Prayer. As we start out, my initial thought is that it’s somewhat of a loaded word – we all have associations with the concept of prayer. If you’re like me, you’ve been praying in one form or another since you were about two, starting out with the bedtime prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep,” or a variation of it. You may have then moved on to Sunday school prayers and reciting prayers out of a book in unison during a worship service.
Since childhood, you may have adopted different forms, such as chanting, prayer beads, rosaries, or malas, drumming, or walking. Perhaps you stopped praying for a time, or maybe radically changed your notion of what prayer is and how to go about it.
Our ways of reaching out to the Divine have grown and changed over the years just as we have, and more than likely will change still more as we continue to grow. My hope is that our explorations of prayer will bring new life and added dimension to our practices; that we all will come away with some new ideas and fresh approaches to help us connect with Spirit. At the end of the day, this is what prayer is all about.
Is The Universe Is A Friendly Place?
Albert Einstein once said that the most important question we can ask is if the universe is a friendly place. If we believe it is not, but is instead a dark and dangerous place, we will use our energy and resources to build walls around ourselves to keep the danger out. We will fear the world around us.
If, on the other hand, we view our universe as loving and welcoming, we will use our skills to find out more about it how it works, how we can build it up and sustain it, how we fit in. We will use our resources to learn about and explore our universe, and seek to connect the space around us.
It seems to me that Einstein was inviting us to look at this question from a personal as well as a global perspective. So, as you reflect on your prayer practice, think about this concept of universal creative energy as the ground of all being. Let’s explore the extent to which our belief in the fundamental nature of our universe affects how – or if – we reach out to connect with God.
What Do Our Prayers Say About How We View Our Universe?
For me, I have always had the view that the universe is a sustaining, wonderful, and accepting place. This is true even though I have had my share of difficulties and tragedies, and have shared or witnessed the tragedies of others. I know life can be painful, unfair, and short. Even with that, however, I still believe and feel that the universe welcomes our goodness, compassion, generosity, and kindness – and gives it back tenfold. The fact that life can be so dark shows, for me, that we as humans still have far to go and much to learn.
One of the ways we continue on this journey toward a kinder and more compassionate world is through our prayers and spiritual practices. They help us to remain connected with Source, that energy I believe is the universal good that expresses as us and as all creation.
My father used to have in his office a small plaque on which was written what’s known as the Breton fisherman’s prayer. You’ve all heard it, or a variation of it. It reads: “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” As I was preparing this talk, I learned that the father of the nuclear Navy, Adm. Hyman Rickover, gave a plaque with that saying on it to each of his new submarine commanders. I think he hoped it offered some humility and perspective to these new Commanding Officers, reminding them that even with such a hugely complex, powerful, war-fighting machine, they were not in charge.
In the spring of 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Rickover gave the same plaque to Pres. John F. Kennedy, who kept it on the Resolute desk. In his thank you note to Admiral Rickover, President Kennedy wrote, “This beautiful prayer says so much in so few words.”
Why do I love this prayer? In beautiful and moving language, it reminds me that we are surrounded by a vastness and power of which we are a part, but not the whole. It leads me to feel grateful for the beauty and majesty of all creation. It inspires humility, which, as the theologian Martin Buber said, “is knowing you are but a wave in an infinite ocean.” Humility leads to awe, and to wonder. Like that wave, we are connected to that infinite power that is an abundant and loving universe. It is prayer that maintains that connection for us; prayer is the way we remind ourselves that we are not alone.
So . . . How Do We Pray?
We all have our own ways of reaching out to keep our connection with Spirit strong. We do it in community, in our communal prayer time. This is an enormously powerful way to support each other as we join our energies together in love, healing, or forgiveness.
