Growing up in a nonreligious family in the Northwest, I thought Christianity was nothing more than a bedtime story. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to the South. It took me a while to adjust to life in a small North Carolina town. I began to understand the drawl and enjoy the regional food, but the emphasis on religion was beyond me.
One day, while I was in math class, the lights went out. Tree limbs bashed against the windows. Rain pummeled the tops of cars in the parking lot so loudly we could hear it two stories up. A voice over the intercom called for everyone to follow “tornado plan C.”
“We’re going to die!” yelled one of my friends. A classroom full of panic-stricken nine-year-olds began to cry.
We were herded into the basement and told to sit with our heads to the wall and our hands covering our necks. The room was mostly quiet except for a constant whisper coming from the frail blond girl beside me. I realized she was praying, asking God to protect all of us. I’d never heard anyone pray before and was amazed at how calm she looked, as if God himself were beside her. I also marveled at her devotion to the faith she thought would save her.
For all I know, her praying did save us. Though branches were broken and cars overturned, no one was hurt. Later, when a boy made fun of the blond girl for praying, I punched him and made his nose bleed. “Eileen!” the girl said to me. “I’m going to pray for both of you tonight.”
Greensboro, North Carolina
I used to set aside solitary time to pray, but with two young kids, I rarely have a moment to myself anymore. I look forward to a time when I can once again enjoy periods of quiet meditation. For now, my prayers are woven into my daily routine: remembering a hurting friend as I fold laundry; weeping over broken nations as I bounce my colicky baby boy; whispering a plea for help as I fight tears of loneliness; thanking Jesus for the safety of my children as I tuck them into bed at night.
I was raised in a Messianic Jewish family, which means we believed Jesus was the Messiah, but we maintained a Jewish cultural identity. My mother taught me to talk to God whenever I felt like it, and to pray in whatever way I was comfortable. I preferred to pray with both eyes open, looking at God’s creation.
We went to two services each week: one at a traditional Christian church, and one at a Messianic Jewish congregation. One Sunday when I was five, I attended the Christian Sunday school. When the children gathered in a circle to pray, I gripped the seat of my chair and gazed up at the ceiling.
“What are you doing?” the teacher whispered. “It’s time to pray.”
I explained that I prayed with my eyes open.
“If you don’t pray with your head bowed and your eyes closed, then God will be mad at you,” she said.
When my mother came to pick me up, I told her what had happened, and she gave that teacher a lesson of her own. I never went back to that class, and I still pray with my eyes wide open.
New York, New York
When I was growing up in Calcutta in the late 1940s, violence between Muslims and Hindus was sweeping through the city. I had witnessed a murder by the time I was seven.
My Christian family lived in a large house on the border between a Hindu neighborhood and a Muslim one. We hired both Hindu and Muslim domestics and offered refuge to anyone who felt threatened.
I feared the Hindus would kill Abdul, who cared for my younger brother and me. Abdul tried to reassure me by pointing out that he was eighty and close to death anyway. Besides, he added, every Hindu in the neighborhood knew him and would not attack him.
Wanting to keep him safe, I followed Abdul everywhere, except to his room, where he prayed facing Mecca five times a day. Mother said I should respect his privacy at those times and not bother him, but one day I broke the rule and tiptoed into his room. Abdul was kneeling with his forehead to the ground. He stood up and then knelt again, murmuring prayers. He was a picture of dignity and calm amid the strife surrounding our house.
When Abdul had finished his prayers, he smiled at me and said, “God will protect both of us. Don’t you think?”
I used to work across the street from the World Trade Center. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, I didn’t leave my Harlem apartment for several days. I was afraid even to shower, because the window in my shower faced south, and I worried that another terrorist attack would shatter it and send glass flying into my body.
