By Eric Le Roy
Content 18+ For years, the sight of watching other people in the act of praying has made me uncomfortable. I really don’t understand why, unless somehow or other it brings to the boil some latent sense of my own guilt. Like, maybe I should be doing it too but am too proud. Or maybe it’s just that the only congregations I like are big crowds at football games when our side is winning. Otherwise, I prefer scouring and scourging my soul in private due to fear that, upon baring all, I would be laughed at, greeted with suspicious grunts of “Huh?” “What?”, or else reveal myself to have nothing special to pray about and of being paltry and pedestrian – no better or worse, and certainly no more interesting – than anyone else. And we DO like to feel we are special at some level, now don’t we? And I wouldn’t know exactly how to make my prayers more exquisite than yours.
But it has to be more than that because I feel the same way when I see people kissing (at great length) in a public place. Why does it annoy me? I mean, if they were actually rolling around on the floor of the metro during rush hour, hungrily fucking, with all appropriate oinking and snorting, shrieking and gasping sound effects, I would be delighted because it would appeal to my sense of the absurd. I can imagine the rest of the passengers squinting at their smartphones even more ferociously than ever and pretending not to notice. Yet two people with no sense of taste (except for the scum from their own molars and bicuspids) swapping their drool in public bugs me to no end. It seems like mere exhibitionism, intensified even more by the fact that these slaverers are rarely pleasant to look at. It’s like they are crying out to the scornful mob: “See? Somebody loves me!!” And I want to reply, “No, nobody does. Not really.” I have never seen two beautiful people snogging in the metro. It’s always the hippos and rhinos.
I get the same way (which shows how bad I really am) when I see the ‘candlelight vigils’ that mourners of some mass murder in America always conduct. The media laps it up, but I am just left with a futile sense of “Haven’t we seen this before?” And it’s not like I don't feel sorry for the victims. More like I can’t connect. I didn’t know them, so I fend off their ghosts and emotionally push them away. My inner equipment is not adequate to such expansive grief. I want to tell the candle-bearers, “OK OK OK, I get it. Now let’s all sob in solitude, wadddyathink?” Or, as the pop singer Camille Caballo put it in a song: “There’s no cryin’ in the club.” Go out in the alley and break your soul out there. I do not want to share grief with anyone, at least not at the critical mass level where it blots out everything but itself. Setting off a rainbow of balloons at Daddy’s funeral to ‘celebrate his life’ – well, it sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t play in the dark catacomb I really live in.
Moreover, I am uncomfortable with those who write in the endless forums and solemnly inform the tragedy victims of the latest shoot-’em-ups at church or school that “Our prayers go with you.” At the risk of sounding really mean and cold-blooded, I want to say “Fuck Your Prayers.” And it’s not because I am against well-meaning sentiments or expressions of compassion toward those facing the darkest night. The problem I have is that, after about 1000 times, it begins to sound like “Hang in there.” And “Have a Nice Day.”
Nor, jaded though I may be, can I take seriously the idea of someone earnestly praying for the souls of absolute strangers. I said “earnestly.” It’s like people who want to ‘save the planet’. For whom? Future generations? There is not ONE person on earth who gives a fuck abut ‘future generations’, and that’s because it is impossible to summon genuine emotion while thinking in the abstract. Once you get beyond your grandchildren – great grandchildren at the absolute limit – nobody can tell me that he/she cares what happens in the future. It’s like saying, “I hope the Los Angeles Lakers win the NBA championship in the year 2145.” Well, I hope that pigs will be able to fly by then too. But if they can’t, the hell with them.
