What, Me Pray?
For most people at a modern or rational stage of development, prayer is something for children and the superstitious. Its etymology is from the Old French preier (“ask, entreat”) which is derived from the Latin word precari, which means to “ask earnestly” or “beg.” And in the modern world, begging is something that poor people do.
Most of my young adult life, I considered prayers to be uttered before meals, before bed each night or to be reserved for when someone was injured or dying. My family didn’t model this behavior, but I assumed other (Christian) families did.
When I discovered the Unity Church and the New Thought movement, my eyes were opened to prayer as a form of dialogue with Source (or Christ Consciousness). I embraced my “allergy” to prayer and jumped in with both feet, studying and practicing the act of prayer and serving as a chaplain for a thriving church community from 2012-2014.
Just like yoga and meditation, I learned that there are different methods (or modes) of prayer, and hundreds of ways to actually pray.
Dialogue and the Other
The idea of God is so personal that the way each individual relates to God (with fear, awe, devotion or worship) is as unique as themselves (not to mention framed by their current geography and cultural worldview and colored by shadow material from the unconscious mind). The Ultimate Other looks, feels and sounds different to everyone.
There are three perspectives from which all of us might describe and experience God (or the idea of God) — 1st-person (the interior of the individual, meditative, internal arising of Spirit, witnessing), 2nd-person (the other, relational, one-on-one/face-to-face, devotion, prayer, God the Father, Mother Earth, various deities) and 3rd-person (the physical universe, nature, science, God-as-the-Kosmos, Spirit-in-Action, all that is observable and that we may witness, tat tvat asam). Put simply, we can talk “as God,” “to God,” or “about God.” These three value spheres (see Chapter 2) are useful when discussing or contemplating spirituality. All three are very real perspectives, and all three simultaneously arise together.
It is this 2nd-person language (talking “to God”) that we use when we pray.
Prayer is sometimes looked down on as being a subservient act. When most people think of prayer, they think of a plea or an appeal to God(s) in the sky for their desired outcome to be granted. Part of the reason we may not be comfortable with this form of dialogue is that the “other” is 1) outside ourselves, 2) invisible and 3) more powerful than we are. Most of us are told, when we move into the stage of development known as modernism – and are exposed to the branches of science and philosophy – that no self-respecting human being would prostrate themselves before this kind of creator God.
But this assumes that the power (to create meaning or change) resides somewhere outside of ourselves. And for the traditionally religious, this is true (or, at the very least God remains worthy of our reverence, awe and devotion).
Post-modern forms of prayer (centering, affirmative) simply assume and strive to express what already is. When you pray in the affirmative, you declare that you are not broken or fallen or diseased, but that you have the infinite power within you to heal yourself, and to live your highest potential. When you practice centering prayer, you invoke the perfection of the moment and all thoughts that may be arising (including the prayer itself).
When you pray, you are engaging with Spirit-in-Action in 2nd person language (addressing the “thou” or Ultimate Other). And unlike meditation, where the goal is to let thoughts go completely, prayer is the training of our actual thoughts to be more positive, kind, gentle, loving and forgiving.
Prayer is a way of aligning your mind with the Divine (or what Sri Aurobindo called Supermind). If meditation is the act of being unattached from your thoughts and simply letting them drift away, then prayer is the act of holding onto and turning your thoughts, one at a time, over and over in your hands until they are perfect. Until they have been smoothed like stones in a river.
Jesus and Prayer
According to Jesus, prayer was a way to dialogue with the Divine in yourself. In John 10:30 when Jesus said, “The Father and I are One,” this was Jesus describing a direct connection to God without a need for an intermediary or translation (i.e. a priest or the church).
In his impassioned Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-6), Jesus says, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The fruits (or “rewards”) of prayer are not in the feeling of being religious or performing the act. The fruits of prayer lie in the direct connection to Spirit, the ability to be in right relationship with Spirit and the power to carry that “prayerfulness” (gratitude, awe, connectedness) into our everyday lives and relationships.
Modern Perspectives on Prayer
In his highly influential book, I and Thou (1923), Martin Buber wrote about this relationship to nature, others and Spirit. He indicated that the “I” that is in relationship to people and the environment, for example, qualitatively changes when it is in relationship to God. He even went so far as to say that all moments of genuine becoming require a “thou” and that “through the Thou, a person becomes ‘I.’” Buber’s contributions have come to be known as “dialogical existentialism.”
In Primary Speech: The Psychology of Prayer by Ann and Barry Ulanov, they frame the language and act of prayer as something primal and remind us that the concepts of good and bad are something that we are conditioned to discern at a very early age.
“This primary speech does not begin with words,” they write, “but starts much earlier in human life, with instincts and emotions and with an infant’s first discriminations of value. They occur when a baby discovers that the flow of milk from its mother’s breasts is or is not accessible, is or is not plentiful.”