On the third day I decided I needed to go outside. As I walked from 139th Street to Riverside Park, I felt far away from what was going on around me. When I came to Riverside Church, I went inside and sat down and asked God to take away my fear and give me back myself. Nothing happened. So I zigzagged farther south to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, which has always felt especially holy to me. I sat in the sanctuary and prayed for my fear to go away, for my mind to slow down. I’d never prayed so selfishly before.
Gradually I sensed God’s presence. Then, for the first time, I felt physically touched by God. For almost half an hour God held me like a baby in a womb. The anxiety went away, and I knew that from then on everything would be OK. Not that there wouldn’t be more attacks; not that I wouldn’t die. But that everything would be OK.
Rev. David J. Huber
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
After graduating from seminary, I became one of seven ministers in a small-town church. We rotated duties, and I was often asked to lead the congregational prayer. After the service I’d receive requests for copies of my prayer and messages of appreciation from church members who said I’d articulated their own deep concerns.
After I’d been at the church for two years, the congregation had to decide whether to seek ordination for me as pastor. As my ordination date approached, a retired minister in the congregation began to complain publicly about my prayers. She accused me of offering Jewish prayers rather than Christian prayers, because I didn’t end each one by invoking Jesus’ name. To her, this meant God would be deaf to my entreaties.
Despite her complaints, I was ordained and continued to offer the congregational prayers, but I now ended each one with “In the name of Jesus, amen.” I usually stammered on this ending, because I was so self-conscious. The woman soon began complaining about my sermons, my theology, and my language for God, and I eventually left that congregation.
Now when I pray publicly, even if only to bless a meal, I always rush through the ending, feeling anxious rather than joyful.
June Mears Driedger
Everyone was praying for my twenty-eight-year-old daughter, who was dying of ovarian cancer, but I couldn’t seem to do it. If there was a God, I thought, he knew what to do. If there wasn’t, what was the use?
During her last days, on my regular walk, I sat down on a pepper-tree stump and bowed my head to pray. Only two words came to me: “Thank you.”
I am still thankful that my daughter was on this earth for twenty-eight years.
With every bend of the Guatemalan mountain road, the Mayan mother and I, the American nurse, bang against the sides of the pickup-truck bed, fighting to hold on to her four-year-old as he stiffens with seizures. I am nauseated with fear and fatigue, and disoriented by the truck’s siren and the rotating orange light on its roof. The only sound from the child is a gurgle as his airway tightens.
I grope for the Saint Christopher medal I keep pinned to my bra, to guard against the perils of travel, which are many in this Central American drug corridor. Finding it, I silently pray. The boy’s mother prays, too, aloud and in Spanish. Her son floods her skirt with urine as his bladder reacts to a seizure. She screams, and for a moment I think I will not emotionally survive this night.
At the hospital, hands lift the child from our laps, and he clutches a fistful of his mother’s hair and tears it out by the roots. He is the color of the gray dawn. I leave an hour later, having more faith in the hundred-dollar bill I placed in the physician’s hands than in the power of my prayers. The Mayan mother has collapsed on the sidewalk in slumber, surrounded by the skirts of villagers who kneel protectively around her, fingering rosary beads and murmuring to the God who hears the prayers of the humble.
At the customary point in the service, the rabbi asks anyone who’s in mourning to rise for the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which famously does not mention death. I’m technically not mourning someone, but I stand anyway. I rarely attend synagogue, so I want to get my money’s worth.
I learned the kaddish years ago, after my bar mitzvah. My ancient Hebrew teacher had explained that now that I’d reached adulthood, I needed to say it for my deceased father.
Today the Hebrew words roll off my tongue despite years of disuse. Their rhythm is mesmerizing, like music, like a chant, like poetry. I don’t exactly know what they mean, but I get the gist: the kaddish praises God, over and over.
I’m no longer religious. When asked, I say I’m “Jewish on my parents’ side.” I don’t know why I’m reciting kaddish. Perhaps to honor my father, my sister, my grandparents. Oseh shalom bimromav: I ask God to send peace from heaven. I’m praying to a God I don’t believe in. So why do the words comfort me? Why, before it’s over, do I break down, sobbing and clutching my wife as close as I can?