A guy from the Soviet Union once told me, “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Likewise, we pretend to pray, and God pretends to listen. The only two people who have ever had much to say on the subject that I found compelling were a pair of nuns: Sister Louis at the Catholic School where I taught briefly, and the famous Maria (Mother) Theresa. Sister Louise wasn’t too hot on me for some reason, but one day I asked her pointblank: “Why do you believe all this stuff so much that you would devote your life to it?” I expected the usual shit about The Lord My Savior, but instead she just said, “I think it’s a gift.” I said, “You mean like writing poetry or coming up with ingenious algorithms?” And she more or less answered, “Yep, that’s pretty much it.” In effect, she was saying that just because I couldn’t see it didn’t mean it wasn’t there. She saw it and so the hell with me. Fly off with the pigs, LeRoy. I respected her for that and I’ve never forgotten it. She saw what I couldn’t see. That simple, and so there was no need for a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
Maria Theresa was allegedly asked what she said to God when she prayed. She said, “ Nothing. I just listen.” The interviewer thought he’d nail her with the next one. “So what does God say to you?” She didn’t blink. “Nothing. He just listens.”
That was a classy answer. I didn’t mind one little bit getting jacked off by that one.
I watched a video on Islam because I teach history to Chinese students, and we were on the topic of Muhammad, the Koran, Mecca, and so forth. There was a great religious festival going on, and a huge auditorium was full of people kneeling, nearly prostrate on little rugs, skull caps plastered to their heads, letting it all hang out for Allah. I confess I felt a kind of awe at the spectacle, sensing as I did the fervent, potentially dangerous collective certainty.
It’s the same as when I once saw a TV documentary about ‘charismatic, creationist’ religion in America. I listened to them speaking in tongues, lurching about with wild eyes, whooping it up, rolling on the floor and having fits, and it was not hard to imagine what they would do to a reprobate like me if they could have their way, as in the good old days when heretics were strapped to stakes and put to the fire. They’d barbecue my ass faster than you could say “Holy Smokes.” Good Christian people.
But the truth is that these folk believe in what they are doing to a degree that I am not sure I have ever trusted anything in my life. And, as my ‘advancing’ (eroding) years recede into the domain or tortured yet well-composed questions instead of the amphitheater amplifications of my youthful answers – I find myself, with unpredictable flurries of emotions such as serenity, desperation, giddiness, and despair, just sort of panting and yawning right alongside my dogs, who seem content enough without having any idea why. And I realize absolutely that I don’t understand a ‘doggone’ thing more than they do. They just seem happier for some reason. There is no more certainty in any of this than in resting assured that a woman who says she loves you really does. You just hope so. In the case of prayers, there is even less certainly, because God never says, “You bet, honey.”
In the old days, I used to read articles in Sports Illustrated, where the athlete or coach under discussion was often identified as being “deeply religious.” It was always broadcast in the admiring form of a great virtue. I used to wonder what the difference was between being simply religious and deeply religious. So I developed a skit to entertain my friends with. I would ‘mug for the camera’ by depicting the two faces: ‘regularly’ religious and ‘deeply’ religious.
My regular religious face would show a humble visage (sort of like flan or pudding), hands clamped together at the edge of its chin, thinly piping out, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”” with beseeching eyes lifted and peering heavenwards before sinking down to the open scripture to partake of more of the Lord’s wit and wisdom. The deeply religious one would make a face like a soldier ramming a bayonet into the enemy’s gut and fairly snarl with Christian ‘love’, having just kicked Satan’s ass in a bar fight.
The effects were vastly different: one prepared for martyrdom, the other for War.
But maybe I still haven’t answered my original question: Why does something in me recoil whenever I see somebody mumbling incantations over cupped hands?
Tentative conclusions vary among the following: (1) I cannot share in their reverent community, therefore it all seems somehow foreign to me; (2) I may, in some way, shape, or form, trust the prayer, but I do not trust the people ; (3) I trust the sincerity of the people (insofar as I can trust a homo sapien) but do not share in their faith that a deity is listening, whose absence of course renders the prayer meaningless; (4) It seems like exhibitionism, like helping an old lady totter across a busy street and hoping someone notices.
Still, if you are saying your prayers, you can’t be all bad, right? Emerson said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I say, no, there is a specific kind of Born Again Christian who does it even better.
And so, where does this leave me?
