lie with another man’s wife, knelt to pray in a church both going to this lewd assignation and returning from it.
Montaigne quotes Plato as saying neither the gods nor good men will accept the present of a wicked man. Virtue on the part of one who prays is not just more effective, though. It’s cheaper: As Montaigne says in the final lines of his essay on prayer (quoting Horace this time), “If a pure hand touch the altar, the pious offering of a small cake and a few grains of salt will appease the offended gods more effectually than costly sacrifices.”
Wonderful thought, but what do the rest of us do, especially we non-religious folk who don’t drop to our knees nightly but who embrace the same goals as those who pray regularly? We, too, want lives filled with purpose, lives like that of Emerson’s farmer in his field, lives filled with action that fulfills us and serves others as well.
Emerson’s definition of prayer would make sense to my students, especially as graduation nears and the world of work beckons. I teach the humanities, and in this job market, you can say of humanities classrooms what is said often of trenches: There are no atheists there. My students are prayerful, though in the Emersonian way, which is to say they pray by doing, because they know that, unlike their peers in engineering or accounting, they have a largely unmarked journey ahead of them before they find their place in the world,
That journey can take one of two forms. When you go to an airline site to plan a trip, the first question you’re asked is whether you want a one-way or a multi-city ticket. As a job-seeking humanities grad, you have the same choice: You can travel toward a single destination or you can hop from one place to another. (There’s also a round-trip option, but I’ll get to that later.)
My student Joanna was a multi-city traveler. Joanna double-majored in Creative Writing and Theatre. Her honors thesis was a play, but she couldn’t see herself living the struggling bohemian life in New York, so she took the law school admissions test. She scored well, but when it came time to apply to law school, Joanna froze. What she wanted to do more than anything else, she realized, was help others.
Her first stop was an adjunct position at a local community college, and from there she went on to teach ninth grade, where she found herself mired in local bureaucracy and campus politics. Her next stop was an adjunct position at a community college, where she encountered students whose backgrounds were drastically different from hers: products of poor school systems, single parents with too many kids, people trying to escape the webs of violence in their neighborhoods, or even in their own homes. It was here, Joanna told me, that, “I learned what equity and injustice really were.”
Deciding to address the cause at the root, she became a ninth-grade teacher in a failing school district in New Orleans. And that’s when she realized she needed to move beyond local bureaucracy and campus politics. So she applied to graduate programs in higher education administration that fall and entered the University of Pennsylvania’s M.S.Ed. program one year later. From there, she went on to the doctoral program in urban education policy at the University of Southern California, where she is now, examining how institutional management of campus climate and culture affects student retention and learning outcomes. Her new goal, she says, is “to join the professoriate and continue my research in this area while teaching the next generation of students about the issues surrounding educational attainment.”
Remember, she started out as a playwright. There’s no connection between where Joanna started and where she ended up except the connection she herself made through constant Emersonian prayer.
Ben was also a multi-city traveler. He wrote a master’s thesis under my direction—a collection of poems—but he was also the lead singer of a band that signed with a major label and started touring. Ben tired quickly of the music-for-money lifestyle, however, and decided to become a teacher. He, too, became an adjunct. (The a-word tends to rear its head often when multi-city travelers tell their stories). Fine, but teaching at three different schools during the same year took a toll the way touring with the band did, so he decided he needed some professional development and found Texas Tech’s online Ph.D. program in technical communication and rhetoric.
“The rhetoric part sounded interesting,” says Ben, “but I had no real understanding of what technical communication was.” That didn’t stop him, though: He applied, was accepted, and soon found himself learning how technology could be used creatively. Ben’s breakthrough came when he realized how his master’s work in poetry connected to his doctoral work in a technological field. How were people using technology to be creative? How did the poetic transfer to digital environments? Ben is now an assistant professor at a big state university. He says, “I wasn’t able to find my identity as a scholar until I made connections with what I’d done in the past. Once I saw those connections I realized that I am still a poet and strive for the poetic, but that training informs my work in ways I never expected.”
Some travelers don’t range as far afield as Joanna and Ben did. Laura, for example, is what I call a one-way traveler; she knew what she wanted from the beginning, which was to get into trade publishing. Like Joanna, she wrote a creative undergraduate thesis but then headed straight to New York, where she juggled unpaid editorial work at a small independent press with a magazine job she wasn’t especially interested in while taking night classes in literature at NYU. Then came her break. Laura became a publisher’s assistant at a major press, which at first meant fetching coffee and answering phones, though lately her responsibilities have increased and her goal of becoming a book editor is now close to a reality. “With every project I work on, titles that I acquire, and young agents I connect with,” Laura says, “I feel this goal becoming more and more tangible.” Already, she says, she has an office “with an actual door.” An answer to a prayer, no doubt.
