The Prayer of an Unbeliever

                                                                                                                                                                                              “Prayer” by Mark Caron


by Caroline

Prayers from various religious traditions uplift and expand my being.

Ironic since I haven’t prayed regularly for 5 years now. The patterns of my Mormon prayers feel constrained and empty to me at times. I know the fault lies within myself, that there is a way to connect to the divine in the thank-ask pattern I’ve learned since primary.

But I haven’t quite figured out how to make my Mormon prayers click yet. So I turn to the prayers of others. 

I was intensely touched by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s prayer.  In his book Night, he describes his loss of faith as he surveys the bodies of murdered children.  He writes, “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust….”

In an interview by Krista Tippett, she asks him what happened after that. What happened after he lost his faith forever.

His response: “I went on praying.”

Here is his prayer:

I no longer ask You for either happiness or paradise; all I ask You is to listen and let me be aware of Your lisening.

I no longer ask You to resolve my questions, only to receive them and make them part of You.

I no longer ask You for either rest or wisdom, I only ask You not to close me to gratitude, be it of the most trivial kind, or to surprise and friendship. Love? Love is not Yours to give.

As for my enemies, I do not ask You to punish them or even to enlighten them; I only ask You not to lend them Your mask and Your powers. If You must relinquish one or the other, give them Your powers. But not Your countenance.

They are modest, my requests, and humble. I ask You what I might ask a stranger met by chance at twilight in a barren land.

I ask You, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to enable me to pronounce these words without betraying the child that transmitted them to me: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, enable me to forgive You and enable the child I once was to forgive me too.

I no longer ask You for the life of that child, nor even for his faith. I only beg You to listen to him and act in such a way that You and I can listen to him together.*

My soul resonates with this prayer. In it I find room for questions and answers, for anger and mystery, for faith and doubt. It is transcendent.

Do the prayers of other religious traditions resonate with you?  How do you make your prayers work for you?  

  * from Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. Oh, I steal from other faiths ALL THE TIME. And I’ve been more open about my borrowing of words and sacred space on this blog recently (see more about that here

    I love finding beautiful devotions — I’m suppose often disappointed by my own words. I sometimes feel petulant (like a kid whining for something) or conceited (using language that feels to formal, lofty, forced — as if it is for show). Beginning with the words of others can sometimes lead me to my own

    A few examples:

    I’ve sometimes adopted this scripture as a prayer: Lord I believe. Help though mine unbelief.

    The Benedictan Monks “pray the psalms.” I’ve found that reading a favorite psalm aloud can help me focus when I can’t think of the words myself — some good ones for rejoicing, for sorrow, for confusion, for help.

    If I’m in my car at 4pm, I sometimes tune into Chaplet of the Divine Mercy on EWTN radio. This devotional prayer repeats the following phrase — and I have found myself meditating on it later in the day: “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” The woman (St. Faustina) who introduced this prayer devotion has a great story (google her).

  2. I agree. The Lord’s Prayer has always resonated with me although I do not think of it as exclusively Catholic. Maybe though you meant catholic (with a lower case “c”) as in universal to all Christendom?
    Gregorian chants (exclusively Catholic as they pre Reformation) are sublime as a balm to the Spirit.

  3. I did not mean to place a “smiley”, just to close the parentheses. Obviously I need some practice with this new format.
    Deborah, absolutely the Psalms.

  4. There was a short while when I was determined to make my prayers more effective, and I would meditate upon what I should pray about, then make a list of the things I had thought of. It worked well for me at the time, and I felt more close to the idea of deity. On the other hand, I also felt weird about reading a prayer, I guess as a result of my Mormon origins and the way “vain repetitions” is interpreted among many members. The prayer lessons are always peppered with examples of how not to pray, and the examples are those of other faiths, namely, the Lord’s prayer, the Rosary, the Psalms, etc.

    I’m past thinking of any of those things as “vain” anymore, just as I am past thinking of non-Mormons as heathen unbelievers who haven’t yet seen the light.

    I find the idea of having a concrete prayer very comforting, rather that a mindless search for whatever words I can think up fast enough to follow “and please bless me that…” I have a hard time controlling my irritation when I go to church, and the meeting prayers always have the standard formula, with giant pauses after each “thank thee for…” and “bless us that…” I had one VT companion who would even use the exact same vocal inflection with every single phrase, and it made it hard for me to concentrate on the prayer. It always felt like something to check off the list.

  5. I find the physical stance of Mormon praying restrictive (head down, shoulders forward, arms across the chest/stomach area, etc.). I’ve discovered that I receive more inspiration and connection when my physical body is more open, which poses a problem while in church.

    I often write prayers, and the answers I feel I recieve. I learned this practice from some friends who learned it from Joseph Smith’s example (the D&C is essentially written prayers and answers.)

  6. Last week for FHE we memorized “Hail Mary.” It’s gorgeous:

    Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.
    Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
    Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

    Personally, I can’t find anything offensive in that. This is nothing I might not say to a relative of mine on the other side of the veil. I don’t view it as a prayer, per se, but a request to a wise female spirit on the other side. I need all the people praying for me that I can get.

  7. Prayer of Saint Francis

    Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury, pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    and where there is sadness, joy.
    O, Divine Master, grant that
    I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood as to understand;
    to be loved as to love;
    for it is in giving that we receive;
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

    (the prayer we used at our wedding)

  8. Love this post and prayer, Caroline! I echo what has been said about using others’ prayers.

    I find that words are so often lacking when talking to God that sometimes it’s nice to have the words written already and just focus on my feelings as I say them–maybe that doesn’t make any sense.

