“Claire has never forgotten the panic he felt when, at age eleven, stretched out on an operating table, the surgeon who was about to excise his inflamed tonsils, asked everyone in the OR to kneel with him in prayer. For days, everyone had told Claire that the procedure was simple and ended with a bowl of ice cream. Yet now, the manager was going to the bullpen, calling in his ace left-handed reliever in the bottom of the ninth. ‘Yikes!’ he thought.”—Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Dr. Skip Eisiminger
I “Packing their church in the heart of the Hague,/fevered folk prayed to keep from the plague.”—The Wordspinner
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 April 2022—Brought up on The New England Primer’s “Now I lay down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” I was religious in my praying until my father returned from Korea in 1955. The “cease fire” had been signed in 1953, but a lot of lead was still flying across the DMZ during the year he was there. As a combat engineer, his job among other things was to check the condition of the roads and bridges that ran the entire width of Korea’s midsection. On one of these DMZ inspection tours, the Jeep ahead slowed and went to the left around a fresh crater, and Dad’s driver went right. Before the first Jeep could return to the road’s center, a mortar round exploded overhead killing the three men inside. Feeling suddenly exposed, Dad’s driver sped off fearing another round was incoming, leaving the retrieval of the dead to the burial corps.
The following Sunday, the camp chaplain, who may not have known what Dad had seen, said, “Let us praise God who’s aiming our artillery and not the North Koreans’.” That just about ended Dad’s praying, and when I heard his story, it crimped mine as well. Thus today, you won’t find me davening in any gas chambers though I respect those Jews who did. I’m more like Roger Rosenblatt, a secular Jew who doubts God every day he thanks him for the life he has.
After reading about the faiths that survived the Nazi concentration camps, I wrote the following flash fiction: “Child of Auschwitz”:
Miriam learned to pray in the boxcar that delivered her. Nights, she beseeched the dark, and days, the condensation trails that diced the blue beyond the smoke and stench of her camp. Some Baptists have concluded that Yahweh did not answer the prayers of the Jews. Of course, He did. He said, “No,” but Miriam was not listening. She figured His cargo planes and bombers were tied up—snarled by logistical issues beyond her ken. She forgave Him for His failures, wept for His inability to set things right, and thanked Him for the strength she had left and the creation that might have been a void.’
When I was Miriam’s age, Roy Rogers’ “May the good Lord take a likin’ to you,” was the only prayer I ever heard outside of Sunday School. As a teen, secular prayer included The Platters’, “My prayer is to linger with you [my high-school girlfriend] at the end of the day . . . .” She dumped me for a Marine officer when I was still a private. Well into graduate school, I thought the Puritans’ “ejaculatory prayers” were those to end impotence. They aren’t; they’re petitions “thrown up” to God like all prayed-for requests. Clearly, I had a lot to learn about prayer.
II “Beside the Tibetan prayer wheel, there’s often a coin drop. English speakers call those monetary offerings ‘tips,’ which some say is an acronym for ‘to insure prompter service.’ But the deity I’m familiar with operates on His own time and is not swayed by cash.”—The Wordspinner
A week after Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, I received a forwarded email from “Anatoly,” a former Ukrainian exchange student of mine, who is now a well-known fashion photographer. He wrote in part:
It’s so much to tell, so many emotions that I’m not sure I can cope with it in one letter. First off, I’m outside Dnipro at Anya’s mom’s home with our three-year-old. We are OK here, having prepared the cellar for possible attacks. I’ve brought down some carpets and mattresses, food, water, and medicines. We have some other stuff ready by the door. We sleep dressed or half-dressed but often can’t sleep or wake up shivering from any sound . . . .
The best way foreign friends can help is to pray for Ukraine and a way for the Russians to release the bear they have by the ears. As in any war, people die on both sides.
Anatoly’s recognition that Russian soldiers were also at risk reminded me that he’d always been a generous soul. All he wanted from his American friends were our prayers. I wrote him back, “I’ve thought of you often over the past few weeks, but I’d hoped you might be in New York as your web site hinted.
