“Prayer is talking to God,” so the adage goes. That’s simple enough, and yet for many people, prayer is a difficult subject. “How do I talk to God?” they ask. “God” and “prayer” can be loaded words, often associated with an organized religion that we may or may not have broken from. There are as many definitions of God—and prayer—as there are people to define it. In writing this book, which spanned a cold and snowy New Mexico winter, I wrote, and I prayed—and I talked to my friends and colleagues about prayer.
At the core of our relationship to God is our understanding of God. In the six weeks that follow, we will begin by examining the “God concept” we were raised with. We will explore the possibility that we can convene with a god of our understanding—and then we will experiment with talking to this Higher Power, however we choose to define it.
“Speak to God in your own words,” a sage advised me four decades ago, as I was struggling in early sobriety. I was raised Catholic, and had spoken of using a formal prayer and saying it on my knees. The advice to be more colloquial found me praying more intimately, and not on my knees.
Why must people kneel down to pray?
—L. M. MONTGOMERY, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
“Dear God, I’m miserable,” I prayed. “I’m depressed, angry, and out of sorts. Please help me.” I experienced relief at being so plainspoken. I was speaking as an intimate—even as a lover might speak. I found myself feeling assured God had heard my prayer. I was speaking in my own words, speaking with honesty. I found I presumed God’s listening ear. This was, for me, a flier into a prayer that worked. No longer content with formal prayers, I began to pray with greater confidence. After all, I was now candidly “talking” to God.
I cannot convey to you the relief I felt, knowing that I was being authentic. Where before I had prayed begrudgingly, “Thy will be done,” dreading the worst, I now began to sense God as truly benevolent. As I trusted to God the secrets of my heart, I sensed that God was accepting all of me. No longer tailoring my prayers to please a distant God, I prayed now with greater ease. As I spoke of all of me, I experienced faith. As I trusted, God felt to me to be trustworthy. Praying with candor, I felt God to be welcoming. As I mustered my courage to speak of difficult things, I felt my difficulties diminish. My newly intimate God took a hand in my affairs. As I prayed for guidance, I was guided. A step at a time, I found myself led.
MY OWN STORY
It was 4 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. I woke with a start and reached for the bedside bottle to drink myself back to sleep. Oh, no! The bottle was empty. I had no alcohol to put me back to sleep and without a drink I would lie there, sleepless. I squinted my eyes shut, willing sleep to come, and with sleep, oblivion. For five days I had been drinking around the clock, unable or unwilling to fight the craving for another drink. Without a drink, my consciousness was painful. My husband had left me four days earlier, exclaiming in disgust, “This isn’t going to work, Julia.”
The “this” was my drinking. He hated my drinking and I hated sobriety. He thought I was an alcoholic and I tried not to drink. I watched him cross the living room, cross the patio, cross the lawn. I watched him climb into his sports car and zoom away from the curb. I watched his car disappear down the roadway.
“This time you’ve really lost him,” my inner voice announced. And then, “You need a drink.” I drained the last of a bottle of scotch and phoned the liquor store for more.
“Could you bring me some J&B, some Jose Cuervo, some Stolichnaya?” I asked, careful not to slur. Within fifteen minutes the liquor store fulfilled my request. I thanked the delivery man, tipped him, and poured myself a drink. Had that look on his face been pity? I gulped the drink, not wanting to think about what the man saw: a drunken woman, slurring her thank-yous and pouring herself a drink before he closed the door.
By now it was late morning, early for a normal drinker, late for me. My infant daughter was napping in her crib. My housekeeper viewed me with concern. I took the drink and the drink took another drink. It would go on like this for the better part of a week, until I woke that Wednesday morning to an empty bottle and the chilling realization that the liquor store wouldn’t open for hours.
The inner voice is something which cannot be described in words. The time when I learnt to recognize this voice was, I may say, the time when I started praying regularly.
“What can I do?” my brain drummed frantically. “What can I do?”
The answer came to me: call a friend on the East coast. It was later there. Hands shaking, I dialed a number: my friend Claudia. She answered, still sleeping, on the second ring.
“Claudia,” I blurted. “What am I going to do?” I thought I was talking about my husband leaving. Claudia thought something else. The child of an alcoholic father, she knew about desperate, booze-fueled phone calls.
“I’ll call you back,” she said, and the phone went dead.
“Oh, my God,” I thought frantically, “I’ve even lost Claudia.” Claudia, who had always been so understanding. Claudia, who—
The phone rang. I jumped to answer it. “Claudia?” I asked, eager to hear my friend’s warm voice, to be assured we were still friends.
“Julia,” a cool voice said. “Here is a number for you to call. I think you need to talk to another alcoholic.”
“Claudia!” I exclaimed, offended. “You don’t really think I’m an alcoholic?!”
“Well…” Claudia said, and that was all.
“All right. I’ll call,” I told her belligerently.
That was forty-two years ago. As Claudia intuited, I was at my bottom, ready to admit my alcoholism. I needed to talk to another alcoholic. The number she had given me was for a woman named Susan. Susan was an alcoholic.
“I’m an alcoholic and a screenwriter,” I told this stranger, desperate to hold on to some prestige.
“I’m going to call a friend of mine named Edie. She’ll want to come talk to you. Can you keep from taking a drink until she gets there?”
“Yes,” I said. And so I was launched into sobriety.
I’ve often thought about the chain of events that fateful day. I happened to call Claudia, who happened to have a number for Susan. And so, I happened to get sober. The chain of events was miraculous. Did I need further proof of a merciful God? When I was ready to surrender, a Higher Power caught me by the hand. This Higher Power was compassionate, merciful. I was saved, rescued, yanked back from the brink. Over time I’ve come to see—and believe—in a god of mercy. How else to explain my fate?
* * *
ON JANUARY 25, 1978, I was advised that if I wanted to stay sober, I should pray. I wanted to stay sober, there was no mistaking that, but pray? I’d had sixteen years of Catholic education and I often joked that it was the greased slide to atheism. Prayer was something Catholics did, and something that I did without. I was rebellious; agnostic if not atheist.
“But surely you must believe in something!” I was told.
Cornered, I confessed, “Well, I do believe in something. I believe in a line from Dylan Thomas: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.’” Creative energy was what I believed in—all that I believed in.
“Great,” I was told. One woman announced, “I pray to sunspots.” Another chimed in, “I pray to Mick Jagger.” Clearly my line from Dylan Thomas fit right in. I could believe in anything.
“As long as it isn’t yourself,” I was told.
And so, wanting desperately to stay sober, I tried prayer—what I thought of as “secular prayer.” I talked to the Universe.
“It’s very straightforward,” I was counseled. “The day will come when you will have no defense against the first drink. Your defense must come from a Higher Power.”
Surely, I thought, enough self-knowledge would be a defense. I knew I was an alcoholic and I knew I couldn’t drink.
“Not good enough,” I was told. “If you really are an alcoholic, you will have a curious mental blank spot. You will be unable to recall to mind with sufficient clarity the consequences of taking the first drink.”
Copyright © 2021 by Julia Cameron