Do you ever pray, Dad?
I’m taken aback when Charlotte asks over Sunday lunch, ‘Do you ever pray, Dad?’ I’m very uncomfortable when faced with what I regard as an intrusively intimate question and immediately become evasive, as if being asked if I’ve ever watched porn or shop-lifted from the supermarket.
‘Sort of,’ I reply.
‘I pray,’ she declares, quite matter-of-fact, ‘as part of my meetings.’
It hadn’t occurred to me before that there was anything ‘religious’ about Narcotics Anonymous, although Annette and I had often joked, when she had hurried back to London from a weekend at home to ‘do the coffee’ for her group meeting, how much like church that sounded. Since the age of thirteen, Charlotte had always asserted her agnosticism, but now embraces the NA teaching on the importance of spirituality in its therapy. Participants are asked to connect with a higher being or higher force. In a traditional way, some call it God, others think of it as a chi or life-force. But whatever nomenclature you use, the important thing is to recognise a power greater than oneself and to have a sense there is a good in the universe, a supportive energy. Although usually happy to cast all this in traditional Christian language, that is how I see prayer myself, as some sort of engagement with a creative life-force. As part of my professional duty I’m used to praying publicly, both ex tempore and using established written prayers which have withstood the test of time. When alone, however, in the wakeful hours of the night, it’s different: I wrestle with my failure to ‘get through’, to achieve any sense that I’m communicating with anything other than my loneliness. I imagine being imprisoned in a dark cell and wonder if I could possibly cope, and try to pass the time by remembering hymns from my past and trying to get all the verses right and in the correct order. The regulars are: Dear Lord and Father of mankind, When I survey the wondrous cross, O thou who camest from above, Praise my soul the king of heaven, O worship the King all glorious above, Teach me my God and King in things thee to see, and Let all the world in every corner sing/my God and King. Surprising how many look to Christ the King! If I’m facing an issue, or perceived need, about which I’m deeply troubled, I turn the palms of my hands upwards, outwards into space, a movement that, when you do it, you find is physically unusual, and imagine my hands are kind of satellite dishes receiving and emitting rays between me and the source of all being, the divine other. And sometimes I have a tingling sensation which feels like getting through. It’s rare and hard-earned. I know this makes me sound a fruitcake and that’s why I find any question about it over-intrusive. Philosophically, I want to say prayer is auto-suggestion, a religious way of expressing communal social concern or corporate seriousness. I’m familiar with the idea that prayer can only be greeted with divine silence, or that prayer ought to be praise or meditation or self-confession, or silent reflection – all non-acquisitive, non-asking modes. But even though I’m a sceptic, a pragmatist, and unromantic about it, I still have an intuitive sense that one can be in tune with the ground of all being, the rhythm of the universe, the values and virtues present in the stuff of the Big Bang, written into the DNA of the stars. How can it be other than that? How can existence itself have no meaning?