Notes on a Buddhist path

Wings and a prayer

February 28, 2012 By | 1 Comment

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. ~ Henry David Thoreau

Prayer is a funny thing. People usually come to it when things aren’t going well. More precisely when things are heading to hell in a high speeding runaway handbasket. We negotiate, make promises, swear on our first born child that we will take the high road in all our dealings with the world from this day forward if only our prayers will be answered.

Mixed in with requests for a puppy or a new Porsche, are pleadings for enough money to pay the rent, food to feed the children, to get through one more day without falling back into the black pit of addiction. There are of course the philanthropic prayers for peace and well being, the end of war and global warming. Survival and glut are the counterpoint ends of a spectrum of desire. The gist of all prayers is wanting something we don’t have, something we’re sure we make our lives whole, if just for an infinitesimal moment in time.

These days I don’t really ask for things as much as I seek guidance. I ask questions. “Why can’t I find a job?” “What does this person have to teach me?” “Where is my wallet?

The bigger question in all of this is who or what I am asking the question of? I don’t believe in god(s) in the sense of a benevolent human-like presence looking down upon us all. My Catholic upbringing makes angels intriguing until I factor in the arcane debates of medieval scholars as to “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” My Buddhist leanings bring devas into the line-up yet the discourses on the various realms can leave my wind reeling with similar dancing pinhead gibberish. Jung’s collective unconscious, Spirit with a capital “S”, the universe, Elvis. All are fair guesses as to what or who may be out there with the answers.

I know one thing. When I ask a silent question I usually get an answer back in very short order. It’s a soft voice, clear and precise, and sounds like Emma Thompson from Angels in America. Yes, she was an angel in the movie, and that serendipity doesn’t allude me. All I know is that I hear a gentle voice of loving concern. She answers quickly I think because she’s been waiting so long for me to ask the question. It’s not my habit. I wait, along with most of us, until the quandary percolates from my cells and bubbles up like a hot spring, needing to feel the cool air of truth on its hot swirling surface.  If I’m not sure the advice I’m hearing is divine or my blathering ego I throw in some follow up questions. When I hear exactly the answer I wanted or an old tape playing itself yet again I’m pretty sure it’s not the answer to my prayer. Surprising revelations or a truth I know in the fibers of my being but didn’t want to face usually mean I’ve hit the goldmine of advice.

Maybe it’s an angel or Emma herself (although I think she may be quite busy with her own life). Perhaps it’s my mother, gone now these nearly eight years, or my many aunts or the grandmothers I never knew. Maybe it’s the voice of one of the saints I so wanted to be like when I was a little girl or Mother Teresa or Virginia Wolff or the woman baking bread down the street humming and thinking of things she knows are good and right. Whoever she is I’m glad when she visits. All I need to do is invite her over more often.

My Dead Friends

by Marie Howe

I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,

to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were —
it’s green in there, a green vase,

and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,

whatever he says I’ll do.

My Dead Friends” by Marie Howe, from What the Living Do. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, re-posted from The Writer’s Almanac, National Public Radio

Image credit: Angels in America, HBO Films


  1. “I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
    Billy’s already gone through the frightening door”

    That about wraps it up, doesn’t it! If we can just take the perspective that we ourselves will have once we too have gone through “the frightening door”, then most of our decisions will be easy. Added bonus, it makes that door less frightening.

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