Prayer Is Not a Cliche

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It is very true that the phrase, “I’m praying for you.” might at times seem to be little more than a cliche. It is true that it sometimes appears as though prayers are falling on deaf ears. It is true that there are many among us who do not believe in God or a higher power who therefore see prayers as futile efforts. It is true that there is not always a visible link between prayers and actions that create positive change. It is true that good people who pray often suffer. The mystery of prayers is tied to our most human frailties and the extent to which we rely on them is often determined by what we think their purpose and powers to be.

I continue to marvel at those who have developed a childlike and unbending trust in prayer. They are not free from tragedy or suffering and yet they seem to experience a faith that brings them calm and happiness even in the midst of their pain. They are people who have ordered their lives by putting their God first. They are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, people who have a living breathing relationship with a power higher than themselves. They fairly glow with the serenity that comes from such unswerving faith, and they all seem to share the quality of making prayer an integral part of their daily routines.

I think of extraordinary humans like Danny, Paula, Martin, Susan, Eileen, Jezael, Zerin, Mohammad, Jack, and Delores who literally glow with the spirit of understanding what prayer is and what it is not. For them prayer is a way of praising God or Allah or Yahweh or Brahma with an understanding that the deity is ever at their side, willing to comfort and guide them. They rejoice in the relationship with a power higher than themselves. Their prayers strengthen them and allow them to face challenges with the knowledge that they are never alone regardless of how difficult the trials that they face may be.

Prayer for the true believer is not a matter of asking for favors but rather a means of growing closer to God. It is an intimate relationship that provides them with the ability to endure the quirkiness of life. They also feel comfortable asking that others may know the serenity that their own prayerfulness brings to them. They trust in God to enter their minds and guide them to pathways that will enrich their own lives and those of the people around them.

We often cringe at the shallow sounding expression of prayer intentions and yet there is no greater gift than knowing that someone somewhere is thinking of us in our hours of need. Those prayers are proof that not only has God not abandoned us but also that other souls understand our fears and our wants. We may not have our wishes answered in the ways that we hope, but if we meditate and listen we will surely find what we require to survive the blows of daily existence.

We humans are social. We must believe that someone cares about us. Loneliness and depression are at record levels these days. When another person prays for us it is an indication that we are important and that we matter. Why would we refuse such a beautifully unselfish offer of love?

Prayer provides no guarantees that we will get what we want. My cousin Jack was a prayer warrior who began and ended every single day with praises to God. He suffered from congestive heart failure and died rather young but he understood that God’s answer to him was not that his disease would be eradicated but rather that he would experience a profound miracle of peacefulness in each and every day. Life was a beautiful adventure for him and prayer was at its center. He inspired those of us who loved him to be better and more faith filled. Being around him was always a happy experience. It was prayer that made him strong and courageous.

I can’t imagine attempting to navigate my way through tough times without prayer. I suspect that my darkest hours might have led to my demise had I not felt a powerful presence helping me to make it from one moment to the next. I was lucky enough to have learned the power of prayer from a mother who accomplished great things in spite of a life filled poverty, loss, illness. She was almost beatific whenever she spoke of the goodness of God. She saw herself as someone who was rich in the ways that matter most.

Our world is filled with so many dreadful and horrific problems. It sometimes seems as though prayers are falling on deaf ears and accomplishing nothing, but the wheels of history and progress have always moved slowly and cautiously. Our human institutions are flawed by our own frailties but over the course of history we have steadily improved even as we create new problems for ourselves. Prayers are often a first step in discerning what is most right and just. Prayers have the power to open hearts and inspire minds. When done with sincerity they bring out our goodness and help us to progress in our evolutionary journey toward becoming better.

I don’t think we should ever consider prayer to be a worthless effort even if we are loathe to believe that they are going nowhere but inside somebody’s deluded head. We do not completely know the mystery of how prayer works or even if we humans are doing it right, but time and again we have witnessed its power to bring us together. That alone makes it a venture that is more than worthwhile. It makes prayer an effort worth doing and accepting as the gift that it is. It is so much more than just a cliche. 

The Ticking Clock

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How can it already be September? Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were ringing in the New Year? When did tiny strands of grey appear in my hair. How did my knees come to ache when I walk too far? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was able to run like a deer and see without the aide of spectacles? When did my long narrow waist become thick? From whence came the wrinkles and folds in my skin. Wasn’t I a young woman looking into the future with boundless dreams only a week or so ago? How does the same time that creeps in its petty pace suddenly race so quickly that I lose track of its passage?