We have our own individual practices as well, and they may include the powerful aspect of silence. Many say that the deepest, most profound prayers do not use any words at all; rather they consist of what the Hebrew Scriptures call “a sigh too deep for words.” Talking sometimes even gets in the way. As Catholic theologian and mystic Thomas Merton tells us, “. . . talking is not the principal thing.” He wrote:
It’s a risky thing to pray, and the danger is that our very prayers get between God and us. The great thing in prayer is not to pray, but to go directly to God. If saying your prayers is an obstacle to God, cut it out. The best way to pray is: stop. Let prayer pray within you, whether you know it or not.
For Merton, the purpose of prayer was not to achieve some supernatural intervention in our lives, but to become aware of the connections we already have with the universe and with Spirit. It’s a coming home, a remembering. He said:
. . . in prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it.
Prayer brings us back to the experiencing.
Do We Always Feel That Prayer Connection?
No, we don’t. There are times when we reach out and experience nothing. We all remember the surprise we felt upon finding out that Mother Teresa, of all people, suffered immensely for years because she felt nothing from God but silence and distance. We all have felt that way at times. For me, times like that are when I am trying to push the connection – I want Spirit to respond like my home page when I bring it up. And I think I know how Spirit will sound and show up, just like I know how my home page will look.
That doesn’t work. My assumptions about how or when God will show up to me can blind me to the actual experience of spirit. As Teresa of Avila wrote “our biggest obstacle to finding God is our assumption about what we’re looking for.”
Listen, Center, and Connect . . . Through Prayer
We make the connection with Spirit when we stop listening for something, and just listen. Some of you may be familiar with the practice of meditative centering prayer, developed by Father Thomas Keating. It is a practice in which our prayer is not for a desired result, not even in gratitude for a received blessing. Our prayer is nothing more than a return to our readiness to hear God. It is a way we shut down our monkey mind, stop that incessant wheel turning, and become willing and open to hear and receive. As Father Keating wrote:
We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Contemplative prayer is the opening of mind and heart – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.
This is how we center. We stop talking, because words just get in the way. What did your teacher tell you in third grade? When we are talking, we are not listening.
One of Father Keating’s contemporaries is Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and Christian mystic and teacher. She gives an image that I really love. Bourgeault teaches that the practice of centering prayer is a way for us to “entrain” our minds and hearts; join them together so they listen and beat as one as we open to the presence of Spirit. When our mind slows down, it can join with the energy of our hearts. If our thoughts divert us, we simply let them go, and return to openness.
When we pray, we find our connection to God in the listening. Right where we are and as we are. God is waiting to connect with us right now, She doesn’t wait until we’ve improved, grown up, become more spiritually aware, or saved the world. Just as we are, our yes is always enough.
Using Any Words or No Words, Prayer Is the First Step in This Path of Connection
One of my favorite authors is Ann Lamott. She wrote a book in which she declares there are only three necessary prayers: “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” She is funny, articulate, and incredibly insightful.
Lamott tells of a life in which sometimes all she can do is just reach out and say “help.” We’ve all had days or weeks like that – we don’t have it in us to recite fancy liturgical prayers (what she calls the “good china of prayers”) but only have the ability to say my day really stinks and I need you to do something about it, right now. She knows that we heal through honesty, and God is not waiting for fancy language.
She wrote the following prayer, one that works for all occasions. I don’t know about you, but I see myself in it.
Hi God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how about this afternoon – say, two-ish? Thank you in advance for your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen.
Sometimes this is the best we can do. The secret is to keep doing it and, as she found, we will not be let down. The words don’t matter – the names don’t matter. She wrote that she had a friend who called God Howard, as in “our father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” God is open enough to being called just about anything, as long as we keep calling.
It is when we let the practice slip because we don’t have time, or we’re too caught up in the events of our lives, or for whatever reason, that our lives slip out of control. We become overwhelmed, confusing the important with the merely urgent. We move off our center, and we lose our balance. The desire to pray is the desire to return to center – that place of wholeness where we find peace. Using any words or no words, prayer is the first step in this path of connection.
I’d like to close with a quote from C.S. Lewis. He wrote:
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.
My hope is that we continue to let our connection with Spirit, God – or Howard – change us as well.
Blog by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center