Sunday, September 27, 2009

A.J. Jacobs, "Prayer"

Day 2

I don't think I can be debated into believing in God. Which presents a problem, because the Bible commands you not only to believe in God but to love Him. It commands this over and over again. So how do I follow that? Can I turn on a belief as if it flows out of a spiritual spigot?

Here's my plan: In college I also learned about the theory of congitive dissonance. This says, in part, if you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behavior. So that's what I'm trying to do. If I act like I'm faithful and God loveing for several months, then maybe I'll become faithful an dGod loveing. If I pray every day, then maybe I'll start to believe in the Being to whom I'm praying.
So now, I'm going to pray. Even though I'm not exactly sure how to pray. I've never prayed before in my life, not counting the few perfunctory uplifted gazes when my mom was sick.

For starters, what do I do with my body? The Bible desrcibes a multitude of positions: People kneel, sit, bow their heads, lift their eyes skyward, put their heads between their knees, raise up their hands, beat their breasts. There's no single method.

Sitting is tempting, but it seems too easy. I'm of the no-pain, no-gain mind-set. So I settle on holding my arms outstretched like a holy antenna, hoping to catch God's signal.

As for what to say, I'm not sure. I don't feel confident enough to improvise yet, so I've memorized a few of my favorite prayers from the Bible. I walk into our living room, stand in front of our brown sectional couch, hold out my arms, bow my head, and, in a low ut clear voice, recite this passage from the Book of Job: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

It's a beautiful passage, but I feel odd uttering it. I've rarely said the word Lord, unless it's followed by of the Rings. I don't often say god without preceding it with Oh my.

I glance at the clock. I've been praying only for a minute. I've promised myself I'd try to pray for at least ten minutes three times a day.

All I can say is, I hope I get better.

Day 36

I don't expect the level of interaction that the patriarchs had. I don't think God is going to put me in a quarter nelson. But I'm having touble even sensing the presence of God.

Day 64

A spiritual update: I'm still agnostic, but I do have some progress to report on the prayer front. I not longer dread prayer. And sometimes I'm even liking it. I've gone so far as to take the training wheels off and am testing out some of my own prayers.

Today, before tasting my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: "I'd like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown."

Technically, that's enough. That fulfills the Bible's commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around: "I'd like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone's deli and told me 'Lots of love.' Thank you."

It sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle East spread. But saying it feels good.

Sometimes I'll get on a roll, thanking people for a couple of minutes straight – the people who designed the packaging, and the guys who loaded the cartons onto the conveyor belt. My wife Julie has usually started in on her food by this point.

I'm not sure this is what the Bible intended, but it feels like a step forward.

Day 97

It's a Tuesday afternoon in December, but I feellike I've just experienced my first real Sabbath.

The doorknobs in our apartment fall off on an alarmingly regular basis. Usually I screw the knob back on. Problem solved. No big deal. But this morning, it became a big deal. At 9:30 I stop typing my emails and shuffle over to the bathroom – and close the door behind me. I don't realize what I've done until I reach for the nonexistent inside doorknob.

For the first ten minutes I try to escape. I bang on the door, shout for help. No answer.

The next half hour I spend going through a checklist of worst-case scenarios. What if I slip, cut my forehead on the bathtub, bleed to death, and end up on the front page of the New York Post? What if there's a fire, and I'm forced to hang by my fingernails from the window ledge?

At 10:30 the phone rings. At 10:35 I make a pledge to myself to put more reading material in the bathroom if I ever escape. 11:00 I've become the world's greatest expert on this bathroom. By noon I'm sitting on the floor, my back against the shower door. I sit. And sit some more. And something happens. I know that, outside the bathroom, the world is speeding along. That blogs are being read. Wild salmon is being grilled. Reggaeton is being explained to middle-aged white marketing executives.

But I'm OK with it. It doesn't cause my shoulders to tighten. Nothing I can do about it. I've reached an unexpected level of acceptance. For once, I'm savoring the present. I'm admiring what I have, even if it's thirty-two square feet of fake marble and a crooked electrical outlet. I start to pray. And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence – without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic.

At about 1:30 I hear Julie come home. I call out and pound on the door. After a few seconds, she opens the door. I am free. I can return my emails, make my calls. It's kind of a shame.

Day 103

I've discovered another category of prayer that I like: praying on behalf of others, for the sick, needy, depressed – anyone who's been kicked around by fate. Intercessory pryaer, as it's called.

I love these prayers. To me they're moral weight training. Every night I pray for others for ten minutes – a friend about to undergo a cornea operation, my great-aunt whose sweet husband just died in their swimming pool, the guy I met in a Bible study class whose head was dented in a subway accident. It's ten minutes where it's impossible to be self-centred. Ten minutes where I can't think about my career, or my ranking, or that a blog in San Francisco made snarky comments about my latest Esquire article.

The Bible says not to boast, so I'm not going to say that I've turned into Albert Schweitzer or Angelina Jolie. But I do feel myself becoming a slightly more compassionate person.

Day 204

Today I'm taking a rest from a walk on a set of stairs. Stone steps, which are cool and shaded and have a bumpy surface that makes them look like a Rice Krispies treat.

I have my head bowed and my eyes closed. I'm trying to pray, but my mind is wandering. I can't settle it down. It wanders over to an Esquire article I just wrote. It wasn't half bad, I think to myself. I liked that turn of phrase in the first paragraph.

And then I am hit with a realization. And hit is the right word – it feels like a punch to my stomach. Here I am being prideful about creating an article in a midsize American magazine. But God – if He exists – He created the world. He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetls and the stones for these steps I'm sitting on.

"Praise the Lord," I say out loud.

I'd always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I'm not used to talking like that. It's so over the top. I'm used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn't be insecure. He's the ultimate being.

Now I can sort of see why. It's not for him. It's for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain.

Day 169

I've taken a step backward again, spiritually speaking. My faith is fragile. Little things jolt me back to pure agnosticism.

I'm still praying several times a day, but when I do, I'm saying the words with as much feeling as I give to a Taco Bell drive-through order. I often think of this verse in Isaiah where he lashes out against the Israelite hypocrites:
Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote.
That describes me right now.

I even find myself being skeptical of those times when my heart was near to God in the last few months. Perhaps it was an illusion. If I prayed to Apollo every day, would I start to feel a connection to Apollo? And what if I'm drawn to spirituality simply because I'm bored of the dry, dusty, rational mind-set that I've had these many years? I get bored easily. I can't sit through a sequel to a movie because I'm already tired of the characters. Maybe spirituality attracts me for its novelty factor.

Day 226

In the past couple of weeks, I've taken not quite a leap of faith, but a cautious baby step of faith. I'm not sure why. I think it's that the three-times-a-day prayers are working their mojo.

The point is, I don't see the world as a collection of soulless quarks and neutrinos. At times – not all the time, but sometimes – the entire world takes on a glow of sacredness, like someone has flipped on an unfathomably huge halogen lamp and made the universe softer, fuller, less menacing.

I spend a lot of time marveling. I haven't stared at a forklift yet, but I'll marvel at the way rain serpentines down a car window. Or I'll marvel at the way my reflection is distotred in a bowl. I feel like I just took my first bong hit. I feel like Wes Bentley rhapsodizing about that dancing plastic bag in American Beauty.

I've noticed that I sometimes walk around with a lighter step, almost an ice-skating-like glide, because the ground feels hallowed. All of the ground, even the ground outside the pizzeria near my apartment building.

from The Year of Living Biblically