I never thought of growing older. It seemed to be an aspect of life reserved for my elders. Somehow it rarely occurred to me that I might one day be respectfully called “mum” or “mother” as a sign of my advancing age. I look into the mirror and I see my twenty year old self, not the seventy year old woman who has lost two and a half inches of height and whose eyelids droop over her once big brown eyes. My brush accumulates more and more of my thinning hair and I have taken to wearing comfortable shoes rather than stylish pumps. The world and its future is being overtaken by younger women with ideas that sometimes seems as strange to me as mine appear to them. Yet somehow I find myself fighting to maintain my relevance, my purpose on this earth before I am called to one day leave.

My mother embraced her age as have so many women before me. I struggle to stay in the game, to be considered woke. Haven’t there been women my age running for President of the United States? Isn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg still demonstrating an incredible acuity of mind? Who determines when someone should retire to a state of old age? Why should I simply sit back and watch the rising and setting of the sun without making efforts to squeeze every single second of meaning out of my existence? After all I come from a line of people who live for a very long time. If I make it as much time as two of my aunts I still have at least thirty more years to contribute to society. If I consider my grandfather I can tack on another eight years. People have entire careers in less time than I may still enjoy if I am true to my DNA.

The world is not the place it was. We are often able to keep our minds and our bodies vibrant far longer than once thought possible. Our appearances may change and we may move with less vigor, but our minds are as alive as ever. Coupled with the experiences that we have had we are in many ways the wise men and women of our time. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve endured triumphs and tribulations and learned from each of them. We understand that simple answers are rare, but there are solutions for even the seemingly most hopeless situations. We also understand that there comes a time when we must give the young the freedom that they need to learn how to be stewards of the world when it is time for them assume the leadership roles that we once held.

Hopefully the world that we leave behind will be somehow better for our having been here. I’d like to think that each of us will have a positive impact on some person or problem or advancement. Since there is still so much to be done, we should search for new ways of making a difference now that we are no longer part of the teeming race of workers who report to jobs each day. Ours may now be small almost imperceptible contributions that nonetheless are important. What we accomplish may be as simple as sending an encouraging word to a young person who is struggling to launch. Ours are now the quieter moments that touch individuals more often than creating a buzz in the crowd.

I am indeed older. I see loveliness in the hard work that shows on my hands. Unlike what people may think about someone of my age, I know that I am more open and forgiving than I once was for I have seen my own humanity and weaknesses. I have somehow overcome them with the grace and help of others. It has been in the kindnesses of even people that I did not know that I have been able to survive this long. Now I understand that it is up to me to continue to pay my blessings forward.

I do my best to spend a part of each day outside of myself. I have friends who are far more gifted in such ways than I am and they continually inspire me. I see them spending time at nursing homes and bringing smiles to people who are sick and lonely. I watch them unselfishly donating their talents to causes that make life better. I read their evangelical praises of God and know that they are living breathing angels of example. I am awed by them and do my best to emulate them in tiny ways. They are my peers who are not daunted by the passing of time and the aging of their bodies. They are good people who forget themselves and focus on others.

We live in a world that idolizes the young and the beautiful. That is perhaps as it should be, but those of us who are moving ever closer to the inevitability of closing the circle of life still have so much to offer. We need to spend each day with purpose and resolve. The truly beautiful are those who forget about their images in the mirror and instead devote precious time to benefitting the world just a bit more.

Conversations in the Hallway

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I was recently reminded of the time when I was a teenager and every home had one phone that was usually attached to a wall in the hallway of the home. It’s central location was designed to make it accessible to everyone in the family who needed to use it. It also made every conversation a bit more public than one might desire, especially a high schooler intent on talking privately with a friend.

When I was still a small child my mom and dad purchased a bench with a couple of built in shelves that held the family phone and a couple of ginormous directories that supplied the numbers of individuals and businesses. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to make the strange piece of furniture look attractive with its mahogany finish on the wood and brocade upholstery on the seat. Our family kept it dusted and our mom swept under its legs regularly to insure that it appeared to be a purposeful and attractive addition to our home’s decorating scheme. In spite of its important function it never looked quite right.

