2016-06-30
Anne Lamott Anne Lamott, the "bad girl" of born-again Christianity, is still figuring out spiritual truth while keeping her progressive values and sense of humor. Her books include the best-selling "Operating Instructions" (on having a baby solo), "Traveling Mercies" (on her journey as a Christian), and "Bird by Bird" (a classic on writing). In a two-part interview (read the second half), she spoke with Beliefnet about what she says--and feels--when she prays.

How do you pray?

How She Prays
I say "help me, help me!" Or I say "Hi God," I say "Hi Jesus." I get on my knees first thing in the morning. Actually I lie in bed for a little while with my dog and cat, my main prayer partners.

I just talk to God, and say, "Thank you" for the morning's beautiful weather – it's sunny or rainy or whatever – and [because] I'm alive, and warm, and safe, and I have these cute animals.

I just talk casually and lovingly. Then I get on my knees and I say some prayers. I usually ask prayers for Sam, who is sixteen-and-a-half and driving, and people who are struggling right now with their health.

I pray a lot differently in church, which is to pray more communally. Often crying out during the prayers just from my own heart, if something is really troubling me, or if I'm just feeling a great need to express praise. I talk to God a lot very casually as a friend during the course of the day. But I don't know if I could get a credit for praying, a full credit. Maybe a partial credit.


Do you have favorite prayers?

I mostly extemporize.
Her Favorite Prayer
I often say the Saint Francis prayer, but not usually for my morning prayer–that long famous prayer. I often say that when I find myself stricken or stuck or obsessed, because it is medicine, that prayer.

When you pray, how do you hear from God?

I hear His--sometimes Her--God's presence immediately. I know that someone's listening. It's the knowledge in my soul that when I say, "Hello, hi," someone's hearing me.

I have such an unsophisticated prayer and religious and spiritual life that I have a very immediate relationship with Jesus, so it's usually to him that I pray.

I usually say "hi," and I can just feel him say, "Hi, hi hon." Sometimes if I'm praying for discernment, when I'm really stuck and I don't know which way to turn--or, most likely,
What She Feels When She Prays
when I absolutely can't let go of something that's driving me nuts, then the way I hear is this kind of Holy Spirit nudge on my heart, where all of a sudden I have the answer. It always makes me laugh that it's so obvious.

Or the phone rings, or the mail comes, or I see someone I haven't seen since we were in ninth grade together. I see them at the health food store and they say something that was exactly the answer I was looking for. It's like that beautiful line of Rumi's that someone always fills the cup.

You say you wake up in the morning and say, "Thanks, God--I have another day." How do you maintain that spirit of gratitude?

Well, I have no memory now. I'm almost 52. I started out very absent-minded as a child, and always have been that way. Getting older and menopause have not really heightened my ability to remember things.

So I actually wear a little tiny gold ID bracelet that says "Annie" on one side. On the other it says "LGB," which is "love, gratitude, and breath."

Those are the three things that I need to pray for most: to remember love.

I pray for knowledge and experience of divine love everywhere around me and within me.

 'Love, Gratitude, Breath'
In all these people, half of whom just annoy me to death–just say government people, hypothetically–I try to see the divine love from which each person springs. Even me.

G is for gratitude. When I'm in gratitude, if I even stop and make a list of the things I'm grateful for, that's a form of prayer. It breaks my trance of misery or self-absorption.

And then breath: I often forget to do quieting, peaceful, centering breath. I become worried or annoyed, or in traffic, or having one of these insanely infuriating conversations with my sixteen-and-a-half year old, say about the car, then I have the "B": it's on my arm to breathe. Once I breathe and sigh and just start practicing that presence of breath, then things become a lot more spacious, and I behave better.

I want to go back to when you talked about how Jesus just said 'hi.' Is that an extension of your conversion experience, when you were lying there that night and felt the presence of someone sitting in the chair?

Saying Hi to Jesus
I didn't want him to be there, when that happened. That was just mortifying for me, as a hip intellectual agnostic who really hoped to become a devotee of more Eastern religions.

So when I found Jesus there, it was just really a nightmare. It was like the Mister Rogers of deities. But it's different when I call on him [now].

