Dilemmas: Should I say a little prayer?

She's been depressed for years and tried everything. Nothing works. Now Cherry has been recommended prayer by a friend. But how does she do it?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

I'm not, perhaps, the best person to ask about prayer, since I don't go to church, and don't wear a dog-collar, and have absolutely no idea whether God exists or not (well, I think probably not, but I have a fairly strong conviction, if such a wet liberal idea can be called a firm conviction, that there is some kind of energy source that binds us all together). And as for praying, yes, I've tried it, and thought about it and still sometimes give it a go because it does seem to me a thoroughly sensible thing to do when all else fails. Why? Because it can only do good. It's completely free, and the idea is to trust some other entity, whatever that entity may be in one's mind or heart, with one's problems.

Now whether Cherry has to fall on her knees or not is surely up to her. Personally I always feel a total prat, alone on my knees. But the idea is to make one feel vulnerable and perhaps being on one's knees is rather like being a cat rolling over on to its back. It's a trusting kind of position, and the position itself may engender trust. So any position that engenders trust is probably OK, but not absolutely necessary.

To whom does Cherry pray? She can pray to a God, or to a vague thingy, or to whatever makes her feel most comfortable, either without or within. Without can feel a bit like crying in the wilderness; within is a probably more comforting spot. And to pray to the God within yourself is probably more healing, and you're more likely to feel an answer. And when to pray? There's a reason why we're meant to pray at night. It's because we're tired, we're more open to suggestion; and personally, I think a lot of the results of prayer are due to a kind of self-hypnosis. (Of course, if you believe in God, that theory still works, since there's no difference between self and God.) Then it's probably a good idea to pray just when you wake up, too.

And what should Cherry pray for? She's depressed, and nothing she has tried has helped her. To ask for relief from her depression is a plea as likely to be answered as the request to win the Lottery. No, what she must ask for is the strength to bear her depression with fortitude. No one should ever ask for anything specific, like getting a job, passing an exam or asking for a husband to return. Instead, always ask for the strength to deal with disaster, if it comes. Then Cherry could offer up her troubles to God (or thingy, etc) as a gift. She should say: "I'm giving this utter gloom to you to deal with."

Of course, this hardly seems like a present. It is worse by far than a marble egg, a ceramic mirror or a mug from the National Trust. But I'm pretty sure that God (or thingy) is delighted with the gift of gloom. In His (or his, or hers, or its) hands, depression becomes a rare treasure.

And finally, if Cherry is going to pray, she should keep it up for a few months at least. The line to God is, if you're a non-believer, pretty long-distance. It can take some time to get through. And she may never get through. And there may be no through to get. The answer may be: "The number you have dialled is unavailable. Please check and try again." Even so, prayer has helped people for centuries; it's certainly worth a crack.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Stop yearning for happiness

In order to be able to pray, there must first exist a belief in someone, or something, to whom to address the prayer. Could I do so, I would certainly choose to believe in an all powerful, benign deity, promising love, spiritual fulfilment and an afterlife, but being of sound rational mind, there is no question of choice. God is no more manifest to me than the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.

It is true that much unhappiness arises from a vague, but enveloping, disappointment that "existence is all there is and death is final", which in turn can lead to feelings of pointlessness and futility. However, I have found that contemplation and a fundamental acceptance of this, together with a conscious decision to stop yearning and searching, is itself a liberation and even a comfort. "Happiness" is an unstable, elusive, endlessly relative concept and will often be attained only when not actively sought.

VANDA McEVOY

Birkenhead

God will answer your prayers

Prayer is never a waste of time; I know this from experience. Be prepared, though. Though God will always answer your prayers, He will not necessarily do so when and how you expect. Your friend who said prayer was your last option was wrong: it should be your first option. How to pray? It really doesn't matter. It helps to be quiet, so you are not distracted, but there is no need to kneel, be in church or even to talk aloud. Just say "Please God, help me. I'm terribly unhappy", and in your own words tell God why. And God will help you, unconditionally.

J MICHAEL SHARMAN

Rufforth

York

It's simple - and free

You are going through "the dark night of the soul" and it's hell. I had a similar life crisis. Not having ever prayed, I lit a candle, got down on my knees, recited the Lord's Prayer (remembered from school assembly), and begged for release from the pain and unhappiness I was going through. Tears flowed, and I felt a warm and loving presence around me. That awful knot of fear and anxiety that depression binds you with suddenly dissolved and I felt renewed and strengthened. I have been able to tap into that strength ever since, and my outlook on life has changed. It's worth a try - it's simple and free and I hope it works for you. Good luck!

CLARE CAMERON

Others will pray for you

"You may not believe in God, but God believes in you," as the vicar said to a woman hesitant about becoming a Godmother. It may be easier to pray if you do believe in God. In this pseudo-rational age, many who mock prayer pray in their hearts. People have prayed for uncountable years, and still do. Anyone can pray. In a time of great unhappiness and confusion myself, I experienced a powerful and sustaining sense of being prayed for, so it comes naturally for me to pray for others. Your letter itself utters a prayer and many who read it will pray for you in that moment, as I do.

MARGARET BONFIGLIOLI

Cassington

Oxford

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm only in my forties, so hardly ancient, but I work in an open-plan office next to a company where everyone swears all the time, and it really upsets me. Two other women of my age also find it horrible to hear young men yelling "Fuck!" and "Shit!". They're loosely connected with our company, but run by a different boss, so I can't complain. With walls, we wouldn't hear them. What do we do?

Yours sincerely, Julie

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas @independent .co.uk. Please give a postal address for a bouquet

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