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
I came out to my father as a lesbian at the same time he came out to me as a newly converted “charismatic” Catholic. When he made it clear he disapproved of my life and intended to evangelize me, our relationship collapsed.
At fifty-two my father was diagnosed with aggressive multiple myeloma. I hardly recognized his voice when he called and asked me to fly home to be with him. For the first time in years, I prayed.
During my father’s last week, women and men from his church came at all hours to pray over him. Someone placed a rosary in his weak hands, and they all recited, in perfect unison, an entreaty to the Blessed Virgin to see him safely beyond purgatory and into heaven. Their words were a kind of low, melodic chanting. Though we had thought him unconscious, my father began to weep.
Later one of my father’s church friends sent me a rosary. I try to view it from my father’s perspective, as a source of comfort and protection, and I carry it in my purse to honor him. But I wonder if it isn’t also a symbol of the distance we had between us. I never knew the man of faith he became. He never knew the real me.
Julie Jordan Avritt
Greenville, South Carolina
August 30, 2005: I almost cried today. The Gulf Coast is laid bare. Houses, restaurants, buildings gone. Many dead; many more suffering. No fresh water, electricity, food, jobs, money, or homes. No way to call friends and family to find out whether they’re OK. No way for us to get there to help.
Today, for the first time in a long time, I prayed. There was nothing else to do. I couldn’t talk to those affected by the storm. I couldn’t touch them. So I prayed. Then I asked myself, Aren’t I praying to the same God who let this happen in the first place?
As a psychologist, I specialize in people with personality disorders. Most of my clients blame others for their unhappiness, have little emotional control, and can’t manage even minor parts of their lives. They’re often referred to me by other therapists who are at their wits’ end.
Before I see a new client for the first time, I lock myself in the bathroom and pray for guidance and the ability to treat this person with kindness, respect, and dignity. I pray that I will see all my patients’ good qualities and appreciate their ability to survive in a society where most people reject them.
I’ve been privileged to hear the life stories of some exceptional people. My clients often say, “You don’t seem like a shrink.” I know then that my prayer was heard.
Worship was an unpleasant experience in the old Appalachian country church I attended growing up. I sat quietly under my mother’s watchful eye and entertained myself by trying to guess what people petitioned God for in their prayers. Sometimes people prayed aloud. They seemed to be telling God how to run his business. My own prayers consisted of holding my hands out, turning my eyes to the skies, and shrugging, as if to say, “I don’t have a clue. You know best.”
A barely literate country woman, my mother believed she didn’t know enough to tell God how to run his business, either, but she knew enough to get up and help him out. She was always in motion, ordering her world in ways she thought would be acceptable to God. She’d look at a problem, such as weeds growing in her vegetable garden, and declare, “We can’t have that,” and she’d promptly weed the garden. If my behavior was unacceptable, she’d say, “We’ll not have that, young lady,” and I’d find myself cleaning horse stalls or shoveling out the pigpens as punishment.
My siblings and I grew up to be successful adults. As we rose out of poverty and began to enjoy material comforts, our mother would warn, “Now, don’t ever think you’re above your raising.”
Today my mother’s mind is fading into dementia, but she’s still in motion, organizing her nursing-home space. And when I pray, I still shrug my shoulders and plead ignorance. Then I put myself in motion, grateful for the task at hand.
No one ever taught me the right way to pray as a child, so I improvised. I’d pray by staring up into the synagogue’s dome, which I thought looked like the eye of God. I was certain that God was watching me through that eye. Sometimes, as I prayed, I’d feel moved by an awareness of things greater than myself.
When I got older, I stopped going to synagogue and pursued my own spiritual path. But when a friend was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease — the same terminal illness that had brutally taken my father — I found myself wanting a connection to God.