I vividly recall a time when our phone was on a party line which other neighbors shared. It was not unusual at all to pick up the receiver only to hear the voice of the lady next door babbling away with a friend. In such cases making a call became a game of first come first serve unless there was an emergency. We had to wait patiently for the line to become free and so my mom instructed me in the etiquette of sharing phone time with others. It required a quick hang up at the first sound of other voices using the services and a pledge to never reveal what might have been heard in the brief second of listening. It was indeed a rather strange situation that only lasted during my earliest childhood years.

My family moved the telephone bench from one home to another, proudly ensconcing it midway in the hallway of each new address. I found it to be extraordinarily uncomfortable for a call that lasted more than a couple of minutes which probably played right into my mom’s parental plans. By the time I was a teen it had become intolerable to be tied to such a public place when talking seriously with my friends. I eventually convinced my mother to invest in a long cord that allowed me to stretch the phone into one of the rooms located along the hallway where I might close the door to gain a small sense of privacy. Even then my brothers mischievously found excuses to walk in and out of whatever entry way I had chosen, gleefully stepping over me and laughing at my attempts to enjoy a bit of dignity during my conversations.

I was at least happy that our family phone was not located in the kitchen as I had seen in some other homes. I tried to imagine attempting to have a serious conversation in the most central part of a house. Somehow I managed to be grateful for the long cord and that provided me with a semblance of freedom from being observed while I engaged in what I considered to be quite serious discussions with my peers. The only setback was my mother’s insistence that I make my phone calls as brief as possible to keep the one phone free for the use of other members of the family.

Over time the bench that had once been a source of pride for my parents became worn. Its legs were wobbly and the brocade fabric on the seat began to fray. Almost everyone had observed my ingenious way of using the long cord to escape the prying eyes and ears of anyone else who happened to be in the hallway, and before long everyone was escaping behind one of the doors to talk. The bench sat forlornly empty and without purpose. I’m not certain when it disappeared but one day it just wasn’t there anymore. When not it use the phone sat on one of the bookcases that lined one wall of the hall.

I eventually moved out of the house and into a place of my own. It was a small apartment with a phone located in the expanse of the combined living room and kitchen. By the time my husband and I purchased our first home the age of multiple phones had arrived, so we had one conveniently hanging on the kitchen wall and one in our bedroom. Our daughters would never experience the frustration of being on full display to the family while attempting to engage in a serious conversation with a friend. Nonetheless I found myself becoming my mother as I restricted the amount of time they were allowed to spend in the frivolous pursuit of talking with people that they had spent an entire day with at school. With the invention of the portable phone that required no cord the transition to an audience free phone call seemed complete but there was so much more to come.

My how the world has changed! We actually have landline phones all over the house that are so rarely used that I often wonder why we bother having them. For now their main purpose lies in being connected to the home alarm system and serving as a backup in case of a cell phone malfunction. Whenever anyone comes to visit they arrive with their own phones which they are able to use wherever and whenever the mood strikes them. Those phones are not only a source of communication but also entertainment. They are encyclopedic in the amount of knowledge that they are able to convey with just a few strikes of the keys. The young folks using them would be appalled at the idea of having to share one device with an entire family. They can’t even imagine being tied down by a cord  that is connected to a wall. The very idea is so foreign to them that even careful description don’t convey what it was like back in the day. They laugh at the very oddity of it.

I admittedly never leave home without my phone. It is my map on the road, my guardian angel in an emergency. With rare exceptions it has made my life easier. I can call or text and almost instantly be in contact with the people I need to reach. It has kept me linked to friends in faraway places and to the happenings of the world. I now know when a child is missing or a cataclysmic event has taken place within minutes. I sit more patiently waiting my turn in some office because I have games to amuse me. I don’t have to carry a bulky camera on my trips because my phone takes and stores images of all of the places I have been. Who knew that a tiny object that fits inside my purse would have more power than the entire room of computers at NASA that were used to safely guide a human to the moon? I never imagined such a thing back when I picked up the receiver only to learn that I would have to wait until our neighbor finished her conversation on the party line that we shared. We have come such a long long way and as long as we don’t become addicted to the power of our phones, it is good.

When the Media Became the Message

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I’ve been watching my friends from high school celebrate their birthdays all year long on Facebook and it’s a bit disarming to see their ages listed next to the reminders to wish them a happy day. Depending on whether they were my classmates or just a bit ahead of or behind me in school they are coming in at seventy one to seventy four years old. I’ll be seventy one come November.  We are the Baby Boomers, the  sometimes reviled generation that came to this earth in record numbers after the troops returned from fighting in World War II. It was a crazy time without reliable birth control methods that sometimes resulted in really large families, especially in Catholic circles.

