Praying through the internet

Multicolored plastic flagging blurs into the distance; the overall effect is reminiscent of Tibetan prayer flags

My grandmother died last night.

I write a lot about death, to my sometimes surprise, but this isn’t a post about death, or dying, or about the Ancestors. This is a post about prayer, about the technology of prayer, and about the communities that sustain us.

On Saturday evening, I was in Iowa visiting a cousin who graduated this week with his MFA in poetry.* Jarod and I taken the opportunity for a little mini-vacation, and had just gotten back to our rental from a concert when Mom texted me and my siblings to let us know that Grammie’s condition had worsened, and that the end was very near. I pulled out my travel altar, lit the candle, filled the well, and prayed for her easy passing, her smooth journey past the edge of this life.

After I’d finished, I sat down and wrote up the final prayer I’d extemporized, giving it a more fixed form, joining it with a picture of my little altar in the darkness, symbols of my spirit allies in the shadows, prayer beads glowing bright in the candlelight. And then I hesitated: what should I do with this prayer, this picture? It seemed obvious that I was going by instinct toward a post of some sort, but my mom and her siblings had been very private during Grammie’s illness. Did I really want to go posting publicly or semi-publicly about it?

But somehow I couldn’t stop thinking about Tibetan prayer flags. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way they work: the prayer is printed on cloth, and as that cloth flaps in the wind, the prayer goes out from the cloth, blessing the beings around it. And this goes on, perpetually praying and re-praying, until finally, faded to obscurity, their power having passed entirely out to the benefit of those around, the flags are retired with dignity.

One of the changes I’ve noticed in myself over the past few years is a greater interest in (and I hope, an understanding of) prayer not only as a spiritual practice, but as a technology. We pray for an effect. Sometimes that effect is purely internal: that we might render in ourselves a contemplative spirit, or a deeper communion with the Holy Ones. And sometimes that effect is singular: private prayers of gratitude, of solace. But sometimes we pray, and we do so with more directive intent: intercessory prayers, prayers that ask for something to happen, be that healing, or cursing, or guidance, or that a beloved relative be guided through her death.

And I think of the prayer flags, ubiquitous in their environment and of the texts and images that I surround myself with daily in my own environment: photographs on Instagram, friends’ thoughts on Facebook, screenshots shared from services across the Web. What does it mean for a prayer to be sent into the internet, to be viewed by many, to be consciously responded to, reacted to? I posit that, in its own 21st century way, that prayer — and really, any transmitted text — is like a prayer flag, spreading its energy for good or ill to, and through, all who encounter it.

And so I sent my prayer into the internet, in hopes that my plea would be amplified, multiplied. I can’t do a controlled experiment with it, of course, comparing its effect to that of a prayer kept silent in my heart — nor would I want to, because each of those types of prayers is sacred in its own way, both hallowed and holy.

But what I can attest is the unexpected effect my choice had on me. In the wee hours of the morning, lying unsleeping on the sofa bed, I watched comments and reactions trickle in, then grow in number the next day as Jarod and I drove across the Midwest back home. My friend Amy wrote, “Oh, honey, I am so sorry you are losing your grandmother. Please look at every response to this post as another flap of the prayer flag.” And I did — I believe that every conscious reading, every comment, every reaction, was in its own way a prayer for Grammie.

But moreover, I felt buoyed, felt myself held up by a strong weaving of connections no less real for their virtuality. In sending out a cry of love, I’d triggered back a multivoiced echo, a reminder that we are all of us bound together in ways that transcend difference and remind us of our common humanity. It was a profound experience of community, deeper than I expected, and I’m sincerely grateful for it. For that gift, I give thanks to the Holy Ones, to my community that spans continents, and to my grandmother. May she rest soundly, knowing that even in her death she has continued to give me life.

* Buy my cousin’s book! It’s full of poems about nature, ecology, the complex and confusing emotions of being a human, and the grief and joy of we human animals amidst so many other animals sharing this planet.

Header image: crop of “Flags,” by Rachel/Flickr. License: CC BY-NC.


2 thoughts on “Praying through the internet

  1. Powerful piece. I really love this blog. I hope you and your husband are able to find some rest for your hearts during this time.


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