In the fall of 1986, I was an atheist. All the same, I wrote this prayer:
Dear God, sustain me in my hour of need.
Stay with me; be my friend.
When I misstep, light my path.
When I hurt, comfort me.
Help me see that I’m not the only one in pain.
Give me the strength to accept myself for what I am.
I didn’t believe the universe was created by the deliberate act of a sentient Being. I believed that no such Being watched over us, heard or responded to our prayers, loved us, felt joy when we were good or sorrow when we were bad, or felt anything at all for that matter.
Holding that opinion, I wrote my prayer. After writing it, I cried and felt better. I read it again the next day, taped it to my computer monitor, and prayed it on an almost-daily basis for weeks. As an atheist, what did I think I was doing?
The only thing I knew was that something had changed inside me. Like many people who have a paradoxical experience with God, I was in a mess—a mess that involved other people—and looking for a way out.
A year previously, I had been invited to join the board of a regional writer’s conference. I got the invitation in response to an angry letter I wrote to the board president explaining what was wrong with the way they did things. I didn’t have much experience with board work at that time, so it was a big surprise to me when they responded to my angry letter by asking me to join up and help them solve all their problems. I accepted the invitation. I was eager to do good.
As it turned out, I hated virtually every aspect of board work: the endless phone calls and meetings, the political gymnastics required to get more than one person to agree to anything, the shocking realization that not everyone on the board saw me as their savior. After the first year of my three-year term, half of me longed to resign. The other half was sick at the thought. It wouldn’t be the first time I quit a worthy project because I couldn’t take the heat. Was I incapable of teamwork? Too sensitive to get things done with other people? I admired people who succeeded in work like this. Was I too small to be one of them?
One afternoon, having fielded the third phone call that told me secondhand what some other committee member thought of my latest idea, I sat at my desk, put my head in my hands, and said, “Dear God. Dear God, help me.” Then I lifted my head, picked up a pen, and wrote the prayer.
Right away, I felt different. As if I’d been drowning in stormy waters and my flailing arms struck something buoyant. Or as if a cool sheet had fallen over me during a fevered dream. The next day when I read the prayer again, I felt better again. I tinkered with the wording a bit, but the essential message didn’t change. I felt as if this prayer had been given to me. It was easy to write, unlike other things I write. I felt that the prayer engaged me in a two-way conversation. My side of the conversation had content. The other side didn’t have any content that I could tell, but neither was it like talking to a blank wall. The conversation moved me from one place to another. It changed me.
Ripe for grace
I was in trouble when I wrote that prayer, and the prayer helped. It contained the elements I needed to calm down and focus. It reminded me that I wouldn’t find my way out of the forest until I admitted I was lost. It helped me remember that other people hurt as much as I do, which helped me forgive them for the pain I thought they caused me. And finally, it gave me permission to be myself. To accept myself. Which was not to say, “I guess I’m just a screw up. I can accept that!” No, I had to face wrongs and try to get them right. But when I did that and at the same time accepted myself in all my fallibility, a glimmer of light appeared in the distance, and I wasn’t lost anymore.
In retrospect, the prayer seems wiser than I was at the time—wiser than I am today. I have a certain amount of common sense, but I’m not a dependable source of eternal truths. At the moment I wrote that prayer, I was about as far from eternal truth as you can get.
It had been years since I’d thought or read much about religion, so the underlying principles in the prayer weren’t on my mind. I resented the people I worked with and their interference in my plans. I hated my job on the writer’s board and longed to quit. The only thing that stopped me was an intense desire not to fail, or not to appear to fail.
This was not the mountain top where sages see clearly; this was the tangled bog where fools trip and fall in the muck.
And yet the situation was ripe for grace. It’s easy to see the signs of a fruit ready to fall: the brittle stem, the yellowed skin. I thought I knew best, a frame of mind begging for a fall. I was brittle with anger, and anger is not a bad starting point on the road to grace. Also, I was pushing for change. Mostly I wanted to change other people, but I knew it might be good for me to change, too.
I just didn’t expect to suffer in the transformation.
© Margaret D. McGee, 2020