Though my friend’s body became paralyzed, her mind remained heartbreakingly brilliant. I began looking intently into her blue eyes, so deep and clear it was like looking into the endless blue sky. Through those sparkling eyes, I felt aware of things greater than us.
A few days before my friend died, her eyes became dull and cloudy. I stroked her gray hair and softly told her she was not alone; that God was with us in our hearts, and there was nothing left to fear. I knew these things to be true. I felt them in my bones. I had figured out how to pray.
Barbara Straus Lodge
Los Angeles, California
My mother taught me the golden rule, but kept me away from organized religion. I pictured God as an old man in robes with a long white beard, to whom other people prayed when they wanted help with something, like passing a geometry test.
When I was twelve, I saw a TV program about Islam and learned that in some parts of the world people prayed to Allah. I liked the sound of “Allah.” I could say that name over and over and not get tired of it. Because there were no images of Allah, you could imagine him any way you wished. I decided that I would pray to Allah.
I knew intuitively that Allah was not the type of God you prayed to for help or material things, like a new bike. My prayers to Allah would all be prayers of thanks. Whenever I saw a rainbow or a hawk soaring in the sky, I would silently pray, “Thank you, Allah.” When I saw an animal lying dead along the road, I would visualize Allah laying himself over this poor creature’s twisted body to protect what remained of its spirit.
I never revealed my prayers to anyone, thinking that perhaps when I married, I might share them with my husband or my children. I married a lapsed Catholic who believed in God but wanted nothing to do with organized religion. We prayed silently together each night, but I never told him I was praying to Allah, because I was afraid he would laugh at me.
Soon after we married, the Gulf War began. Suddenly there was increased public awareness about the differences between Christianity and Islam. Some Christians considered Muslims to be infidels, I learned. I decided never to reveal my secret.
In my twenties I lived in a Christian commune, where we prayed for an hour every morning. I found this practice a source of strength while my husband and I were trying to conceive a child. Once pregnant, I prayed more fervently throughout the day: “May this child know you and love you.”
When my daughter was four, her father and I separated. We’d left the commune the year before — or, rather, we’d been expelled from it after he’d come out of the closet. Despite our attempts to keep our family together, my husband’s need to love a man was too much for me to endure.
I raised my daughter alone as best I could. We didn’t go to church, and my faith evolved into a more universal belief not restricted to a particular denomination. My daughter and I didn’t talk about religion much. It came as no surprise when she proclaimed herself an agnostic in high school and an existentialist in college.
Now twenty-six, my daughter recently invited me to her one-year-anniversary AA meeting. Before the meeting, I talked to her about the importance of discipline in defeating addiction. She insisted discipline wasn’t enough. “AA is a spiritual program, Mom,” she said. “My higher power has given me the strength to do what I couldn’t have done on my own.”
It seems those prayers I sent heavenward all those years ago have been answered, though not as I expected.
After my husband was transferred from Texas to South Carolina, I missed my friends, my church, my house. I prayed to God to send me a friend in this new town. At church I’d survey the crowd and wonder which of these nice Episcopal ladies God would pick out to befriend me: Lisa, the pediatrician who stayed home with her kids? Jacqui, the pastor’s wife?
One day, while I was pulling my children down the street in their wagon, Mahina walked up, introduced herself, and invited me in for tea. It was the first invitation I’d had since leaving Texas. I said yes.
From her accent and features, I guessed Mahina was foreign. Not sure how to begin, I fell back on my favorite conversation starter: “How did you meet your husband?”
She answered, “Our marriage was arranged by our families.”
Hmm, that’s different, I thought. “That’s working out for you?” I asked.
She said yes; she loved her husband. Then she asked if I’d met my husband in the typical American way, by dating. When I answered yes, she asked if it was working out for me too.
“Of course,” I said. Then, in a furtive whisper, I added, “Well, most of the time.”
