Praying was a topic of discussion in my family recently. It came about in an unrelated conversation as we are not religious at all, nor do we know how religious families are supposed to behave. Our only religious ritual on Sunday has been to go get grilled chicken from the outdoor market in Divonne-les-bains in neighboring France, and it has become our Sunday thing following our pancake breakfast. We do not go to church. I think the last time I was in a place of worship was in Lebanon on New Year’s day. I had gone to church to light candles for someone I cared for, and for my family, and for my Mom’s best friend who was ill and who passed away that same day. Before that, I think it was in Germany last summer when I went to see a beautiful Gothic church in Überlingen near Lake Constance. We are a pretty easy going group, our family and friends, we happen to represent, combined, almost every major religion in the world, yet we take things lightly, we laugh a lot and no one in our immediate entrourage is a religious fanatic or has hang-ups about religious issues. I happen to be Greek Orthodox because I was born into a Greek orthodox family in North Lebanon. I quite like that my co-religionists were not really a part of the religious conflict in Lebanon as we were the ones who advocated tolerance, inter-faith dialogue and education for our community. I quite like my faith group for that reason.
When we baptized our little daughter in the beautiful Russian Orthodox church in Geneva a couple of years ago, we were so chatty and lighthearted about the whole church part, which led the Russian priest to let out a terrifyingly loud scream that shook the walls and that none of our guests will soon forget “SILENCE!!!! Vous êtes dans une église” (Silence! You are in church).
I am not really disciplined or motivated to follow any part of organized religion. I think of religion as a spiritual matter consisting of a private set of beliefs held by a person-that even applies to atheists and agnostics. Atheists choose to disbelieve in the existence of God or a deity (from Greek atheos ~ godless, from a- + theos God), Agnostics, on the other hand (Greek agnōstos unknown, unknowable, from a- + gnōstos known) are those people who are not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god. I think religion should ultimately be a matter of choice, and only at adulthood should a person choose what religion to follow or believe in. Just imagine what the world would look like if we abandon the practice of indoctrination of the masses since birth, mixing the traditional and communal practices with religion and brushing whole communities and generations with the same brush just because they happen to be born in the same country or to parents who believe in a religion they did not choose. If religion is a free choice in adulthood, I imagine us like Woody Allen’s character ‘Mickey’ in Hannah and her sisters when he goes around experimenting with different religions to choose the one that fits best. Hannah and Her Sisters happens to be one of my favorite movies besides Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One part of the script, after he discovers he has a brain tumor and buys a gun trying to kill himself, is probably the best ever written for cinema, and sort of puts things in perspective about life and religion:
Mickey: One day about a month ago, I really hit bottom. Ya know I just felt that in a Godless universe I didn’t wanna go on living. Now I happen to own this rifle, which I loaded believe it or not, and pressed it to my forehead. And I remember thinking, I’m gonna kill myself. Then I thought, what if I’m wrong, what if there is a God. I mean, after all nobody really knows that. Then I thought no, ya know maybe is not good enough, I want certainty or nothing. And I remember very clearly, the clock was ticking, and I was sitting there frozen with the gun to my head, debating whether to shoot.
Mickey: All of a sudden the gun went off. I had been so tense my finger squeezed the trigger inadvertantly. But I was perspiring so much the gun had slid off my forehead and missed me. Suddenly neighbors were pounding on the door, and I dunno the whole scene was just pandemonium. I ran to the door, I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed and confused and my mind was racing a mile a minute. And I just knew one thing I had to get out of that house, I had to just get out in the fresh air and clear my head. I remember very clearly I walked the streets, I walked and I walked I didn’t know what was going through my mind, it all seemed so violent and unreal to me. I wandered for a long time on the upper west side, it must have been hours. My feet hurt, my head was pounding, and I had to sit down I went into a movie house. I didn’t know what was playing or anything I just needed a moment to gather my thoughts and be logical and put the world back into rational perspective. And I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down, and the movie was a film that I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself, I mean isn’t it so stupid. Look at all the people up there on the screen, they’re real funny, and what if the worst is true. What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it. Well, ya know, don’t you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell it’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.
You should be given the choice of deciding what works best for you, which belief fits best with what you want out of life. I think of religion and religious faith more as self-help and affordable therapy than a matter of identity and belonging to a group. In his book ‘Les Identités Meurtrières’ (In the name of identity), Amin Maalouf goes into analyzing religion and identity in depth as the causes of much of the troubles of the world. It is an excellent book by the way, I think everyone should read it to reflect on who we are as a collection of communities that are in constant conflict precisely because of identity, religious and otherwise.
But the fact remains, whether you are religious or not, practicing or not, that the power of prayer is undeniable. You can call it yoga, zen humming, meditation, lighting a candle and closing your eyes in silence, whatever way you do it, it is that willful slowing of things around you when you pray, when you forget the world for a little while, and just look inwards, and ask yourself to just shut up and think and free your mind of the mundane and wish, or dream, or thank, or ask for help, for strength, for one extra dose of will to go on. Prayer gives us a sense of hope, that someone somewhere who is an almighty, be it nature, the universal good, God, or even our own inner power, our own Jiminy Cricket, whoever that unseen or unknown power, is always there to help us out and pull us through.
I believe in times like the ones we are witnessing these days, with disasters so much more devastating, terrorism ever more lethal, global epidemics a step away from engulfing the globe, 2012 and alarmism about the environment, possible asteroid hits on earth, we cannot be expected to deal with that using our own physically available means. We need and do resort to higher, more esoteric means of calming ourselves collectively and individually, and those means are not prescription drugs but prayers. Calm, spiritual connections we have with ourselves, that reassure us and rekindle our hope in our future, as people, as a human race, as earth dwellers.
Close your eyes if you have a minute, clear your mind, and allow yourself to just be, breathe in and out slowly, and just, you know, pray. For no particular reason, just do it.
Have a lovely day.