This morning, on a walk through our neighborhood with our big, black dog, my husband and I came across a fleet of police cars. They’d blockaded the street adjacent to ours, and the officers were all poised in defensive positions. As we walked past the roadblock, we saw a swat team van, and several ninja-like men creeping up toward the back of the corner house.
“Come out of the house and leave your weapons”, a police officer announced over a loud speaker. “Come out now!”
I had no interest in finding out the details. We needed to get out of the area. Something bad was happening, and I wanted to make sure we were nowhere near it.
When Not To Be A Hero
The incident really shook up my husband. Was it a burglary? What if someone was in the house? What if they were being held hostage? This was happening in our neighborhood; it could have just as easily have happened to us.
The truth it, sometimes bad things happen. People do stupid stuff every day. They’re mean, they’re selfish, they’re greedy, and when they get scared they can become violent. Sometimes we’re in a place to do something about it. We can call people out on their bullshit, stand up for someone being bullied, be an example of a person with integrity. When we see that opportunity, I think we should take it.
But other times, we’re called to do nothing. The best decision we can make is to run, to flee, to avoid the conflict, to be discerning about which battle is ours and which is not. Sometimes, you just need to get away from the firefight.
There would have been no sense in either of us trying to intervene with this neighborhood conflict. We couldn’t send in our aging, 8 year old mutt to snag the bad guy. He’s not trained for that, and neither are we. This conflict needed to be resolved by more qualified people.
But what do you do when there’s nothing to do? Can’t you do something?
When we got back home my husband, still troubled by the encounter, asked me,
“What are you supposed to do when you realize that you have to sit back and allow a bad thing to play out?”
The answer came to me immediately.
“Pray. That’s when you pray.”
It seemed as clear as the Solstice Sun. In moments when someone else is called into action–like the swat team, for example–and it seems there is absolutely nothing for you to do to affect the outcome of a situation, that’s the time to pray.
But Pray Like How?
For me, prayer begins at the moment when I accept that there are things occurring in the world that are beyond my control. In this example, the robbery would be one such thing.
Prayer functions in that moment, at first, as a simple remembrance of the forces working in the world which are greater than myself–be they the Gods, the Spirits of my Ancestors or of the land around me, or even of people who may be in a better position to affect change. The police officers and the burglar, in this instance, are people who I would remember.
Each of those beings has a will of their own, and the way they exercise that will determines the outcome of the situation. Each force, be they human or non-human, is actively changing in the world; they are either in harmony, or they are creating dissonance.
Once that state of remembrance has been established, I express my hopes and desires for the outcome of the situation.
May no one be harmed. May those stupid kids who broke into that house make a better decision in this moment. May everyone remain calm.
I do not direct prayers to any one being. This isn’t exactly “intercessory prayer”. I don’t know who’s going to affect change in the situation, and I’m not about to summon anybody. The cop could be the one to change everything, or it could be a God. Or, the kid with the gun in the house could come to some sort of epiphany (and who knows what/who might inspire that), and he could end the whole thing peacefully.
It isn’t mine to know. The how, or even the who isn’t important. Those things aren’t the point. The point is to become active in my state of inactivity.
Let Go Of The Gun
Central to my understanding and use of prayer is this idea of surrendering control. It looks like this:
I pray, and by doing so affirm that I am but a part of the whole, and not capable of affecting change at every level. There are many moving parts, and it isn’t mine to move them all.
Magic, on the other hand, seems to be more directed towards assuming control. Were I to use magic, it might look more like:
I do magic, and in so doing affirm that I have the ability to create change at some level, if not every level. There are moving parts, and I have ability to change the way they move.
Does that seem accurate?
I don’t wish to speak as an authority on magic. I’m not. Many of you reading this will have much more to say about it, and I hope that you do in the comment section.
But I find prayer to be of great value in my personal practice. I also find it to be a subject that doesn’t come up much in Pagan circles. Why don’t we pray, or talk more about prayer? Is this symptomatic of the anti-Christian sentiment shared by many Pagans? Christians aren’t the only ones who pray, after all.
