My fiancée, who believes in God, once told me that God seems much too distant to pray to. Despite not having any Catholic background, when she feels like praying, she prays to saints. When I was in the running for a good tenure-track job in our area, she prayed to St. Thomas Aquinas, as the patron saint of academics and philosophers, that I would get it. Until that point I don’t think I’d even made the connection between the saints people pray to and actual historical people – I’d only thought of Thomas as a natural law theorist and systematic theologian.
Fast forward: a little while ago, things were a little rough in my home. My fiancée and I tried to adopt a big beautiful black dog, which turned out not to be the right pet for our situation. The dog found a very good home and we’ll be able to get another dog soon enough, but losing the dog was pretty rough on us, especially my fiancée. It didn’t help that it was late winter, when everything was dark and cold, without the novelty of snow’s first arrival or the joys of Christmas. The stress of wedding planning didn’t help either. I was intending to ease some of my fiancée’s distress by planning a surprise party for her approaching milestone birthday. Of course, while the planning was happening, I couldn’t tell her about the party to comfort her; and hiding the event from her was its own source of stress.
It was a hard thing to take. Even though I knew I was doing something that would make her happy in the end, the combination of the secrecy and the present suffering was hard for me to handle emotionally. And so I found myself offering a prayer to Mañjuśrī, the celestial bodhisattva to whom Śāntideva offers his devotion. I prayed, tearfully, for him to give me the strength I needed to help me through my loved one’s suffering. At one point while doing this I wound up calling him Maitreya, because (I admit sheepishly) I sometimes have difficulty remembering the difference between the two.
All this is no small deal for me, because I don’t actually believe in Mañjuśrī or Maitreya, at least not in any standard sense of the term. Continue reading