I have some prayer flags tied up outside my door. I like the notion that each thread borne away on the wind carries with it a prayer. It is only a notion, however. If it actually worked, the billions of prayer flags strung across India, Tibet, Nepal, and the back yards of Western aficionados of Near Eastern spiritualism would have transformed the world by now.
Whenever something like a hurricane, earthquake, or terrorist attack happens, the internet is flooded with exhortations to pray, and I am sure millions do just that. If it actually worked, we would no longer have hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks. It helps people a lot more if you go to where they are and do something directly for them, or, if you cant do that, give money to an organization that will.
Prayer just makes you feel better about yourself after you don’t do anything at all to help. I think this is why the Tibetan prayer flags appeal to me. Unlike “praying for the victims” of whatever disaster, prayer flags are abstracted and undirected. They are a general wish of well-being upon the earth, which one can then go out and work concretely towards making a reality.
When I was in Guatemala last month, I befriended an aging Canadian expat. He was a writer, so we talked a bit about writing. At the beginning of my trip, I was thinking about retiring to Lago Atitlan, so we discussed his experience. He had a lot of complaints about the place and the people. He spoke very little Spanish, and I was studying the language, so we talked about that. The day after the Canadian elections, I brought up the new, Liberal prime minister. He was not a fan. Surprised, because I tend to assume people think like me, I said something about how Trudeau was planning to withdraw all Canada’s fighter jets from Syria. He said he thought this was a bad idea. I asked him how it helped Canada to have a couple of fighters supporting our war in the Middle East. My point was that the only militaries big enough to do anything about ISL were those of the US and Russia. He responded by saying it was the first time in a long time that the US and Russia had agreed on anything. Incredulous, I pointed out that Russia’s first air strikes were against people we support, and benefited Assad, whom we do not.
That was when he said: “I would like to see Islam wiped out.”
This man, who lives in a community of people who, just two decades ago, were victims of an attempted genocide, was calling for the extermination of 1.5 billion people.
I suppose I could say that his wish has no more power than the millions of prayers sent into the ether in support of whatever good cause, but then I think of the root of religion; “religere, to tie or to bind”. Millions of people like this man bound together their evil wishes once before, and we had a holocaust. Maybe the only inoculation against the binding together of evil prayers is the binding together of even more good ones.
Prayer doesn’t solve the world’s problems. It won’t cure your grandmother’s cancer, and it won’t make the Cubs win the World Series. It might, however, make a critical mass of good will that can help push aside the darkness, one windborne thread at a time.