“At any rate, it’s good to know that you and your family are safe, but I worry, as you surely must, that something worse may be coming. I said a prayer for you and all Ukrainians today in Clemson’s new chapel which just opened behind the library. Let’s hope that the Shepherd is listening to the sheep.”
I closed with a humble Indo-European salutation dating from 3000 BC: “Stay safe, man and beast.” I figured anything that had survived five thousand years had to have some mojo, but I have not heard from Anatoly since.
III “Think of the freight one could disencumber/if only God had an 800-number.”—The Wordspinner
Claire has never forgotten the panic he felt when, at age eleven, stretched out on an operating table, the surgeon who was about to excise his inflamed tonsils asked everyone in the OR to kneel with him in prayer. For days, everyone had told Claire that the procedure was simple and ended with a bowl of ice cream. Yet now, the manager was going to the bullpen, calling in his ace left-handed reliever in the bottom of the ninth. “Yikes!” he thought.
Though a quarter of Americans today say they use prayer as their primary health-care provider, many of us know sun worshippers who have developed skin cancer. Starting with Sir Francis Galton in 1872, science has revealed that chanting “God save the King” often results in a monarch’s diminished lifespan. Though Elizabeth II at age 95 in March of 2022 is a notable exception, dubious diets and loads of leisure have killed many a monarch. The royals that Galton reviewed between 1758 and 1843, all of whom had lived past the age of 30, lived an average of 64.04 years. All other middle- and upper-class individuals including those in the clergy, law, medicine, military, and the gentry lived longer with the latter living the longest: 70.22 years. Galton concluded his study saying, “The sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence.” And, I should add, the prayers of thousands.
Since Galton’s pioneering study of prayer, there have been many more with mixed results. In the largest that I’m aware of, 1,802 coronary by-pass patients were divided in two equal groups. Half were told their recoveries were being prayed for in various churches; the other half had no idea they were subjects in a scientific study. When it was over, those who’d been informed had more complications than the uninformed, and “performance anxiety” was widely blamed for the poor results. These results raise the question of whether it’s ethical to pray for anyone but yourself unless you keep your prayers to yourself.
When prayer and secular meditation went head-to-head in various controlled studies, in most cases, the latter garnered better results. Subjects who meditated reported deeper sleep, less anxiety, and lower blood pressure. In another study, for what it’s worth, the meditators could hold their hands in ice water twice as long as non-meditators.
In a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to a sixth grader, he said he was “convinced a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” He doesn’t say he ever prayed to that spirit, but just knowing he had this conviction is reassuring.
IV “If after thanking the omnipotent One for the rain, should we blame Him for the drought?”—The Wordspinner
Fewer than half of all Americans say they pray daily, and the ways in which we pray aren’t always the way Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha taught us. Here are some samples of that impious range:
- Ironic prayer: “God grant me the Senility to forget people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.” Anon.
- Comic song prayer: “I don’t care if it rains or freezes
Long as I got my plastic Jesus.” Eddie Marrs
- Parody prayer: “Our pasta, who aren’t al dente, soggy be thy name. The alfredo come, the marinara be done on plates as it is in bowls.” Anon.
- Vengeful prayer: Though there are no transcripts of his prayers, Efraim Zuroff prayed for the good health of Nazi war criminals so he could prosecute them.
- School prayer: Before a high-school graduation, the school’s principal told her fundamentalist valedictorian, “No prayer!” When it was the young man’s turn to go to the lectern, he promptly sneezed and was blessed by two hundred of his prayerful classmates. The resigned principal later admitted she could not approve or disapprove a prayer because of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which guarantees both the separation of church and state and the freedom of speech.
- Agnostic prayer: “God (if there is one) save my soul (if I have one).” Voltaire
- Punning prayer: “Please, Lord, grant us some leeway.” Anonymous Confederate soldier, c. 1865
- Joke prayer: “Dear Jehovah, could we please get a tracking number for our petitions? Better yet, a toll-free number?” Anon.
- Orthodox Jewish prayer for males: “Thank you, oh Lord, that you have not created me a woman.” Anon.