When I first started going to my church 21 years ago, I was still drinking. So I would often show up with these extreme hangovers. But what I would hear is these very, very old people from the South, saying "He's only as far away as his name, he's only as far away, call on the name of the Lord " and "He shall hear you, he shall answer, he's only as far away as his name."

So it might be a habit that if I said "Jesus," or if I just said, "hi," there's only one person I'm reaching to. I got into the habit of calling for, reaching out to, and then experiencing this very, very dear parental response, as a mother or father might speak in the night when the child is afraid. Say, "I'm right here, what's up?"

What do you say to those people who pray, and pray, and pray, and don't have their prayers answered? Prayers for healing, prayers for repaired relationships?

One thing we need to pray for--one thing I certainly need to pray for--is the ability to bear not getting my own way. I have prayed so hard for certain people to be healed, which to me would mean they would live a great deal longer, but which seems to mean…. I've never seen someone die without a healing. I've only seen people have profound healing even though it turned out they weren't going to live forever.

Unanswered Prayers
I've seen people given time they could have never imagined they would get, [time] to savor and close up shop in a really graceful, rich, nourishing way.

I have also seen people die very suddenly even as they had expected a pretty miserable, long-term death. I've seen people [get the] get out of jail free card without a long, protracted death.

So I've seen prayers answered. It's just a nightmare for me that we don't get what we pray for. But often, in my experience, if you get what you pray for, you've really short-changed yourself.

I haven't had a life-threatening disease yet, nor has my son. And so if I were praying deeply, "Please, please, please God," and whoever was sick didn't get well, I'd be kind of surprised. But I'd know that we were brought through something that is pretty impossible to survive and yet we were going to survive it--without necessarily living on Earth a great deal longer.

You've had a lot of pain in your life, a lot of hurt, a lot of suffering. Has the pain given you more humor? Or has humor helped you deal with the pain?

I have a part of me--the part that isn't neurotic and grasping and furious and begging--a part of me that is a very quiet, more mature, slightly wiser self. That has sprung very much from having lost a few people that I absolutely and simply couldn't survive without. And that has come from the early hardships I experienced as a single mother without any money and a colicky infant. And then a bigger boy.

That wisdom has sprung mostly from getting older and realizing, you know, the Rolling Stones said, "You don't always get what you want, but you get what you need."

Work With What You're Given

My experience is that you don't always get what you want. But you get what you get. As you get older, you start to work with what you're getting instead of crossing your arms bitterly because you didn't get what you wanted. "OK, here we are. A new twenty-four hours is starting right now, and this is what we've got on our hands now."

'Age Is Such a
Blessing'

Age is just such an incredible blessing, the softening and the rounding of corners. And the sort of meat-tenderizing effects of aging. Like being a stone in the river – the sanding down of the sharp edges.

My sense of humor really developed, I think, from suffering as a child because I got teased so much about how I looked. I was quite strange looking and had this crazy, frizzy hair, and these big googley, goggley eyes. And I was so skinny, so so skinny.

I got attacked emotionally a lot, and that very much hurt my spirit. I grew up in a family where the parents didn't love each other, and where my parents struggled with their own forms of addiction and mental illness. I felt very, very scared.

It's funny because I'm a pretty afraid 52-year-old with a tremendous amount of faith. It's sort of paradoxical, although I often think of that wonderful line that "courage is fear that has said its prayers."

But at any rate, I was a very frightened and threatened child.

'My Salvation Was Laughter'

I developed a sense of humor to protect myself from abuse and jeering. I learned to roll with the punches. There's nothing like humor to help you do that.

There's a line in Plan B that "laughter is carbonated holiness." Always my salvation was laughter–laughing with friends, with girlfriends, laughing in the dark. The name of my first book was Hard Laughter, about trying to keep one's sense of humor and one's head above water in extreme crisis, which at that time was my father's brain cancer.

So I'm not sure how much humor the hardship has given me. But it turned out that when hardships came, the sense of humor of my friends, and of my own, saved the day.

This is the first half of a two-part interview. Read the second half.