You shoot your arrows from afar,To Apollôn, Orphic Hymns, trans. Athanassakis & Wolkow, ln. ~6-12.
you lead the Muses into dance,
O holy one, you are Bacchos,
Didymeus, Loxias, too,
lord of Delos, you are the eye that sees all,
you bring light to mortals,
your hair is golden,
your oracular utterance is clear.
Hear me with kindly heart
as I pray for people.
Sometimes the phrase as I pray for people winds itself through my brain like a prayer earworm.
For a long time, it played in my mind like an echo whose source was obfuscated because I rarely read the Orphic hymn for Apollôn. The verses about harmonizing the poles activate astronomy analysis parts of my brain in a way that isn’t conducive to focusing in prayer, so I usually pray to Apollôn with prayer beads, segments of dramatic works, or poems that I have composed. I recited this Orphic hymn very recently, and it got me thinking about prayer etiquette.
My girlfriend has occasion to listen to me praying for significant chunks of time, as my prayers on the weekends can last forty-five minutes to an hour depending on what I do. There is no time-sensitive rush to any of them, and the recitations have a regular rhythm. I know the Athanassakis & Wolkow translations of the Orphic hymns to Athênê and Hermês by heart now, the prayer to Hestia from the Labrys household worship book equally well, all with small tweaks that make them more appropriate for the type of ritual I am doing.
At some point in 2019, she asked me why I never prayed for anyone else. I explained the etiquette that has developed among many modern polytheists, where prayers for others are taboo — forbidden unless someone has granted permission. She was skeptical. Her mother, a Christian, will pray for people’s safety, health, and security regardless of whether that person asks or not. Her mother’s close friend, who is Hindu, does the same.
The push to not pray reflexively for other people is something that I didn’t question when I was younger, especially as someone who grew up in a religion (Wicca-based Neopaganism) where the idea of consent in religious practice was normalized — you didn’t curse people (an’ it harm none, do as ye will) and tried to ensure that anything you did about interpersonal situations was above-board, focused on the context over the people.
After all, the Christians I grew up with would often pray for other people to convert to Christianity (presumably after having visions of Jesus or the Holy Spirit or whomever). There was a general understanding that prayers for others were some kind of hostile spiritual warfare, that to be on the receiving end was a violation.
Occasionally, I did pray for other people. I was discreet about it, with a lot of hedging during the prayers, and I never advertised that I was doing it because it felt illicit, like leaving an anonymous gift in a public place and hoping that one remained unseen while doing so. My mother prayed to Hekatê for my youngest sister’s safety when she was pregnant even though at one point my lilsis and mom were not talking at all.
After reflecting on what my girlfriend said, and once I had read things in the monograph about inner purity, I wondered how much of the approach to avoid prayers for specific people is informed by religious trauma and being on the receiving end of prayer violence. Quite a bit of it, I concluded — and if there was no reason to not pray for good things for specific people, why wouldn’t I start? It was the right thing to do, I’ve always been very sensitive about whether or not I’m too self-centered, and I curb such tendencies whenever I become aware of them.
So, I started praying for people more often. I revised the prayer that I say at the close of my morning ritual — I say family and use first-person plural pronouns in it and plural households/homes/oikoi now instead of using the singular forms — and started to include more prayers to others when I pray to the Agathos Daimon and the Gods to whom I pray routinely and feel comfortable with petitioning. During times of conflict, I started to pray for the health and well-being of the people whom I considered on the other side of those conflicts (because I firmly believe that people are good and that it is catharsis, not violence, that solves most non-criminal things without perpetuating cycles of retribution — people need to be shaken out of the dark places they condemn themselves to).
Right now, I am praying for our communities regarding COVID-19; for politicians to act with wisdom to stem the devastation of pandemic, economic downturns, and the climate crisis; and for people in my life whom I love. I felt good about spending time on these things, and I think that I have found a happy, morally correct balance point between the ineffable stillness of personal devotional practice and fulfilling obligations (I’m big on pietas) to my family, friends, and communities.