After she’d stopped laughing, Mahina leaned over to me and said, “Yeah, me too — mostly.”
My new friend is a woman from halfway around the globe, with a different worldview, religion, and culture from mine. God sent me a Muslim from Pakistan in answer to my Christian prayer.
Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina
When we visit my wife’s parents, it’s my job to scramble eggs for family breakfasts. This morning, while I scrambled, my teenage daughter Liz cut fruit into bowls — no bananas for her kid brother Phil; no grapefruit for her grandfather; extra strawberries for me.
Soon everyone was seated at the old oak dining table. I served the eggs as my mother-in-law, Kate, helped her husband, Jack, into his chair.
“Who’s the boy?” he asked, looking at Phil.
“That’s your grandson Phillip,” Kate answered. But he didn’t recognize Phil or any of us, except his wife. Jack had suffered a series of brain “incidents” that had left him with impaired motor skills and practically no memory.
The family tradition was that Jack said grace at meals. Once all conversation had stopped, we bowed our heads and waited. Jack didn’t speak. After an uncomfortable silence, Kate gently prompted: “God is . . .”
Jack tried, “God is . . . ,” but could get no further.
Another long pause. Then both Liz and Phil helped their pop-pop: “. . . great. God is good, and we thank him for this food.”
Conversations resumed, and people began to eat. I glanced over and saw that Jack’s head was still bowed, and he was mumbling something. Liz leaned toward him, put her hand on his back, and rubbed. Then she rested her head on his shoulder and tenderly kissed his cheek.
As if awakened by magic, Jack lifted his head and smiled at her. He picked up his fork and attacked the bacon and eggs on his plate.
I noticed tears in Liz’s eyes.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
She hesitated, then said, “He was praying the same thing over and over. He just kept saying, ‘God, don’t forget me. God, don’t forget me. God, don’t forget me.’ ”
At nine I prayed God would let me be his bride and become a nun.
At fourteen I prayed the boy I liked would kiss me behind the columns in the school smoking lounge.
At sixteen I prayed my boyfriend would be a gentle lover.
At seventeen I prayed the test would be negative.
At thirty I implored God, whom I hadn’t prayed to in years, to either help me quit drinking or let me die.
At thirty-five I prayed my thesis would be good enough to ensure my graduation.
At forty-three I prayed my lover of twelve years could find happiness without me.
At forty-four I prayed to pass the test to receive my master’s degree.
At forty-five I prayed my new lover would never leave.
At forty-eight I prayed my ex-lover would forget my address.
Today I pray for a new love. I pray again to quit drinking. I pray my life can mean more than the circle I have traveled. I pray for my country, our world, this planet. I pray because the only prayer of mine God hasn’t answered was my prayer to die.
After coming to prison, I found a connection to the divine through prayer and meditation. It took me a while to realize that this connection went only one way, much like the connection I had with family members, who over the years had grown less interested in keeping in touch.
I no longer pray, and I wonder at the peace I seem to recall feeling when I did. I was naive in my understanding of prayer, using it to ask for a cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card. I didn’t want to do the time for the crimes that I’d committed, or to be responsible for the evil in myself. I had hurt many by my actions, but I wanted God to take away my discomfort. I was not praying. I was asking God to fix everything I’d screwed up.
I’m no longer that naive. I committed those crimes. I am not innocent. Why should I think that God would give me a free pass out of prison? If I did get out, I would only do the same terrible things again.
I am sometimes tempted to return to my old supplications. They felt good, selfishly good. But before I can learn to pray correctly, I need a more complete understanding of what I’m praying for, and to whom.
At the age of six, I sat at the window with my chin on the sill and gazed longingly at the Catholic girls in their patent-leather shoes, going into the immense, spired church across the way. “Why can’t I go?” I’d ask my mother, who was busy cleaning and obviously irritated by my question.