Our parents were an industrious group that worked hard and used the GI Bill to purchase houses, earn college degrees, and fuel a United States economy that was booming since so many other countries had been devastated by the destruction of the war. There was great opportunity, but some old and outmoded ways of thinking would seriously limit the progress of minorities, especially Blacks and people from Hispanic and Asian countries. The children born in my generation from differing groups would generally remain segregated from one another until we were teens or young adults.

The world was changing at breakneck speed in spite of long accepted ways of doing things. The introduction of television would have an impact even more enormous that radio and the movies had. The trend started slowly enough but had soon overtaken American homes. At first only the most adventurous brought the little appliances into their homes. Within only a few years virtually everyone owned a television and evening family time changed dramatically. The light from the black and white images filled living rooms across the nation and those of us who were children at the time vividly remember the shows and the actors who came into our lives with fanciful stories that kept us coming back for more night after night.

There were only three major stations back then and one more local public broadcasting station. On any given evening there was a fairly good chance that at least a third of the viewing public might see a certain program. Talking about the latests episodes became a new kind of tradition without worry of things like spoilers because once the show had aired there was not yet a way to watch it later. Everyone was on the same entertainment clock and the stories and characters became as familiar as the neighbors down the street.

By today’s standards the shows have the look of being produced by kids with a video camera. Most of the offerings ran just under thirty minutes and were filmed in studio rooms quickly furnished to resemble the real world, but hardly being as authentic as hoped. There were few special effects and even outdoor scenes appeared to be done in front of cardboard sets. The stories were fun and quite traditional, always having to pass under the eyes of censors who were determined to keep things clean. Even the adult dramas were tame compared with what goes on in today’s Disney programming.

Most parents policed what their children watched and limited the amount of time watching shows. In my home it was rare to go beyond an hour and a half on school nights, and most evenings we were lucky to be allowed thirty minutes of viewing time. Some folks did become addicted to a nightly routine of sitting in the light of one program after another until the whole thing went off of the air. That’s when new products like T.V. trays and T.V. dinners were invented to accommodate the evening meal while never missing any of the episodes. The grasp of the media was quietly taking its hold without any of us actually realizing just how potent and invasive the new trend might ultimately become.

My generation was eyewitness to the changes in how we receive the information that influences us. One of the big moments of my youth came when the first television program came in living color. Even those of us who still had to watch in black and white heard about this glorious innovation and it became a dream to one day own a T.V. that would show us the world in all the hues of the rainbow. Television would become an integral part of almost every American’s world. We would discover the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. We would see images of of the assassination of President John Kennedy and sit frozen on our sofas for days watching that tragic saga unfold. We’d be present at the very moment when the first humans stepped onto the moon and we’d watch the Watergate hearings with a kind of salacious interest. We cut our young adult teeth on longer hours devoted to watching television and lounging in front of our favorite shows became a way of life.

Things seem to have accelerated from there. Before long we were hearing about something called cable television, twenty four hour news programs, devices for recording programs and watching them at our leisure. Our television screens became larger and larger and capable of accommodating add on appliances that allowed us to rent or purchase movies and show them in our homes. Fewer of us were reading newspapers or magazines, instead depending on media stars to provide us with our news and opinions. Sometimes we didn’t even bother to actually watch political debates or in depth programs providing information about current events. Instead we relied on soundbites to keep us informed. The reach of television in many ways overpowered us and brought hidden dangers to our children.

Now we are surrounded by our own inventiveness and we worry that it has become out of control. Our children have hundreds of television channels to watch. They stream programs on their computers and their phones which seem to never leave their hands. They communicate all night long with friends and even strangers. We never quite know where their thoughts are at any given moment. We sense that there are grave dangers about which we know so little and our kids know so much. The genie is out of the bottle and we don’t know how to get him back inside.

The glories of our technology are certainly not all bad. It’s a much better world in terms of convenience and availability of knowledge but the days of parents controlling the television like my mom did or knowing who is talking on the one phone in the house are now gone. Parenting is far more complex than it ever was. Ironically finding the truth takes more time as well because we are continually being propagandized and influenced through the programming that streams into our homes. We are fighting just to keep up with all of the distractions that dominate our daily lives. Those of us from the Baby Boomer generation long for the nostalgia of our youth, not because we are old and behind the times, but because we understand the dangers of our present state. We have witnessed so much loss of things like family time and quiet moments at the end of the day. We do not want a return to a segregated or unfair world. Banishing unjust situations is one of the good results of being informed, but we would like to see our children living without the tyranny of constant exposure to situations that they are beyond their ability to understand.

