I grew up in a very strong faith tradition, so have always had a clear understanding of prayer: its purpose, its subject, its object, its how-to, its requirement, and my obligation.
But in leaving the church, I left prayer, as well.
I am skeptical about considering it, about offering it, about stepping into its once-felt comfort, given how closely it was linked to the doctrine of my (then) religion. I’ve rarely even allowed it as option, for fear of it hearkening me back to all that I’ve worked so hard to release and reframe.
Still, its absence is felt.
A number of years ago, when my daughters were still teenagers, my youngest stepped into a season of struggle (to put it mildly) that stretched me beyond capacity, hope, or reason. There were moments in which I couldn’t decide if I should call 911, her therapist, my therapist, or just hide under the covers and let her do the same. At its worst, I wrestled with what felt like the real possibility of losing her altogether. I won’t keep you in suspense: today she is an amazing young woman — aware, wise, hardly naive, clear about what it means to struggle, able to offer levels of empathy and compassion to others ; she continues to astound me. But before this “ending,” there was the beginning night of awareness of just how bad things were. No sleep. Only tears. And a memory that feels like it was yesterday:
I sat on the edge of my bed and sobbed, more deeply aware than ever before, just how alone I was as a single mom, more afraid than I’d ever felt, and more-than completely unequipped for what was happening in the mind and heart of my precious girl. Through tears and snot and not nearly enough Kleenex, I remember wishing that I still believed in prayer. It would offer a panacea I no longer had at my disposal. How convenient and pleasant: to hand all this off somehow, to feel like in surrendering, in turning it over to God, that surely all things would work together for good.
Not believing this anymore left me feeling even more alone and more afraid. I wanted to pray, but knew that to do so would be little other than my desperate wish and a frantic grasping at anything that might ease my pain but do nothing to lessen hers. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t.
In the more than 10 years that have passed since that night, I have thought back on it many times. I have sussed out my cynicism, my anger, and certainly my angst. But still, my resistance to prayer has remained. It was a crossroads, to be sure: deeply longing for solace, but with seemingly nowhere to turn except within; to blow on some barely-lit fire inside me that somehow-but-barely enabled me to get up in the morning, fix her breakfast, send her to school, and hope and hope and hope.
I realize that all of this sounds dark and dreary. And at the time, it was. Now I remember it with endless gratitude. Yes, because she made it through that particular season of crisis. But also because I did: not broken or desolate, but more aware than ever before of what it meant to walk through “the valley of the shadow of death,” completely present to everything I felt.
In not praying, in not seeking some kind of divine respite or answer or fix, I discovered something else entirely: desire.
Not some whimsical temptation or luring sin. Not that kind of desire: tepid, temporary, lite. No.
This desire was blazing, intense, undaunted, and undying. It was (and is) a full and unrestrained expression of everything within me. And a far cry from anything I’d ever known in prayer.
The Upanishads capture this, at least in part:
“You are what your deepest desire is. As your desire is, so is your intention. As your intention is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”
It seems to me that this understanding of desire, and its expression, is everything. It is also far more sacred and more spiritual than anything I’d been taught to recite, intercede for, enact, or even believe.
Now, in lieu of prayer, I choose desire. Who it’s being articulated to is not important to me; rather, that I hold nothing back, that something wild and untamed and passionate dwells within and comes forth, that this — above all else — is the sacred, is the spiritual. Nothing less will do.
Desire takes courage. And faith. There is no promise of an outcome we long for. No guarantee. Just sheer determination, firm belief, and an endless acknowledgement of what thrums within us in the deepest and most persistent of ways. It persists. It perseveres. It burns.
I know: one could apply every bit of this to prayer. But I see it differently, distinctly. Unlike prayer — where words, emotions, longings, and hopes are being offered to a Divine listener — desire is an expression and end in and of itself. It is both object and subject. It is raw and visceral and embodied. It is not something “done” and then forgotten, uttered and then released. It stays. It simmers. It blazes. Yes, it burns. And for me, that is a very long way from what I learned of prayer, experienced in prayer, or was ever told was allowed.
Most of us are profoundly ambivalent about desire — others’ and our own. It’s understandable, really, that we prefer the safer, more acceptable term of “prayer.” We have been taught (over and over and over again) that our desire is dangerous, that pursuing it only upsets the apple cart, that it cannot be trusted, that we’ll definitely get burned (as will others), that we’re better off tamping it down. *sigh*
In her book, Untamed, Glennon Doyle tells of hearing the creation story from her 5th grade teacher at church:
“…Eve’s original sin is inside of all of us. That sin is…wanting more instead of being grateful for what we have, and doing what we want to do instead of what we should do.”
Though we’ve been told that money is the root of all evil, we are far more prone to believe it is desire. And beginning with Eve, that is what has been reinforced within us (over and over and over again). Don’t want more. Don’t do what you want; do what you should. And be grateful about all of it. In fact, offer prayers of gratitude, offer prayers of repentance for wanting at all, offer prayers of supplication that you will only do what you should.
If our desire is bad or wrong, what then is prayer?
A bit later in her book, Doyle says this:
“If women [and men] trusted and claimed their desires, the world as we know it would crumble. Perhaps that is precisely what needs to happen…Maybe Eve was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”
Trust your desire; claim it. Follow Eve’s lead. Own your wanting, eat the apple, let it burn. Compared to: Don’t want more. Don’t do what you want; do what you should. And be grateful about all of it. My desire among these two choices is clear.
That night when I sat on the edge of my bed, wracked with worry and at the end of my rope, I couldn’t yet see that everything I was feeling was my desire. I couldn’t yet acknowledge that it was a flame, a sacred roar, a holy bonfire, a veritable volcano on my daughter’s behalf. I couldn’t yet appreciate that there was no easing it, no peace that could comfort, no verses to quote, no promises to lean on that could begin to lessen its presence, its power, its blinding force. I couldn’t have yet known that it’s strength and presence would carry me through all of this and then some, undoubtedly more to come.
I’ve often wondered if I’d have done anything differently, if I’d have been any different, had I known of and allowed my desire as catalyst, as sacred expression, as everything.
What questions might I have asked my daughter about her desire? What permission and space might I have created for her to rage and scream and articulate everything (instead of it only feeling expressible in self-harming ways)? What conversations might we have had about injustice and grief and God that were avoided because no “acceptable” answers sufficed? What world might we have demanded together — where our sacred expression, our fiery hearts, and our deepest hungers were honored?
I cannot know, of course. But now, unlike then, I am confident that acknowledging my desire, allowing it, and certainly feeling and expressing it — nothing withheld, no restraint, and yes, wild, untamed, and passionate — is as close to prayer as I can imagine or hope. Not to God, but into the world. Not released, but held tight, compact, and with infinite force. Not a cup of cool water, but match to flame. And though all of this might sound somehow unresolved or too angsty or just too much, that is the very thing that lets me know I’m on the right track — following Eve’s lead, letting it burn.
Agreed: fire can be dangerous. And prayer should be dangerous, yes? Otherwise, why bother? Perhaps it’s why I don’t. But desire? It is a burning, endless source of inspiration and heat and truth that I’m more than willing to fan into flame. It sounds far closer to the Psalms, to Gethsemane, to Golgotha. And it draws me far closer to an experience of and with the Divine than anything else: wild, untamed, and passionate.
There are days and times when I feel a lingering ache for prayer’s comfort and solace. But less and less. I don’t need to be soothed, but enflamed. I don’t need to surrender, but rise up. I don’t need to find answers, but to take action. And my desire is what compels all of this and then some. Endlessly burning… one might even say without ceasing.