Praying to the Boogeyman
My parents never taught us to pray. My father regarded religion as just one more distasteful reminder of his childhood, like having to get up at four a.m. to milk the cows. For my mother, religion occupied a place somewhat akin to good table manners in the grand scheme of things, providing moral uplift and a civilizing influence on her children, who otherwise threatened to descend into barbarism. However, her appreciation of religion did not extend to the practice of prayer, so the actual teaching of it was left to others. I learned the Lord's Prayer in school, back in the days when prayer was still part of the standard curriculum. Bedtime prayers I learned from a babysitter, one of a series of large black women who stayed with my siblings and me when my parents went away on trips.
Our babysitter must have been appalled by our blank looks when she first announced it was time to get ready for bed and say our prayers. She was a God-fearing woman who immediately took it upon herself to put some of that fear into us. The bedtime prayer was not hard to learn, but I found it more than a little disquieting. The "now I lay me down to sleep" part was fine for openers. The disquiet came when she got to the part about dying: "If I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take." I'm sure this was meant to be comforting. But who said anything about dying? I was at an age when just being alone in the dark was terrifying enough. Here I had been abandoned by my parents and left in the clutches of this large black woman who raised the specter of dying in my sleep. And now I was supposed to be reassured by the thought that God would take my soul, which I would just as soon keep for myself, thank you very much. All in all, I would rather have taken my chances with the boogeyman.
I wonder now whether my attitude toward prayer was forever distorted by this small childhood trauma, or whether it merely gave me an essential insight into the true dynamics of prayer. After all, when do we pray? More often than not, it is when we are afraid. Something bad has happened to us or to someone we care about, and we want God to make it better. Or we are afraid something bad might happen, and we pray that God will protect us against misfortunate. Or perhaps we feel something is lacking, and we pray that God won't overlook our needs. We look around and see that most of God's children live in squalor and misery, and we thank God it is not us, even though they are presumably God's children, too. We arrive safely at our destination and thank God we have not been killed or maimed, knowing that someone else wasn't so lucky. Why them and not us? Was God punishing them for their sins? Did they forget to pray? How exactly is this God different from the boogeyman?
For lessons in faith, it is sometimes helpful to look to the pagans. "Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish," Marcus Aurelius advised, "but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life." Of course, Marcus Aurelius' life did not end tranquilly; he was murdered by his son. But chances are, he did not trouble himself by praying that he would die in bed or by trying to strike any other kind of bargain with his Maker. For him, as for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, there was finally only one prayer: Thy will be done.
Home | Readings