Perhaps as we listen to the barrage of issues that seem to be problematic for our society we are missing the one that means the most. Maybe its time to reel in the influence of all forms of media and reinstate the family as the center of life. Technological advances have been fun, but now we need to figure out how to use them wisely. The mamas and and daddy need to turn off the machines and gather together like people did before the media became the message, before our leaders felt the need to be stars. It’s time to go back to what was good in the old days before media dominated our lives.

A Dark and Shady Place

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When I was in the second grade I stole a fifty cent piece from the dresser of a friend. I rather impulsively grabbed it when she was out of the room and stuffed it in my pocket. Even before I had taken it home I was beginning to feel queasy about what I had done but I was unable to find a way to return it without being caught in the act. My regrets grew into full blown guilt by the time I was hiding the coin in my room. I had no idea how to pay for my sin other than to carry my ill gotten gains with me each time I visited by friend in the hopes of finding a moment alone when I might return her money to her. It took a number of tries but I eventually placed the shiny half dollar back where it belonged.

Somehow my conscience would not allow me to feel as though I had done enough. I found myself leaving quarters and even dollar bills in my friend’s room as compensation for what I had done. I even considered confessing to her but never had enough courage to do so. Instead I began repeating the story of my theft over and over again when I went to confession in my parish Catholic church. Nonetheless I wasn’t able to shake the feeling of regret that seemed to follow me like a bad penny.

It never occurred to me that any of the priests to whom I admitted my sins might remember my story but one of them did and when I told him what I had done for the umpteenth time he cautioned me in frustration to either believe that my transgression had been forgiven or quit coming to him with my lack of faith that God had already absolved me. He went so far as to tell me that my unwillingness to pardon myself was far worse than the small transgression that I had so thoughtlessly committed against my friend. He urged me to move forward with my life and not keep looking back.

That moment was crucial in my development as an adult. It taught me the true meaning of reconciliation, a willingness to acknowledge that we humans may fall but we also have the possibility of reforming our ways. When such a change takes place it is time to focus on the beauty of the salvation that has occurred rather than to obsessively keep returning to the past. Just as I grew and learned from my experience as a very young child, so too do we all become different and often better versions of ourselves as we journey through life. Until we draw our last breaths there is always the possibility of righting wrongs we have committed and making peace with those that we have hurt. Once we do that it is toxic to either carry our own baggage of guilt or to force someone else to be weighed down by theirs. If forgiveness is to be real it must blot out the past.

There is a new trend to search through the words and actions of mostly famous people to find something that they may have done or said many years ago and hold them up to judgement and ridicule. It doesn’t appear to matter that they may have changed or that they have apologized. They are shamed and held accountable to such an extent that they sometimes lose their jobs and their reputations. It is a kind of modern day witch hunt with comments being taken out of context or twisted to the point of losing their original intent. This practice is intended to create havoc for the targeted individual and often comes with personal information that leads to harassment. Even when the people victimized by this technique attempt to provide explanations or make atonement they are often deemed eternally guilty without hope of forgiveness.

There is something quite wicked about refusing to allow a person or an entire group of people the benefit of reconciliation. It implies a kind of dictatorship of the mind that binds transgressions into a cycle of eternal punishment. Once someone has fallen there is no hope of rising again with this type of thinking. It runs contrary to our very humanity and pits us in lifelong struggles with one another. We become a nation of Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets engaged in a never ending feud.

The reality is that most of us have done something in the past for which we ultimately felt regrets. We evolve as adults hopefully becoming better versions of ourselves. We each deserve the opportunity to be redeemed and seen as our wiser and kinder selves. Unless our former transgressions were so egregious as to require jail time, our sins should be forgotten once we have made peace with ourselves, our God and those that we may have hurt. The focus should be on who we are now, not who we once might have been.

People have the power to change. Nations have the power to change. Just as we should not hold the children of Germany responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents, so too should we be willing to focus on good intentions and efforts rather than only on the bad. It accomplishes nothing to spend time dwelling on past transgressions when there is more work on improving to be done. Throwing us into the shade of continual guilt trips is as wrong as I was when I so childishly obsessed over my own flawed character. It’s time we genuinely embrace forgiveness for those who earnestly seek it.