This I Pray

Well, I just finished the Virginia bar exam. It took eight years of higher education and a summer of studying to get there, so I suppose now’s as good a time as any to gather my wits and take stock of where I am right now. So I’m going to write about something I don’t often talk about–prayer.

A few weeks back I told my confessor–that’s Hillary, by the way, and it should be recorded somewhere on the Internet that she is wonderful–that I only had one prayer. Now that I count them all up though, it turns out I have three.

Growing up, particularly before my folks split, we made an effort to have dinners together as a family. There were five of us, my parents plus me and my brother Joe and my sister Emily. Ours was an old-school situation: we kept no TV in the dining room, and the kids were expected to ask permission before leaving the table. My old man did the cooking, largely because my mom worked nights as a psych nurse. And whether dinner was fish sticks, Hamburger Helper, potato soup, or hot dogs, we’d offer up a prayer before eating. (This was back when we all went to mass at the Catholic church on Sundays.) Our nightly pre-meal prayer was the Serenity Prayer.

We called it “saying grace.” As in, “Dan, will you say grace before dinner?” Years later I would learn the Serenity Prayer is the preferred prayer of recovering addicts, but for us five Andersons, it was our daily moment of grace.   I repeat it here for posterity, plus I imagine typing a prayer’s just as good as saying it or praying it:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Your will, not ours, be done.

That last sentence is an Anderson family addition. The original prayer, I believe, contains a second, more florid stanza that talks about submitting to the will of God and all that. We Andersons were always a more direct sort so we summarize it in six words.

Our family grace, well, it wasn’t much like the grace I heard other families say before meals. I’d dine with friends from the church and hear all kinds of varieties, from the profane (“Good food, good meat; good God, let’s eat!”) to the venerated (“Bless us o Lord, and these thy gifts…”), but I never heard anything like ours. Our grace didn’t even mention food. As a painfully self-conscious kid, I was distinctly aware that our words were different from their words. I’d get right embarrassed when friends’ parents would ask me to say grace before dinner, always worried that our prayer devoid of food would be thought inappropriate. As a kid, how could I know just how beautiful our family prayer really was?

Hear something enough and the words have a way of sticking with you. My old man used to always tell me I was smart enough to be anything I wanted to be if I put my mind to it. Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong, but now as an adult I’m convinced that nothing is beyond my capability. It may be folly, but it’s folly I embrace. Every night of my childhood, we sat at the dinner table and asked The Great Whatever for serenity, courage, wisdom, and humility. Some of it might’ve stuck.

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I also pray to a saint, Saint Joseph of Cupertino. Wikipedia notes that St. Joe was known to have been “remarkably unclever,” which in turn has made him the patron saint of test-takers and made me take an immediate liking to the ‘tard. See, old St. Joe had some sort of learning disability (he lived in the 17th century, before they learned to spell dyslexia), and it made his theological studies awfully tough. So when he studied, he’d focus on a small portion of the text and pray that’s what he was tested on. The story, as I learned when I was a kid, was that on the day of his examination to enter a religious order, he could only remember a single verse of the Bible from nerves and difficulty learning. But when the head of the order picked a verse for St. Joe to recite, he picked the one verse St. Joe knew.

Take it all with a grain of salt, of course. Saints need to perform several miracles to be canonized, and Saint Joseph’s other miracles included being able to fly whenever he was overcome with religious fervor. So he may have just been a lucky nutjob for all I know.

I don’t have a particular form to this prayer. I just close my eyes, think of what I know, and ask that the test be a fair assessment of it. Occasionally I’ll mention St. Joe by name, but I get the feeling it doesn’t matter all that much. I mean, I’m not Catholic anymore, so it’s at least odd to pray to a Catholic saint still; I’m not certain he’s even taking my calls. Hell, lately I’m not even sure it’s possible for God (if we want to put a name on the Whatever) to directly interfere with an already-created universe and not, in some fashion, completely break the laws of science. As they haven’t been abrogated just yet, I doubt we’re likely to see God’s hands on the controls.

But here’s the thing: I believe miracles are possible. Science has made incredible progress in charting the complexities of the universe and describing what we know in quantitative terms. But if you add up everything science can tell us, we’re still ignorant of vast areas which, with current means, simply cannot be explained. I have questions that defy rational explanation, like, “What happened before the Big Bang to set our universe in motion?” and “Why do all my exes decide to call in the same three-day span?” Until science steps up its game, I’m comfortable permitting and encouraging the role of the divine in our universe. I just don’t know how it works.

So when the pressure’s on, I throw one up to St. Joe. It might be enough to steer the universe in a different direction, or I may just be wasting my time. But I can’t deny one thing: I’ve had a remarkable run of luck over the years.

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My last prayer, well, it’s my own creation. I don’t know if that makes it an awful prayer or the best prayer; I rather like it.

I like to think of myself as a man of faith, even if I’m not sure how faith works. Maybe I’m a man of faith because I’m not sure how faith works. No matter.

What I’m getting at is, it’s difficult to know where foolishness ends and heartfelt belief begins. Old Faithful, I’m told, erupts every 91 minutes. If you put a timer next to it that dinged every 91 minutes and waited a century, it’d be hard to remember that one doesn’t need the other. But you’d still be a damned fool for thinking the alarm clock’s ring made the geyser erupt. Belief can’t fix stupidity.

And yet I’m guilty of the same sin. I have one genuine belief in my heart: You will always find what you need. I don’t need much to be happy, but I’ve been astonished to find that it’s almost always readily available. Jobs, homes, food, friends, sometimes it’s as simple as asking the universe for what you want and the universe provides. That’s not to say I’ve been spoiled with wealth or fortune in recent years. My plans never work out the way I intend, but I usually achieve what I set out to do or else find a better goal. When I need just about anything but good sense, it finds me. So I keep believing.

That’s enough preamble. My third prayer is simply this: May I never want more than I need. 

Reminds me of a joke I once heard. A concerned woman goes to her rabbi and says, “Rabbi! My husband is shrinking! He was five-foot-ten when we married. Now after thirty years of marriage he’s only five-foot-three. Can you say a blessing for him?”

“Of course,” says the rabbi. “May he live to be four feet tall!”

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