All three of my former students are living fulfilled, creative lives because they practiced prayer as Emerson defined it: not kneeling to ask for something, but acting. And as Tarbox promised, their prayers were answered, if not always in ways they foresaw. As Ben says, “The hardest part for me was getting over the hurdle of who I imagined I’d be.” Using your imagination, stretching it into places you never thought it could go, can also be a form of prayer because, whatever else it is, prayer is often a flinging of hope into the maw of the improbable. You don’t need to pray for a sure thing.
In using a farmer as his example of prayer in action, Emerson doesn’t mention an aspect of that kind of praying that would have been obvious to every reader in his day, which is mindfulness. In 1841, the year “Self-Reliance” was published, the United States was slowly adopting new technologies, but big industry wouldn’t develop at breakneck speed until after the Civil War, and the nation’s economy was still largely agricultural. Even today, no farmer walks out into his field at mid-morning and says, “Gee, I wonder what I should do today?” A farmer ruminates constantly, much as the Franciscan brothers in the little church outside Florence do. Weevils, weather, market demand: These are collectively to the farmer what the devil is to the godly.
When I was starting out in academe, I was invited once to a literary festival in a small town in Alabama. I’m sure there was no honorarium. I even doubt that expenses were covered, and when I received a copy of the program, the best-known writer there was me, someone who wasn’t known at all. At the last minute, I almost decided not to go, but a deal’s a deal, so reluctantly I threw a bag in the back of my dented Chevrolet Vega and set out.
I recall nothing about the conference except one thing, which I think about almost every day. There was a talk on editing, given by the late Ted Solotaroff, best known for his stint at Harper & Row, where he worked with Russell Banks, Robert Bly, Bobbie Ann Mason, and other writers. In the course of his remarks, Solotaroff said (and I found his words later in his 1987 collection A Few Good Voices in My Head: Occasional Pieces on Writing, Editing, and Reading My Contemporaries) that a piece of writing is often a writer’s “only way to organize and to some extent comprehend life’s fullness and perplexity.”
Think how bold that modest statement is. There you are with your early life experiences, the ups and downs of the present day, and all of your fantasies, fears, and plans for the future. How to make sense of it all? You get out pen and paper or switch on your computer (or just go for a walk, for that matter), and before long, you’re on your way to organizing everything and “to some extent” perhaps understanding it. And isn’t “some extent” enough? To comprehend fully is impossible; none of us is that smart or lucky. Besides, partial comprehension is a whole lot better than the murk you were drowning in just a few hours ago.
To write is to pray, in the Emersonian sense of praying, for prayer is properly understood as a means of introspection. And of course there’s no such thing as writing that isn’t mindful, isn’t introspective. A prayer is very much like a poem, and it is hardly a coincidence that many prayers are poems: King David’s psalms are just one example of the genre. Both a prayer and a poem look at possibilities, create priorities, do their best to get rid of the non-essential, and are sent into the air by a sender who has no idea what will happen to them.
And if poets pray as they write poems, so do others pray in their daily practice. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that a lawyer views his work as a form of prayer (“If I tell the jury about his charity work and can keep his priors out of court, we have a chance”), and the same for the engineer (“I should have used pricier materials, but those villagers needed a bridge over that river, and it’ll be okay as long as there are no earthquakes”). By Emerson’s farmer-in-the-field definition of praying, more of the non-faithful pray than do those who regularly attend religious services.
One thing prayer does is to center us. Reflection while working or writing or simply sitting quietly may range over the past (that hurtful thing I said to my fourth-grade teacher, the friend at work who needed a shoulder to cry on) and the future (caring for a parent, a pet, yourself). But the greatest thing it does is to return us to the present. We travel back and forward again, but we end up right here and right now, which is the only place and time we can ever really do any good for anyone. If for lack of prayer we are not mindful often enough of that simple fact, we can get into trouble. In one of Martin Buber’s Hasidic tales, a rabbi named Meir worries that when he faces God at the end of his life, God will ask him, “Meir, why did you not become Meir?”
In praying, the means matter so much more than the end. I have read dozens of books and articles in the course of my research on prayer and was surprised to discover how useless most of the traditional studies were. I learned more by talking to thoughtful people and by reading works on different types of mindful action; put “why reading is good for you” into a search engine and you’ll find hundreds of studies in that area alone. I also read a number of treatises combining neuroscience, psychology, cognitive therapy, and behavioral studies. In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, Alex Korb suggests, without referring to it by name, that prayer can take the form of looking for something to be grateful for, noting that the search for gratitude produces the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical that helps maintain mood balance and prevent depression. But Dr. Korb’s big revelation is that you don’t have to find something to be grateful for; you just have to search to get the effect. In his homey metaphor, Korb points out that the pursuit of piscine life forms is called “fishing,” not “catching.” This is brilliant.
