THE OTHER PART OF my experience as a Christian that I tried to deal with in The Final Beast was the experience of prayer, and . . I drew directly from an event in my own life. A year or so before writing the book, I took two or three days off to attend a series of seminars on prayer conducted by an Episcopal laywoman named Agnes Sanford, who was recommended to me by a friend as a fascinating and deeply spiritual woman who had had remarkable success as a faith healer. "Spiritual" was another of those words that I always choked on a little, and faith-healing was something I associated with charlatans and the lunatic fringe; but since my friend had only recently left the college chaplaincy to become a Jungian analyst, I couldn't dismiss him as easily taken in, so I decided to accept his recommendation and go.
I saw Agnes Sanford first in the dingy front hall of the building where the talks were to take place, and after no more than a few minutes' conversation with her, I felt as sure as you can ever be in such matters that if there was such a thing as the Real Article in her line of work, then that was what she was. She was rather short and on the plump side with a breezy matter-of-factness about her which was the last thing I would have expected. She had far more the air of a college dean or a successful businesswoman than of a Mary Baker Eddy or Madam Blavatsky. She seemed completely without pretensions, yet just as completely confident that she knew what she was talking about. She had an earthy sense of humor.
The most vivid image she presented was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back and unable to do any mighty works there because the ministers who led the services either didn't expect him to do them or didn't dare ask him to do them for fear that he wouldn't or couldn't and that their own faith and the faith of their congregations would be threatened as the result. I recognized immediately my kinship with those ministers. A great deal of public prayer seemed to me a matter of giving God something that he neither needed nor, as far as I could imagine, much wanted. In private I prayed a good deal but for the most part it was a very blurred, haphazard kind of businessmuch of it blubbering, as Dr. Muilenburg had said his was, speaking words out of my deepest needs, fears, longings, but never expecting much back by way of an answer, never believing very strongly that anyone was listening to me or even, at times, that there was anyone to listen at all.
That was the whole point, Agnes Sanford said. You had to expect. You had to believe. As in Jesus' parables of the Importunate Friend and the Unjust Judge, you had to keep at it. It took work. It took practice, was in that sense not unlike the Buddhist Eightfold Path. More than anything else, it took faith. It was faith that unbound the hands of Jesus so that through your prayers his power could flow and miracles could happen, healing could happen, because where faith was, healing always was too, she said, and there was no power on earth that could prevent it. Inside us all, she said, there was a voice of doubt and disbelief which sought to drown out our prayers even as we were praying them, but we were to pray down that voice for all we were worth because it was simply the product in us of old hurts, griefs, failures, of all that the world had done to try to destroy our faith. More even than our bodies, she said, it was these hurtful memories that needed healing. For God, all time is one, and we were to invite Jesus into our past as into a house that has been locked up for yearsto open windows and doors for us so that light and life could enter at last, to sweep out the debris of decades, to drive back the shadows. The healing of memories was like the forgiveness of sins, she said. Prayer was like a game, a little ridiculous the way she described it, but we were to play it anywaypraying for the healing both of ourselves and othersbecause Jesus told us to and because most of the other games we played were more ridiculous still and not half so useful.
We were to believe in spite of not believing. That was what faith was all about, she told us. "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief," said the father of the sick son (Mark 9:24), and though it wasn't much, Jesus considered it enough. The boy was healed. Fairy-tale prayers, she called them. Why not? Jesus prayers. The language of the prayer didn't matter, and her own language couldn't have been plainer or her prayers more unliterary and down-to-earth. Only the faith mattered. All of this she spoke with nothing wild-eyed or dramatic about her, but clearly, wittily, less like a mystic than like the president of a rather impressive club. And you could also get too much praying, too much religion, she said, and when that happened, the thing to do was just to put it aside for a while as she did and do something else. She herself read murder mysteries, she said. Or just collapsed.
-Originally published in Now and Then