Pondering the conundrum of prayer

I am of an age when sleep no longer blankets an entire night. Instead, I frequently kick the blanket off, waking in mid-sleep, eyes wide open, mind alert.

Over the years, I have developed two habits designed to ease my body back into its resting state. I turn on the radio, listening to news from whatever part of the world is broadcasting at 4 a.m.  Or, I pray.

Prayer is generally the better habit to follow, for as anyone who prays regularly knows, sleepiness is a certain answer to prayer, regardless of whether you have asked for it. Try it – close your eyes, let your mind settle, begin to talk to God…and sleep creeps in.

This is especially true if you are lying horizontally in a comfortable bed, which is likely why monks and nuns sleep in hard beds and mostly pray on their knees.

I used to feel guilty about falling asleep mid prayer, but I don’t anymore. I think God understands. After all, humans have been falling asleep during their prayers for thousands of years.

Leading up to Easter, one of the most sacred weekends in the Christian calendar, I’ve been reading and re-reading a story in the Bible about the events leading up to today, Good Friday. It’s also a story about prayer.

I turned to the story some weeks ago, not so much because it would help me think about Easter, but because I was looking for some answers to the conundrum that is prayer.

The story takes place on the night before Good Friday, when Jesus was with his followers.  They shared a meal, then went to a garden where Jesus prayed a long, difficult and beautiful prayer.

And where his followers fell asleep.

You should read the story for yourself if you have ever wondered what Easter is all about, or if, like me, you ponder this thing called prayer. You can find it in various places in the Christian Bible, including the books called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (Jesus’ long prayer is found in John 17).

Not surprisingly, I’m still working out what Easter means. And, to be honest, prayer has become more baffling over the years, even as I’ve prayed more.

I am a Christian and I do believe that Jesus really was God in the guise of a human. Every day I make a choice to keep believing this, and to try to follow the teachings of Jesus, which seem to me to represent the best of how we humans ought to live life on this earth.

My faith is not blind or uniformed. There are lots of things about it that I ponder and question, and that raise doubts.  There are also lots of things about my faith that satisfy me, that provide me with a perspective that helps me make sense of this world.

Prayer falls in both of these categories.  I have been intensely disappointed by unanswered prayers, particularly when I’ve prayed for a child to be healed of a disease, or for a damaged marriage to be restored, or for a war to cease.

When the child dies, the marriage fails, the war goes on, I’ve wondered, what good is prayer, really?

But here’s the thing I’m learning, particularly as I read stories about Jesus, like the one I referred to earlier: before we can ask why pray, we ought to ask, what is life?

When Jesus prays for his followers just before his death, he doesn’t ask God to give them an easy life, but he does ask that their lives will be marked by strong, unified relationships and by love.

I’m beginning to think that the ultimate reason for praying is not so that we get a specific answer, although sometimes that does seem to happen.  I haven’t yet figured out why.

Rather, I think the ultimate reason for praying is to gain a perspective on how to embrace life in the midst of all its difficulties and pain. We pray, not for the lottery win, but for the courage to live well without it.

The story of Easter is an interesting one from a human perspective. Jesus prays that his life on earth will be spared. But ultimately he is put to death.

But then, as the Easter story goes, Jesus comes back to life; an entirely different sort of life than the one he was fighting for in prayer for before Good Friday.

On my sleepless nights, when the radio offers me little that’s worth listening to, I turn to prayer. I still pray for specific needs, although I’ve stopped believing fiercely that such requests will be answered.

More often, these days (or nights) as I pray for others, and myself, I ask God to provide a peaceful perspective on life, even if it’s in turmoil. This, I have discovered, is the more satisfying prayer.

Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Her column appears each Friday in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Email her at lmacgibbon@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.

4 thoughts on “Pondering the conundrum of prayer

  1. Thanks for this. Of course there is so much more about prayer but you only have so much space to write your thoughts for the paper!

  2. Really enjoyed this, Lynda – I’m glad Kathryn subscribed us 🙂

    I too feel that prayer is such a conundrum, particularly understanding when and why God chooses to answer and when he doesn’t (in the requested manner, of course).

    Kind of like you, my prayers lately tend towards asking for peace and acceptance of what is, with the odd desperate plea thrown in as needed.

    Keep up the great writing 🙂

  3. I love how you courageously put all my own questions into words. And how you think your way through to a conclusion (mine just linger there, like smoke, then drift away). You are such a wise friend.

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