One spring day I was standing in my yard when an elderly woman in a fine wool hat and coat stopped to chat with me on her way to church. She squinted and spoke kindly to me. The next time I saw her, she invited me to go with her. “Please,” I begged my embarrassed mother, who shrugged and acquiesced.
The church’s interior was thrilling. The ceiling soared, the stained-glass windows vibrated with color, and the congregants radiated joy. Afterward the woman brought me to her apartment and gave me lemon cookies and a Wink soda.
I went to church with my new friend only two more times. I wanted to continue going, but my family was moving to West Virginia. On my last visit to the church, my friend placed a small white box in my hand. Inside was a necklace with a blue-and-white medallion of the Virgin Mary praying. Days later I clutched the praying Mary in my hand as the wind blew my hair on the drive to West Virginia.
When I lost the necklace in the leaves that fall, I searched desperately for it, pestering my mother to help me find it, please. She was cleaning, busy, irritated.
I never did find it, though I searched the leaves for many weeks afterward, hoping to spot a bit of blue, or a pair of tiny praying hands. The gift of faith: I’ve been searching for it ever since.
I was twenty-four and living in London, jobless and completely dependent on my boyfriend, who had started coming home at 2 A.M. and leaving for work at 7. I pretended to be asleep when I heard him open the front door of our closet-sized apartment, and again when he muffled the alarm in the morning. But the truth was I couldn’t sleep, not even when he wasn’t home.
By the time my boyfriend told me he was seeing another woman, I was down to a couple of hours’ sleep a night. I packed all my belongings into two suitcases and bought a plane ticket home, but my flight didn’t leave for several days. So I went back to the apartment and cried. By evening I was exhausted, but still nothing could help me sleep: not meditation, or pills, or vodka.
I gave up trying and and began reading a book that had earned a spot in my carry-on: J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. In it, the main character talks about a Russian pilgrim who has learned to “pray without ceasing”; he chants the words “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” over and over, no matter what he’s doing.
What the hell, I thought. I turned off the light and prayed: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
The next morning I woke smiling and dragged my suitcases a mile and a half to the house of some friends who’d agreed to take me in until my plane left. The smile, and the prayer, never left my lips.
My father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. As his condition declined, I flew to Florida seven times to be with him and my mother. My dad faced his illness with stoicism and dignity. No one ever saw him in bed, or even in pajamas. He got up every morning, showered, and got dressed.
One day I drove him to the barber who had cut his hair for twenty years. Dad looked so pale I wanted to tell everyone in the barbershop, Be kind to him. He is dying. On the way home Dad was quiet. Then he said, “It’s a terrible thing when children have to pray for their parents to die.”
“We’re not doing that,” I told him. “We will never do that.”
But he knew we would.
Joy Gaines Friedler
Farmington Hills, Michigan
Growing up on a tobacco farm, you worked, regardless of your age. The first job I was given, at the age of seven, was to walk behind the harvester and pick up tobacco leaves that had fallen off the trailer or been dropped by the croppers. This is the easiest job in the field, and also the most boring.
For the croppers, who had to pick the leaves as the harvester rolled past the plants, the pace was frenetic. Meanwhile I trudged along behind them, over hot, sandy ground with no shelter from the blistering sun, wishing for something, anything, to break the tedium.
To fight boredom I considered what I would do when I grew up. (Anything other than tobacco farming, I quickly decided.) I also developed my own rudimentary form of walking meditation, in which for brief moments all things outside myself ceased to be and I no longer felt the heat and fatigue. I contemplated the odds that Farrah Fawcett-Majors would divorce the Six Million Dollar Man for me, a rising second-grader. I wondered if I would be missed if I took a nap under a shade tree at the end of the field.
But more than anything else, I prayed. I prayed that a great and terrible blight would befall our tobacco crop. I prayed the barns would all burn down. I prayed Pop would stand up from his cropper’s seat and announce that he was sick of this, and we were giving up farming forever. I prayed that the tractor would please, please speed up.