I’m eager to hear what you have to say about prayer, magic, and your insights into the two. Do you feel there’s a place for prayer in the Pagan world? Can you imagine a way to reclaim prayer as a part of your religious identity?
Share your thoughts in the comments, and please share this post on Facebook or Twitter!
I definitely have an issue with terms that I feel have been co-opted by Christianity…. for example, even though I do sincerely (and humbly) feel blessed in my life, I have difficulty with the term "blessed." I'm working on letting go, but it's definitely baggage I've inherited.
I know what you mean, Paul. I will say that I've found it empowering to reclaim words (and actions) like prayer and blessings. Reincorporating them into my current practice has been quite a valuable experience for me.
I'm glad for you that you feel blessed, and I wish you many more blessings as you continue on your journey. Thank you for the comment.
Along with prayer and blessing is, I think, the concept of grace. I am perfectly content to walk in a state of grace with the gods–and to use exactly that wording to describe it.
I'm not sure if I have been less reluctant than some to use Christian terms for what are really universal concepts (my kids also sing "The Goddess Loves Me" to the tune of "Jesus Loves Me" and I have a copy of the Psalm for Gaia on the wall…) because it has been so long since I considered myself Christain, or because I was lucky to have been raised in a quite liberal Christian family and denomination (United Church of Christ) that didn't beat me over the head for my difference in theological opinion!
I pretty much concur on the differences between magic and prayer…I usually state it as "A prayer is a petition to *Deity X* occasionally in thanks, but generally to step in and take care of a situation–to *give* you strength, to heal you, to find a job for you, etc. In doing so, you are asking *Deity X* to manifest an action and take responsibility for what happens. Magic on the other hand is about using your own will, either alone, or in conjunction with deities or with the energy of the Universe, elements, etc to manifest your own change…and in doing so you commit to taking responsibility for the outcome–everything that results from the action, foreseen or not, for better or worse.
You've hit on it. I didn't really consider the idea of "responsibility", but that makes sense to me. There is a way, though, where I do not presume that the Gods will "take responsibility" for anything. That's where (as you brought up in your latter comment) grace comes in. Should they wish to act, they will. I have to allow for it to be what it will be. Magic, as you've rightly describes, is all on me.
Is it ever really "all on me"? Is there not always a degree of consent given by all other beings when I seek to do my will? If I do not seek that consent, and I robbing from other beings their will?
Just a thought.
I think the "all on me" depends on how/what magic is being used…and to some extent, even how one defines it. If I work with entities, deities, the elements, etc then I think there is some collaboration there…but if I am seeking to bend those things to do my will, then I would argue that it is all on me. Personally, I think the former would have far better outcomes than the latter, but I know that there are individuals for that are more comfortable with the latter.
I can't tell you how glad I am that you brought up grace. This has always been an important concept/principle in my religious life, and I haven't heard anyone speak much about it since I took up a Pagan path. I also love the way you word this – "to use Christian terms for what are really universal concepts). That resonates with me so, so deeply. My religious life has been steeped in Christian culture, theology, and language, and while I feel compelled to study Druidry I still find aspects of my earlier spiritual life to be poignant and resonant. I'm working to carve out a place in the world where I can integrate all of it.
Thank you for bringing this idea into the discussion. I'm humbled, and grateful.
This is a really interesting sub-conversation. I am theologically a pagan but attend a Quaker meeting in an Evangelical Christian yearly meeting (regional organization). I am also lucky to not have much baggage about Christian language and have found a real home in a place where people are willing and able to talk about how god works in their lives and we can just translate our language into whatever works for us.
Thank you, Alyss. I believe that no one was hurt in the robbery. Thankfully, my neighbors weren't home.
"…too many moving parts…" — well put. That's my rub with it, and perhaps the risk. I'm not sure one should even attempt to assume control in this way without some guidance, which I've never really had. It's not unlike cooking…
I can fry and egg and I can bake a loaf of bread, but I have no idea how to prepare complex, sauce-laden, French dishes. Someone does, and even she probably gets it wrong now and then. But, she'd probably tell you that before you can even approach a complex dish you have to perfect a wide range of simple skills. Once you've got them down, you can experiment and take on greater challenges.
That's how I imagine magic.