Saturday, July 16, 2005

Action and reaction: prayer

At American Digest, Gerard van der Leun has written an interesting piece on prayer and why it isn't often answered in the way people might want (and sometimes even expect) it to be.

Reading it brought to mind an article I read quite a few years ago on the subject of prayer. It appeared where I would have least expected it--in some magazine like Esquire, or perhaps Vanity Fair, which I think I was probably reading in a dentist's office.

Unfortunately, I no longer recall the author's name or the magazine in which it actually appeared. But the premise of the article was that the writer, a complete nonbeliever who was experiencing some sort of huge crisis (midlife or otherwise), decided in his desperation to pray daily, even though he was without belief. He kept this up for a year or more, not knowing quite where he was going with it, and he found to his great surprise that the very act of prayer had an effect--but the effect was on him.

Prayer didn't necessarily get him what he wanted, not by a longshot. But he ended up changing as a person. He changed what he wanted, and changed what he was praying for, or praying about. He was calmer, more accepting, more "spiritual." And this was true even though he initially felt awkward and stupid praying, and was without any belief for quite a long time.

If you go back to one of my early pieces on change, I wrote:

So here is a somewhat dry (and, mercifully, relatively brief!) introduction to the topic of how therapists view the process of change in therapy.

Of course, like any other discipline, therapy has no lack of theories from which to choose. But the one that made most sense to me when I was studying marriage and family therapy was the idea that change can occur on any--or all--of the following dimensions: cognition, feeling, and behavior (another way to describe the three would be thought, emotion, and action). I would also add a fourth, the spiritual, but for the purposes of therapeutic change or political change we can safely ignore that one...

Intervening to change one dimension could end up changing another, and ultimately changing them all. The idea was that lasting change could start anywhere, but would then (at least, ideally) cause a ripple effect that would end up changing the family or individual on all three dimensions.

To use a very simple example with an individual: changing a thought ("I'm ugly") could lead to a change in behavior (going out more) that could lead to a change in feeling (from depression to joy). It usually seems much easier to start with either a thought or a behavior, because they are fairly easy to define and describe (to operationalize). Usually the change in feelings would follow the other changes.

So, my interpretation of what happened to the author of the article was that he changed on the behavioral dimension, and it sparked a change on the fourth dimension, the spiritual one, and probably on the others as well.

This certainly is not an attempt to take the mystery out of the process of prayer. I think there's still plenty of that left. But it is a framework for understanding part of the more mundane human dimension of what might be happening when a person undertakes a practice of prayer.


At 6:05 PM, July 16, 2005, Blogger vanderleun said...

I think that takes my point and expands upon it quite nicely.

I too have a vague memory trace of the same article but, like you, can't remember where it was published.

At 9:24 PM, July 16, 2005, Blogger Ho Chi Minh said...

With Bush + Co. calling the shots now you better pray.

At 9:34 PM, July 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very thoughtful piece. Thank you for posting it.

One could make the opposite point as well -- when any of the dimensions you describe (thoughts, emotions, actions, spirituality -- and I would add the physical dimension as well) is allowed to atrophy or becomes severely damaged, it is reasonable to expect adverse consequences in any or all of the other dimensions.

At 10:29 PM, July 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somehow writing about prayer often becomes an invitation for believers as well as non believers to get into tangential discussions. But I can testify to an experience. A daily habit of journal writing is my form of prayer, and it has indeed worked through through all aspects of my personality like ripples. Somehow the action opens the thoughts, emotions and spirituality. Odd animals, we humans.

At 7:23 PM, July 17, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

Which begs the question:
Believer or non-believer? Discuss...

FWIW, the Monkees tune is descriptive of my view; IOW, "I'm a Believer".

At 3:40 AM, July 18, 2005, Blogger Judith said...

My experience of prayer is very like this. In fact, the Hebrew word for "to pray" translates as "to examine/judge oneself." In this context "God" is the concept that allows us to plumb these depths by being infinitely far and all-encompassing, yet infinitely close at the same time.


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