There are many kinds of prayer. There is a kind of prayer that’s like breathing. There is a kind of prayer that’s like talking to your best friend all day long. There is a kind of prayer in the face of beauty that lifts your hands up because it would be harder to keep them down. There is a kind of prayer for meaning that is answered by the one who wrote the book of the whole world and your life, so that the prayer is like waking up and finding yourself a character in the most elaborate of novels, as you’ve always suspected: authored, written into a world of meaning, a world meaningful because it was created by someone. There is a kind of prayer that is only a listening, the soft voice of God saying your name, saying “come to me, come to me.” There is the prayer of failure, and the answering voice that forgives you. There is the death prayer, your whole body crying “why” and the voice again, telling you that you will see your loved one again in heaven.
And there is one more kind of prayer. In this one, you are tired of wrestling with God—with the problems of evil and suffering and the way that anyone who doesn’t believe in him is going to hell. You’re trying not to masturbate, or think about girls, or about having sex with multiple people at the same time, but you’re masturbating and thinking about girls and about having sex with multiple people at the same time anyway. So you give up. You nearly stop believing. You don’t even have the words to ask God to come back, or be real; you slip down into the region below speech. And then he comes. He fills the bedroom with a presence that is unmistakably outside of you, the peace that passes understanding, a love that in its boundlessness feels different in kind from human love.
When God came into my teenage or college bedroom in that way, unasked and unmistakable, the next morning I would wake up changed. I’d go out into the world and give away everything I could. Wouldn’t drive past a broken-down car without stopping to help, was kind and grateful even with my parents, couldn’t stop singing, built houses for poor people, gave secret gifts to my friends, things like that. Sometimes it lasted for weeks; once, when I was in my early twenties, it lasted for nearly a year. It is called being on fire for God. It’s like you’ve glimpsed the world’s best secret: that love need not be scarce.
I have been an atheist now for more than fifteen years, and I have been able to explain to myself almost everything about the faith I grew up in, but I have not been able to explain those experiences of a God so real he entered bedrooms of his own accord, lit them up with joy, and made people generous. For a long time it puzzled me why, if I made God up, I couldn’t make up this feeling myself.
Like most women in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I have spent thousands of hours and dollars on yoga classes attempting to manufacture unconditional love and moral bliss by detaching from my ego and my desires and also, not coincidentally, working on the quality of my ass. Because in the back of my mind, what I have been wondering (is this what the other women are wondering while we sit in lotus position on purple foam cubes, meditating in our jewel-toned leggings and tattoos?) is this: Isn’t there some human who can make me feel this way, instead?
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Henri Cole, Self-Portrait With Rifle
Rachel Hadas, The Veil and the Baby
Karl Kirchwey, A Hundred Years from Now
Gretchen Marquette, Ode to a Man in Dress Clothes
D. Nurkse, Secret of the Lit Window
Henk Rossouw, The Dream of the Road
Donna Stonecipher, From “Model City”
Charles Harper Webb, Respect