Sitting watching Life of Pi reminded me how we all create stories about our lives and chose which of these are true. Truth is a multilayered phenomenon and is often disguised by many layers of falsehood. The most difficult task for us is being honest with ourselves on a daily basis.
The film, set in India, is a poignant account of our inner conflicts and the struggle to find a meaningful faith. Pi’s journey to find his truth reminded me of when I was in India five years ago.
In India I met a man who shared with me his experience which has become my favourite account of prayer. He was a doctor who was one of the best-known neurosurgeons working at the top hospital in Chennai. He had developed an amazing reputation because no patient had ever died during his surgery. As a result he increasingly had more difficult and complicated cases referred to him. One day he operated on a thirty-two-year-old man who underwent sixteen hours of complex surgery. This doctor was a devout Hindu and before, during and after all surgery, he prayed for God to guide him in his work. After the surgery, the young man was put into post-operative care and was being monitored by several different machines. A few hours after surgery, the doctor visited his bedside, knelt by the bed and prayed: ‘Gracious God, this is a young man, a good man, please spare his life and bring him back to good health.’ An hour or so later, he returned to the bedside to see that there had been a small deterioration in his health. Once again, he fell to his knees and prayed a little more earnestly: ‘Gracious God, this young man has a devoted wife and two small children. Surely you cannot allow these children to grow up without a father? Please spare this man.’
Forty minutes later, when he returned, there was evidence of further deterioration and the patient was on the edge of life and death. The doctor fell to his knees and in panic, prayed: ‘Lord, if this man dies, my reputation will be in tatters. I won’t be trusted again and dishonour will fall on me and my family. Please don’t let this man die.’ As the doctor got to his feet, the monitoring equipment showed an immediate sign of improvement. His patient made a full recovery.
This is my favourite story about prayer for two reasons. Firstly, what is the point of being dishonest with the God of our understanding? It’s absurd. If we cannot be honest with our God, who can we be honest with? Secondly, experience has shown me that the effectiveness of prayer is correlated with authenticity. Divine energy can only flow where there is a portal opened by truth. Dishonesty and pretence blocks the constant availability of grace.
My most authentic prayer was uttered when I was twenty eight years old. I had given up a successful career in the City. I had also given up drinking because I knew that my alcohol consumption was out of control.
I escaped to my sister’s house in America to get away from the life I was living. Unfortunately, as with all escapes, I took myself with me. I was a committed atheist, dislocated from any sense of community and was a long way from experiencing any intimacy in a relationship.
One day, when I was in the house on my own, the emotional and mental turmoil was unbearable and for some reason I went to my bedroom and knelt down beside the bed. I honestly didn’t want to live although I was terrified of dying. As I knelt there, I said out loud, ‘If there is a God, fucking do something, now.’
In that instant I experienced the most profound peace and calm. Time disappeared. I felt as if I was in the presence of the divine. All my unanswered questions fell away and I felt that every single detail in the universe made sense. There were no flashing lights and no voices, just serenity. Despite living many ups and downs since, the power of this experience has never left me.
A few years ago I met the love of my life, a writer, who has taught me more about honesty and authenticity than anyone I know. We have co-authored a book offering a new model of spirituality based upon being more honest with ourselves, with others and with the God of our understanding. Our main thesis is that suffering in the world today is caused not so much by the lack of love but the absence of truth. Both the effectiveness of prayer and the quality of our relationships are transformed by being more honest with ourselves.