Several months of reading and talking to people about prayer only confirmed my belief in Emerson’s sense of prayer as mindful action. In classical cultural artifacts—in the plays of Shakespeare, for example—prayer is treated as little more than an address to a deity. In our day, however, prayer is often examined in a way that suggests a broader definition.
The fullest treatment of prayer in recent imaginative literature is contained in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. It’s a book that had a big impact on my generation, yet I wondered if it had any meaning for the millennials, so I asked several of them. What I learned was that young readers who liked the book really liked it. Some of the replies I got ranged from, “I’ve read Franny and Zooey many times; an undergrad professor introduced me to it but it wasn’t taught in a class” to “I read it a million times as a college freshman” and “there was a moment in my late teenagehood when I think I could have recited Franny and Zooey.”
Salinger’s book is in two parts. First comes the story “Franny,” the eponymous heroine, one of the precocious Glass children who were so bright that they starred on their own radio show, It’s a Wise Child—though their adult years are proving troubled. (The oldest brother, Seymour, famously takes his life in another Salinger story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”) The story is set largely in a restaurant when Franny meets her college boyfriend Lane for escargots and martinis at the beginning of a football weekend.
She has read a book called The Way of the Pilgrim that encourages its readers to pray without ceasing, that is, to say a short prayer asking God for forgiveness over and over. “The thing is,” she explains to Lane, “the marvelous thing is, when you first start doing it, you don’t even have to have faith in what you’re doing. . . . All you have to have in the beginning is quantity. Then, later on, it becomes quality by itself. On its own power or something.” The Buddhists have a similar practice, she says, as do the Hindus: “I mean all these really advanced and absolutely unbogus religious persons that keep telling you if you repeat the name of God incessantly, something happens.” The story ends with Franny fainting, overcome by fervor or gin or perhaps her growing sense that her relationship with Lane is doomed.
The second part of Franny and Zooey is the novella “Zooey.” Here Franny has returned to her childhood home, where she is cared for by her mother and her brother Zooey, an actor. Zooey says to his sister: “There’s something about the way you’re going at this prayer that gives me the willies, if you want to know the truth. . . . As a matter of simple logic, there’s no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who’s greedy for material treasure—or even intellectual treasure—and the man who’s greedy for spiritual treasure.”
They quarrel; Franny becomes hysterical, and Zooey leaves the room. When the conversation resumes, he tells her that their brother Seymour, the suicide who haunts the story, told Zooey to shine his shoes “for the Fat Lady” when the Glass children appeared on It’s a Wise Child. He recalls that, “this terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and—I don’t know.”
Calmer now, Franny says that Seymour told her about the Fat Lady as well: “He told me to be funny for the Fat Lady. . . . I didn’t ever picture her on a porch, but with very—you know—very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too, though, and she had the radio going full-blast all day! Mine did, too!”
The two fractious siblings are on common ground now. Remembering the high-pressure childhood they shared and the influence of the doomed Seymour, who continues to hover over them, part big brother and part saint, Zooey says that, as an actor, he always acts for the Fat Lady, be it on Broadway or in summer stock or on the radio. And that’s the secret, he says: “There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.” The story ends with Franny lying quietly, smiling at the ceiling, then falling into “a deep, dreamless sleep.”
Franny has been wised up. She sees that addressing the deity over and over is meaningless, that mindful action is the most important part of prayer. It is as if she somehow came upon and understood a verse from Psalms the way rabbis understand it: “Taste and see how good is the Lord.” (34:8) In other words, don’t think, just do it—and later you’ll understand. And you don’t have to be a farmer, either; if you’re an actor like Zooey, mindful action means doing your best in a particular role, however trivial.
Franny is organized and partly comprehending, as Ted Solotaroff might say. We don’t know what she’s going to do and we needn’t know. Like most literary stories, this one ends indeterminately, something that’s true of all great art. A song like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” depicts a friendless man, one who is tired of living but afraid to die, yet a man who has organized his life and partly comprehends it, who is confident that things will get better. In taking the time to show people engaged in the search for mindful action, songs and books like these are not about prayer; they are prayer.
Oh, about that travel metaphor I used earlier in describing my students’ journeys. Of course there’s a third choice when you buy an air ticket. In addition to one way and multi-city, there’s round trip. But the thing about praying in the Emersonian way is that there is no such thing as a round trip. You never end up where you started, even if you think otherwise. Tarbox knew that. He wouldn’t have known what an airplane was, but he knew that all prayers are answered, that every life is transformed, even if you don’t know when or how. All you have to do is keep praying.