“I will pray for you”

Quaker meetings don't usually look like this anymore

Sometimes I envy my Christ-y Christian friends their habit of telling people in distress “I will pray for you.”  Coming from someone you trust, from someone whose God is love and whose worship is nurture, those words can be comforting.  The nervous chatter that I tend to fall into when people tell me their troubles comforts no one, I’m sure. 

Of course “I will pray for you” is often far from comforting.  When someone you have no particular reason to trust says that s/he will pray for you, you may hear “I know what’s good for you and am looking for an opportunity to impose that agenda.”  Or, “I wish I could use God as a means to control you and make you into the sort of person I like.” 

Last year Mrs Acilius and I visited a Quaker meeting in Seattle (Seattle-ite readers might want to know that it was University Friends Meeting on 9th Avenue NE.)  University Friends Meeting is unprogrammed, which is to say that the meeting for worship consists of whoever shows up sitting quietly together until someone feels the need to say something.  That person stands up, speaks, then sits down.  The silence resumes. 

One man stood and told the group what he does during silent worship.  He thinks of a person he knows and cares about.  He tries to picture that person in his mind’s eye.  He holds that mental image, the person in front of a plain background of white light, as clearly as he can for as long as he can.  That’s his way of praying for someone.  Since there are no words involved, he doesn’t wish anything on the person. 

I’ve tried this meditative exercise  quite a few times now, and I can recommend it.  Not only do I not spend that time thinking about ways to turn the person I’m thinking of into a different sort of person, but after a few moments any desire I may have had to control the person fades away.  Instead, I become more willing to listen to whoever it is I’m thinking of, to accept him or her as s/he is and to respect his or her own power of decision. 

I think this is where silent meditation in general has an advantage over language-based forms of prayer.  If we are to live life as it comes at us and to accept people as they are, it will be because we are able, first, to distinguish between those few things we ought to control and the infinite number of things we ought not to control, and, second, to show respect to that which we ought not to control.  We should respect other individual humans, other cultures, other countries; non-human animals, non-animal life, and the ecological systems in which they thrive; the world of the past, the possibilities of the future, and the immensities of space.  I’ve often thought that the reason I’m more relaxed outdoors in a natural setting than inside my apartment or my office is that when I’m in a space that belongs to me, my eye constantly lights on things I might control, or that I have controlled, or that I should control.  There’s the computer; I might control that, and do any number of things.  There’s a bookcase; I bought those books and put them into order on the shelves.  There’s a pile of papers; I should file them in an orderly way.  Outdoors, I see the trees, the soil, the sky; they get along quite all right without my control. 

When we produce language, whether by speaking or signing or writing, we are faced with a continual series of decisions, of factors subject to our control.  Which words we use, how we structure those words into sentences, which other participants in the conversation we acknowledge and how we acknowledge them, these are all matters we try to control precisely.  Language, in turn, is a tool we use to control our world, by classifying knowledge, developing social networks, and crafting tools.  Language can be a tool we use to control each other.  Because language is so bound up with the idea of control, no one who prays in words is ever more than one step away from trying to cast a spell.  Silent meditation, on the other hand, is a way of letting go, of renouncing control.  Through it, we become more aware of our surroundings as they are and less concerned with the way things used to be or the way they ought to be.  Silent meditation may be a tool of some kind, but it certainly is not a tool for remaking the world in one’s own image.  In silent meditation, we may even let the world remake us.