I wander in the forest at times when my boiling blood needs a cool-down, and every time I go I see just what I went there for, what I knew I would find: the intricate, numberless mozaic of miracles, and I also know that, whatever the dream and touch of whatever cosmic artist came up with it all, this must be beyond mere chemistry and, yes, the most ingenious algorithms. If my dogs are with me, and sometimes even my wife, it is every bit as good, as long as she doesn’t try to take one photograph after the other. I hope, God do I hope, that I am doing more…somehow…than just thrashing and stomping my way among proliferating slag heaps of molecules disguised as buds. I hope I have come here for a reason, and that all I am, the instantaneously disappearing wad of hair when set afire that is my soul, is enclosed within the Reason.
I am not a wise man, but I do know that, whereas for me I am surrounded by an uncomprehending paradise that lies forever aloof in response to whatever man-made prayers I could muster, all other living forms here are struggling for survival on this green battlefield and amid the perpetual air raids of the birds. Minute by minute. The multitudes of anthills, their majesty conjured by an intricate craft, collapse beneath the wheels of the sporadic quadracycles, loggers’ trucks and hikers’ boots. Defunct beetles who died on some pilgrimage to the other side of the dusty path lie flopped on their backs. Paradise gasps. The serpent slithers.
Why do I feel here, therefore, as I come on my human terms, such sanctuary and as if I am in the hands of an infinite mercy, a case of how things should be? Is such serenity, real or false, the goal of the same kind of direct prayer I scorn? If so, what’s the matter with me? Why do so many petty hatreds ignite in me when I know better?
I ran into a deer once in a forest grove like this, and for a moment we both just stood there, somewhat in awe of each other. Then, as an ancient god, he trotted off, his body rippling like a gale among sand dunes. I have never, ever felt that way in a human church. This was the kind of deer that hunters come calling for with their rifles and a day of sport on their minds.
For all my bluster, I am not past the point of gratefully drinking in the grace of silence – I who can never shut up. Wondering what the gift is. Wondering why I don’t have it. I am reminded of the poem by the guy in the hammock on Duffy’s farm in Minnesota who watched the animals, remnants and droppings of the same, and birds as they went winging methodically across the evening skies, and said he had wasted his life.
They knew what to do. He didn’t. I don’t. It’s that simple.
When I am away from other human beings, I discover what God there is. I don’t have to feel frightened and ashamed, and it’s because the leaves and the insects do not judge me. Yes, the things of people flutter through my mind, but they are buried in the air and can not get out to injure me. It’s like something that you can’t quite remember that seemed important once. But who and what and when and where?
In other places, I still listen to old human songs and gaze at the enigmas within paintings in the museums (as seen online nowadays). Hopper’s empty staircase in a small apartment building in Paris long ago, for example. Wondering who might be waiting in the room behind that dark door at the top of the stair. Ah, the rainy streets outside; the rush of human hearts in the hush of twilight.
I think, I guess, the best prayers are those that sparkle in the mind and then get lost. Piano keys of brightness in dead lobbies. A blink of an eye in a dark street. Trains in the night, torrents throbbing at the window, a barking dog, the all night radio playing softly, wine in the brain, the eyes closing. All of those ‘poetic’ things that entice you to a rest you have every right to imagine waking up from. For when you go to sleep it’s the end of the world. Then the world comes back.
I remember edging out of a forest long ago, and hearing something splashing in a fledgling little lake pond not far away, wet by mercy of the fickle rain. I thought it must be some crazy animal and naturally my first impulse was fear.
To my astonishment it was two very fat, very naked, young people (once upon a time their flab would have seemed a sin against youth), a man and a woman, playing in the waters. They were utterly oblivious to everything else but each other and did not seem the slightest bit distressed by or even conscious of the rolls of their own lard that bobbed and flounced on the surface of the water. Nor were their faintly piglike faces, as fat people sometimes develop, a matter of concern.
So I guess I was the only one in the metro watching them that day. And, as I slipped away, careful to blend my footsteps in with the marching chirp of the birds so as to remain forever invisible, the thought came to my mind that here their intimacy did not disgust me.
In fact, I said a prayer, something to the effect that I hoped they were, and would be, happy.