    Anyway, I love this book for prayers and sacred passages. It organizes the selections by theme (Faith, God, Service, etc).

  9. When I was in NYC last summer, I visited the church across from Ground Zero.
    They had a prayer book called “Prayers for Peace” that was beautiful.
    It had prayers from many denominations and I just loved reading them. (I took the book)
    The first one is too long to repeat, but it’s called the litany for social justice. It’s very moving.
    Thanks for this thread. My prayers haven’t been consistent for a while, and I’m trying to figure out what God wants of me right now.

  10. I’ve found it very difficult to send petitions heavenward while questioning the reality of God, but when I break down my pride and feelings of foolishness for talking to myself, I’ve found that my ramblings are much closer to conversations I would have with a dear friend, rather than structured formal constructions.

    As for outside influences, the simple greeting, Namaste (the divine within me acknowledges the divine within you), has become an integral part of finding ways to maintain spirituality through the process of examination and questioning my Mormon faith.

  11. This is a very interesting post. I too struggle with prayer. Sometimes it does feel like a check list. Or the same thing repeated over and over. In our ward we have a wonderful sister who use to be a Baptist. She brings with her a very different and wonderful learning. She gives the most lovely prayers. She starts out with the Lords prayer then goes on with the rest. Her prayers are very different then your standard Mormon prayers. I have learned a lot from her.

    I try to recognize that my prayers can change from day to day if I stop to recognize my world around me. What I am thankful for or what I need help with. It seems that there is some repetition when I have to pray for something over a period of time but when I focus on my blessings or on the needs of others around me they become more meaningful and spiritual.

    I have really tried to get my children to recognize the different things that change from day to day because their prayers where rather recited at family prayer. Ever since I see them thinking a little more and being more sincere and now their prayers have started to change. They say more beautiful, meaningful prayers now then I ever have been able. Not that every prayer is magnificent but they are meaningful and it has helped them to recognize things outside of themselves.

    There are many beautiful prayers we can learn from. Sometimes I think we get wrapped up in the semantics and forget about the substance or that we forget who it is we are praying to.

  12. Yes, The “Prayer of Saint Francis” goes to the very heart of being Christian or simply trying to access that which is most universally Divine.
    I am new to this blog and I love hearing that there are wards where there are no gasps of shock at the utterance of the Lord’s Prayer or that the “Hail Mary”, honoring mothers and women, is actually taught and recited in unison. I would love someday to hear some of the prayers of this Baptist sister.

  13. There are many prayers that others have written that inspire. You can blossom in your prayers if you let go of the rigidity so thought as “the correct” format of prayer. Then as you “talk” to God you will really get to know him in a more personal way. Tell him everything and in anyway that fits your personality. He created you and so he understands your dialog style!

  14. I love the poetry and familiarity of many of the world’s prayers (like that of St. Francis) because they express my own yearnings for greater connection to the divine and to the world. However for me, now, just sitting in silence and listening to my heart brings me closer to Truth than using language to petition God.

  15. Caroline, thanks for this post–it’s one that I feel I can strongly relate to. Even as an atheist, I feel drawn to Christian mystics and to prayer (even my on again, off again podcast is called “An Atheist’s Prayer.” Prayer is a hard habit to break, though mine has changed form over the years.

    I also like the idea that humanity’s collective religious experience is a well from which all can freely draw. I think there is too often a sense of “we own these” and “those are theirs.”

    Alisa, I love the petition to Mary. I prayed the rosary as a meditation practice for about a year or so and found it extremely soothing (and a way to inject a powerful feminine aspect into my worship).

    This one, from Tibetan Buddhism, is still one of my faves:

    May I become at all times, both now and forever
    A protector for those without protection
    A guide for those who have lost their way
    A ship for those with oceans to cross
    A bridge for those with rivers to cross
    A sanctuary for those in danger
    A lamp for those without light
    A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
    And a servant to all in need.

  16. I don’t steal from other traditions because I don’t consider their prayers to be any better than the ones I make myself. And while their prayers may inspire me to broaden my perspective of the world around me, I view a prayer as something that should be highly personal. It’s not something you can do wrong! And anyone giving directions on how to pray, or what to pray for, isn’t identifying what a prayer is–only one possibility in millions for what it can be.

  17. I’m a recent lurker, but this prayer is a favorite:

    A Skeptic’s Prayer

    Is it true
    Thou lovest best
    Thy meek, unasking children?

    Thou has made us
    So diverse, so various
    Yet in the image of a Sire
    Who filled the universe
    With His creative fire.

    What father has supposed
    His child would grow to manhood
    Only hearing and affirming?
    What man could honor such a son?

    How could a mind that,
    Like a Sponge,
    Absorbs but never questions,
    Or wonders why
    Be offspring and apprentice
    To a God?

    It may be, Lord
    Thou canst never love me.
    With the calm relief
    a father feels
    For his obedient child–
    The one who’s never any trouble.

    But use me
    As a bridge
    To those more wayward still
    Than I.

    I cannot give them all the answers;
    But they will not ask
    The ones who think they can.

    Let me speak
    To Thy lost sheep
    As one ho,
    Understanding how they went astray,
    Still loves the Shepherd.

    –Margaret Rampton Munk

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