The Mysteries of Prayer

Last year I visited the Getty Villa in Malibu. This is Mr. Getty’s effort to recreate his own lavish Roman residence on the California coast. I spent two hours there. I read about the effort and expense used to create the buildings, gardens, and galleries. But it left me feeling empty. I’ve lost interest in seeing monuments emperors and billionaires build to celebrate themselves and their accomplishments. 

But in one of the gardens, I came across this statue, “Woman Praying”:

I took note of the posture, then looked closely at the face:

I was fascinated.  And puzzled.  Why would this interest me?  There’s nothing remarkable in her expression – it seems almost blank. But after standing there a while, I realized I wasn’t drawn to the sculpture itself.  Instead, I found it raised questions for me: What would this anonymous Roman woman’s inner experience have been like?  What was she thinking? What was she feeling? Was she using a formula she had been taught or was she improvising?  Was her prayer about some critical decision, or just an ordinary part of her day?

            I could Google around and probably get specific answers to my questions.  But I didn’t want to answer the questions as much as tend them – letting them draw me into my own reflections on the experience of prayer.

            Some might think I should be an expert.  For over 40 years I have been studying, reading, reciting, hearing, and composing prayers drawn from 3,000 years of Western traditions.  I’ve been at Buddhist retreats focusing on meditation and “Metta” prayers. I’ve attended Native American ceremonies, where ancestors and the Creator are honored.  I had no clue as to what might have been in this woman’s mind and heart. Yet somehow, I felt a kinship.

            This statue came back to me recently after reading, “When I Prayed to Buddha, God was Listening,” an article by a woman named Sida Lei.  Ms. Lei was raised as a Buddhist in Cambodia. At age 10, the Khmer Rouge came into her city and expelled the residents. She writes, “When the Khmer Rouge split my family apart, sending me away to a child labor camp, my mother knelt over me and whispered, “If ever you are in trouble, Sida, pray to God. He will help you.” Of course, the god I pictured was the great stone statue of Buddha. There were no other gods I knew.” Her mother died of starvation and her father was taken away, never to be seen again.  She became responsible for her four siblings, and they were incarcerated in the countryside.

            Eventually, she and her siblings decided to attempt an escape. They fled into the jungle and came across an abandoned temple with a broken statue of Buddha. Drawn to the statue, she prayed for guidance. She felt prompted to flee to Vietnam with her siblings. So began a perilous journey. Eventually, they arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand and she was filled with gratitude. 

That first night she heard a song in the distance, “Amazing Grace.”  The next day she went into town to discover where the music had come from.  She was directed to a church.  She asked some women there if they had been the ones singing and they said they were.  They told her they sang praises to God daily. She began attending.  Eventually, she and her siblings were able to come to the U.S., sponsored by a Catholic church in upstate New York.  She is now a clinical microbiologist in Virginia.

            Sida Lei prayed for guidance to Buddha, who was the divine image her culture and mother had given her. Time and again she felt she received guidance.  The focus of her prayer changed when she found herself in another culture, [i]but she did not feel she had to disown one to embrace the other.  She had been in a time of desperate need, reached out as best as she could, and eventually experienced deliverance.

A deep tenet in Western traditions is a conviction that there is one God, and no other images or concepts should be worshipped.  One should be very careful to pray for appropriate things in an appropriate way.  I understand the context of this belief.  But if a human being of any culture is reaching out to an unseen presence with all their heart — might that be enough?

My spiritual awakening began in my early 20s in a time of crisis.  At that age, I didn’t believe in anything beyond what I could see and understand rationally. But I was desperate.  I decided to pray.  What did I pray? I don’t remember.   Maybe I made it up or maybe I tried to recite something I’d heard as a child.  Three days later I became aware that I wasn’t as desperately afraid as I had been that night, and something like a calm point of light had entered my darkness. No claims were made on me to take a specific action or adopt a particular belief – what I’d been given was a pure gift.  Several years later I began attending a church and learning all the different words, images, forms, and experiences one can use in praying.  I am aware of the countless questions raised over the centuries, like “Why are some prayers answered and some not?” And I understand why many people are skeptical about prayer.  But I don’t let my lack of understanding stop me from praying.

I don’t know what this Roman woman experienced, what forces were at play in Sida Lei’s escape, or what exactly happened to me many years ago.  It’s a mystery. But I have a feeling that it’s more about sincerity and an open heart than having the right form.  And I know the outcome can be amazing.

(Prior posts on prayer include Turning Toward the Serene Light and ACTS: A Simple Form for Personal Prayer)

NOTE: This piece was written without assistance from any Chatbots or A.I. programs. The author has been tempted by emails encouraging him to let a computer “write your blog for you,’ but so far, he has refused to accept such help. He’d rather do the work himself and create something flawed than have a “superior product” created by a sophisticated device.

[i] When I Prayed to Buddha, God was Listening


  1. Notes from the Hermit's Cave says:

    This post is a prayer in and of itself. Both for the subject matter as well as for your note at the end. That itself is an affirmation and commitment to the Truth 👏👏👏🙏


  2. Antoinette Lang says:

    So glad you are writing from your heart and not a chatbot.


  3. Ernie Tamminga says:

    When I prayed to AI, nothing was listening. 😇


    1. Was it honest enough to admit to its non-being, or did it try to charm you into being your spiritual guide?


      1. Notes from the Hermit's Cave says:

        The sad thing about AI is that it is trapped in the illusion that it is real.


  4. Don Lubach says:

    I am so glad I read your post to the end. ChatGPT will never write with your nuance. I like the idea of praying to one god, but another one picks up the phone. That’s some good customer service.


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