- Philologist’s prayer: “Our Teacher who art in English, proper be thy Noun.” Robert St. Vincent Philippe
- Hand prayer: “Your thumb is closest to you, so start by praying for those closest to you. Your index finger represents those who guide and teach you. Your middle finger is the highest, so use it to pray for those in leadership and authority. Your ring finger is weakest, so let it remind you to pray for the sick and oppressed. Your pinky is the smallest finger, to help you remember to pray for yourself last.” Anon.
- Non-sectarian prayer: “May the spirit of your choice bless you.” Anon.
- Desperation prayer: “Heavenly father, bless us and keep us alive; there’s ten of us for dinner and not enough for five.” Anon.
- Riming prayer: “Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see
That without dust, the rainbow would not be.” Langston Hughes
- Twitter prayer: [“] dad@hvn,ur spshl.we want wot u want&urth2b like hvn.giv us food&4giv r sins lyk we 4giv uvaz.don’t test us!save us!bcos we kno ur boss,ur tuf&ur cool 4 eva!ok? [”] Anon.
The pious rituals involved in prayer are as interesting and often controversial as the prayers themselves:
- After Puritan ministers had told their congregations that storms were God’s way of punishing the wicked, worshippers as late as the 19th century fell to their knees as instructed when lightning struck.
- The Jewish evening prayer has 18 benedictions because humans have 18 vertebrae that bend when davening.
- To manifest their literal “enthusiasm,” the Jewish Hasidim sect are encouraged to turn somersaults when they pray.
- The Ayatollah Khomeini told menstruating Muslim women that their prayers were void.
- Grave robbers in the Philippines believe that praying on the stolen kneecaps of the righteous dead gives their prayers added traction.
- Shakers were instructed to place their right thumb on top when their hands were clasped in prayer, the right being more virtuous than the left.
- To lessen their sexual allure, Billy Sunday urged Christian women to cross their legs when praying.
- Despite warnings from many quarters about “vain repetitions,” the stated goal of Greek Orthodox monks on Mount Athos is for every breath to be a prayer. Every waking moment, the monks pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
- Muslims are advised to use a toothpick to clean their teeth before prayer.
- Benjamin Schulze memorized and recited the Lord’s Prayer in 215 languages.
- Jews across the globe write their prayers in letters and mail them to Jerusalem, where they are stuffed between the stones of the Wailing Wall. Later, they are pried out and buried in the Mount of Olives Cemetery.
- And for some reason that escapes me, it is acceptable for footballer Tim Tebow to take a knee on the gridiron but not Colin Kaepernick.
V “When it comes to your peers, don’t issue a set of instructions, Sergeant; just show up for duty,” said the Chaplain. “Pray not to God, but to your better self, namely, that your mercy will replace your anger, your reason will overcome your jealousy, and your creativity will solve your problems.”—The Wordspinner
In 2003, when Rev. Pat Robertson urged his followers to pray for the “retirements” of three members of the Supreme Court so that President George W. Bush could appoint three conservative justices to overturn Roe, we were given a cautionary lesson in how not to pray. In short, God is neither our assassin nor our bellhop. He is, in e. e. cummings’ words, the Creator who “spoke this earth so glad and big.”
After securing his independence by borrowing a freed slave’s documents, disguising himself as a sailor, and taking a train to a free state, Frederick Douglass wrote that he had prayed for freedom for 20 years but received no answer until he prayed with his legs.
As a sign before a local church once said, “Pray for the harvest, but continue to hoe.”
Once my harvest is in the barn, having run out of appeals to the rainmaker, the essence of my prayer is acceptance and gratitude for the bounty I have. Gratitude is, after all, a proven entity: when I express or experience gratitude, I am renewed, and the recipients of my gratitude tell me they are renewed. It’s all about maintaining my interior balance and that of those with whom I interact. Having been the aggrieved victim of ingratitude, I would rather not inflict that pain on anyone.
As the demolition worker gives thanks for gravity, so the pilot gives thanks for the wings which defy it. But I’m not going to unbuckle my seat belt, flush away my medications, or park my Peloton. They’re all partners in praying with my hands and legs.
To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.