Raleigh, North Carolina
When I was little, I recited my prayers every night: “God bless my mother, my father, my sister, my brother . . . Please, God, make Gordon walk again, and please make Mommy and Daddy stop fighting.”
My cousin Gordon, who’d been stricken by polio in 1956, never walked again. And my folks never stopped fighting.
The last words I addressed to God as an adult, before giving up praying for twenty years, were “God, please don’t let him rape me.”
Call it a fallacy of logic. Call it magical thinking. Call it plain silly. But I came to believe that if I hadn’t prayed for God’s intervention the night that man broke into my apartment, I wouldn’t have been raped. After that, in times of duress, I made sure not to invoke God’s help or goodwill. When I had hepatitis, I stopped myself from praying to be well. When I lost all hope that my young marriage could thrive, I resisted the urge to ask for God’s guidance. Even when I was pregnant with twins and afraid of what could go wrong, I held back, figuring it safer not to ask God for any favors. When I had my twin sons, and they were healthy and beautiful, I felt an urge to exclaim my joy to the universe, but I censored myself from doing even that.
My foolish resistance to prayer ended after one of my sons spearheaded a march against sexual predators on the UCLA campus. I participated in the march, and during the open-mike segment, my son said to the crowd, “It’s up to us UCLA men to make this campus safe for UCLA women.” I turned my gaze upward and, in spite of myself, said, “Thank you, God.”
My mother and father were godless humanists; the neighbor girl’s parents were God-fearing Southern Baptists. One hot Alabama afternoon she and I sat on the driveway between our homes and had a six-year-old’s version of a theological debate. I was pretty sure my logical, scientific argument for the nonexistence of God was superior to her Bible-school mantra, but she did have one compelling point: “You can get things.”
“What?” I said.
She told me if you prayed to God for things, he would give them to you. This was a major reason to be Christian, in her opinion. I thought it might be worth considering.
The next morning I was slow getting ready for school. Worried I would miss the bus, my parents chastised me for dragging my feet. I flew out the door and began to run the quarter mile to the bus stop.
When I got there, the other kids were not around. The thought of slinking back to my house and asking my busy, angry parents for a ride was mortifying. I sat down on the curb and began to pray out loud and earnestly. “Oh, God, I do believe in you. I want to believe in you. Please, please let the bus come.”
And it did — the orange-yellow answer to my prayer barreled around the corner. I was awed by the power of God.
Then the other kids came out from behind the bushes where they’d been hiding, and they fell over themselves laughing at their trick. Alone in my seat on the bus, I tried to make sense of what had happened while the pranksters guffawed behind my back all the way to school. That day I came to understand that it might not be a simple question of God either existing or not existing. A third possibility crossed my mind: that God might exist but have a juvenile sense of humor.
I was eleven years old in the summer of 1951, when polio was epidemic across the country. Swimming pools were closed, and children were kept isolated.
My siblings and I played in the backyard of our duplex in downtown Los Angeles, where we’d built a treehouse in an old walnut tree. One afternoon, when my younger brother Billy and I were hiding in our treehouse, a strange kid suddenly appeared on the top rail of the back fence. He had bandy legs, a large head, and a playful grin. He had climbed across the roof of a garage and was looking with twinkling eyes right into our hiding place.
“Come on,” he said, daring us to follow him. “You’re not afraid, are you?”
I couldn’t ignore his taunt, and Billy watched as I followed the boy, whose name was Eddie, along fence rails, across roofs, and in and out of backyards. Some homeowners yelled at us, and I ran, but Eddie just sauntered away. He was three years older than I and fearless.
I followed Eddie around for the rest of the summer: running, climbing, biking, and playing for long hours. In mid-August Mother got a call from Eddie’s parents. Their son had a high fever and was very weak. He’d been taken in an ambulance to the hospital, where the doctors had put him in an iron lung to help him breathe. They’d been told he had polio.
