- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

This year I’m going to focus on one New Year’s resolution: prayer. Recently, U.S.News & World Report published a feature on prayer. They polled readers to learn about how people pray. They provided historical background on the history of prayer, and how, regardless of religion, people have felt the need to pray since there have been people.

I’m not very skilled at praying. Like a lot of folks, I don’t pray until things start going badly. Some of my best prayers have come after a long night at the pub. I would usually be kneeling, usually in front of the commode.

I am not the only one who has limited praying skills. Some of the folks who responded to the poll have wacky ideas about what prayer is about. One fellow prayed that his broken car would heal itself; he claims it did. Another prayed that a couple that helped break up his marriage would also break up; he claims his prayers did the trick.

That is absurd, of course. It’s also absurd that Osama bin Laden and his boys pray for the destruction of America, or pray before they lop off the head of an innocent man, or pray before they set off a bomb in the middle of a crowded market. In their twisted minds, they believe the Almighty is on their side.

But that doesn’t make prayer absurd. Prayer is no different than anything else in this conflicted world. There is good prayer and bad prayer — that is, there are people who pray well and people who pray badly. For that matter, there are good people and bad people, and bad people who have some good qualities and good people who have some bad aspects in them.

That is why we must pray.

I’m certainly no theologian or philosopher but at the middle age of 42, one thing has become clear: There is good in this world and there is evil, and with every decision every moment of every day, we move in one direction or the other.

Greek philosophers had names for what is good. They believed prudence, temperance, courage and justice were virtues all people longed for and should strive to master.

And while we’re striving for good, we need to fight the bad: excessive pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. These are known as the seven deadly sins — and activities I usually save for the weekend.

Which is why I must pray.

To be sure, this world is a battleground between good and evil. That battle rages in every human heart. That battle rages within every religion, political system and on and on. Prayer reaches out to truth and beauty — reaches out to God.

Prayer is like tuning a radio. It is a deliberate, conscious effort to hear with greater clarity what good and truth and beauty are and then, it can be hoped, align ourselves with them. The idea is also to become more aware of what is bad and to fend it off.

If you’re a cynic, you think this whole concept is silly — that reaching out to the Almighty to get closer to truth is silly. But you know in your own heart it makes sense — that you long for the same truth, beauty and virtue as every human does.

Would you really enjoy a movie in which the star is cowardly rather than courageous? Would you root for a character motivated by hatred or one who risks everything for love?

It’s really not so complicated. We all long for beauty and detest ugliness. We all long to become good and root out evil. Prayer can help us, though it’s not easily done well. Perhaps if Osama were as adept at praying as displaying excessive pride, he would see the evil of his ways.

I hope to achieve such clarity in my own little existence. That is why I’m trying to get better at praying this year.

TOM PURCELL

Mr. Purcell is a free-lance writer based in Mt. Lebanon, PA.

www.TomPurcell.com

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