Mother didn’t tell Eddie’s parents that I was also ill with a high fever and muscle weakness. She refused even to accept the possibility that her son had polio. She never so much as said the word to me, repeating over and over that I was a perfect being and that the disease was not real.
Mother was a Christian Scientist and believed that, despite what her ears and eyes told her, the material world does not exist; the physical body is a dream, a mirage, a shadow. Disease and death are the result of fear, and once we conquer fear, we are healed. Faced with her son’s life-threatening illness, she did the only thing she thought she could: she prayed.
I tried to understand Mother’s “truth” and to see myself as a higher being with no physical body. I pictured myself floating through empty space: untethered, drifting. Sometimes I spread my arms and grabbed the bed to stop it from spinning, but it didn’t stop. It just slowed down, then sped up again.
Twice a day, after helping me get up and go to the bathroom, Mother sat by the bed and read her Christian Science textbook. When I was awake and not thrashing around, she told me to remember that I’d been created in the image of God, whole and well. Her voice was certain and reassuring.
My recovery was gradual. After a month I was out in the yard, playing with my younger siblings. Sometimes my right leg collapsed under me, but I wasn’t overly concerned.
I missed the first few weeks of school while my leg regained strength. After a couple of months, Mother decided I was completely healed, and she told me about Eddie’s polio. She said that I had been healed by our belief, a claim I accepted at the time.
I saw Eddie again three years later. He had a scar on his throat and an impediment in his voice. I told him that I had been healed by faith and had no ill effects. Eddie shrugged. He still had that playful grin.
When I grew up, I gave up my belief in faith healing and decided that I had just been lucky. In my forties I ran marathons and triathlons. There was a slight but noticeable difference in the musculature of my two legs. In my late fifties I started to observe pronounced weakness in my right leg. I have since had to give up running, and I walk with a limp, for which I now have a name: post-polio syndrome.
Los Gatos, California
I once had a girlfriend who prayed by chanting, “Namu myo ho ren ge kyo.” She would do this sitting on the floor before a gohonzon, a prayer scroll displayed inside a box with doors on it. She advised me to think of what I wanted, and then chant for it. She chanted for a better job each morning and every night before going to sleep. When we were together in the evening at my place, she would insist on going home to chant before bed.
I got a gohonzon, and to my surprise it worked. I got what I wanted: now that she could chant at my house, my girlfriend would spend the night with me.
After that romance ended, I kept the gohonzon on a shelf for years. One Saturday night, I was alone with nothing to do and decided to sit down on the rug before the gohonzon and say one namu myo ho ren ge kyo for every person I knew. Then I said one chant for every face I could remember. Then one for every group, club, and organization I could think of. Then one for every town, state, and country. It took hours. When I was finished, there was only one man I knew for whom I hadn’t chanted. He had betrayed me, and I hated him. For him I chanted ten times.
Something unexpected happened. The light seemed to change in the room, and I could feel a tingling sensation on my face. I realized I didn’t hate him anymore. I felt only compassion for him. And I saw how closely compassion and forgiveness are intertwined.
My sister Dinah was born with a chromosomal deformity. Then, as a newborn, she suffered a 108-degree fever that caused brain damage. She’s now fifty-one, and it’s a miracle she is alive and functioning as well as she is. Her vocabulary consists of about fifty words and hand signals, yet she is bright and has a depth that seems almost mystical.
Each year before our Thanksgiving meal, my mother always asks me to read a Scripture, and then my father prays. But a few years ago Mom told us she wanted to start a new tradition. She asked my wife to read a Scripture and my daughter to read a poem. Then she shocked everyone by telling us Dinah was going to pray.
My sister and I had grown up in church, but I’d never heard her pray and had no idea what her concept of God might be, if she even had one.
She bowed her head, as she’d seen us do hundreds of times, and said, “God,” with more clarity than I’d heard her say any other word, “I thank . . .”
Then she named us around the table, one by one.