Indeed, spanish mystic and Roman Catholic saint, John of the Cross, described God’s response to the beginner in prayer as “a mother to her nursling.”
This kind of imagery does little to address the infantilization or power struggle of those seeking spiritual direction or solace in prayer. But, it does provide a way to enter into relationship with The Other without prejudice or preconceived notions.
Preparing for Prayer
We wouldn’t run a mile without stretching and we don’t expect to reach sublime transpersonal states in meditation without first sitting and focusing on our breath. It’s the same with prayer.
In The Art of Praying, Romano Guardini writes, “If we appreciate good music we shall not arrive at the performance at the last minute, allowing for no transition between the noise and unrest of the street and the opening bars of the concert. We shall be there in good time and hold ourselves ready for the beautiful experience before us. Anyone who has the right feeling for things which are great and important will, before tackling them, banish distraction and recollect himself inwardly.”
We must put ourselves into a prayerful frame of mind before we actually pray, and as with most rituals, the act of preparing is just as important as the prayer itself. It doesn’t need to be silent, there doesn’t need to be candles lit or incense burning. You simply need to be comfortable and able to focus or “hear yourself think.”
Before we pray, we must surrender to the moment and release any resistance to the act of prayer itself. We don’t need to have “faith” in a higher power or God necessarily, but we need to open ourselves up to all possibility. I liken this connection to a modem dialing into a network. First, it sends a ping. Then, it receives a response. And before you know it, packets of information are flooding the pipeline in both directions. This openness to all possible outcomes is like accessing an infinite spiritual matrix using the uplink of your own mind. Put yet another way, prayer is like being the port (or aperture) between inner space and outer space. When you feel you are plugged-in, connected and receptive to whatever might come your way, simply begin. Most prayer, in the beginning, is simply sending a spiritual “ping” and awaiting a response.
As with all spiritual tools, a regular and consistent prayer routine is the key to bearing a fruitful practice.
Types of Prayer
Whether we are praying to receive blessings or good fortune, to self-affirm, or to hold the highest and best for others and the world, our prayers tend to fall into specific categories.
In her book, Help, Thanks, Wow (2012), Anne Lamott divides prayer into three “essential” categories – asking for help, giving thanks, and expressing awe or wonder.
Traditional Christian (Catholic) prayer is classified the following way:
- Blessing/Adoration – Used privately and in worship to exalt the greatness of God and acknowledge our own smallness or humility. Examples: Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest), allahu akbar (God is greater).
- Petition – The most common type of prayer. This is where we ask for God to get involved in our personal lives (prayer at the egocentric level). We may ask God for fulfill our physical or spiritual needs. Examples: The Lord’s Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.”
- Intercession – This is where we ask for God to intervene in the lives of others or in world affairs (prayer at the ethnocentric and worldcentric level). We may be praying for the health and well-being of our neighbors or loved ones. We may be praying for an end to hunger or a resolution of conflict. We may also pray that other’s prayer requests are put before our own. Example: Prayers for “world peace,” prayers to the saints (St. Anthony for lost causes or St. Christopher for travelers).
- Thanksgiving – Expressing gratitude and thanks for blessings received (or being received). Example: prayers before and after meals, The Jewish “bathroom blessing” (asher yatzar).
- Praise – Recognizing the greatness of God beyond what He does, or provides, but simply because He is. Examples: The Psalms, the poetry of Rumi.
There are many other forms of prayer – ways to put the act of prayer into your own practice – including the following:
Lectio Divina – Latin for “divine reading,” Lectio Divina is a Benedictine practice that approaches scripture as a sacrament or as a “living word” that is being breathed into the world one syllable at a time. Lectio Divina asks that we 1) Read (lectio), 2) Reflect (meditatio), 3) Respond/Pray (oratio), and 4) Rest/Contemplate (contemplatio) using Biblical text.
Contemplative / Centering Prayer – Contemplative prayer is a form of prayer that focuses less on active dialogue and more on interior silence and a deeper connection to God. Its origins are with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, The Cloud of Unknowing and early Christian monastics. Popularized by Trappist monks Father Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton in the 1970s, centering prayer is a modern refresh of contemplative prayer that blends Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer using a three-step process of 1) Silence (quieting the mind), 2) Meditation (focusing on one thought or word) and 3) Returning to that thought or word when the mind begins to drift.
Affirmative Prayer – This type of prayer affirms that your prayer request has already been answered. It shows up in the branches of the New Thought movement (Unity, Christian Science, Science of Mind) which promotes Christ as the ultimate healer and metaphysician. Unity, in particular, teaches a five-step prayer process consisting of 1) Relaxation, 2) Concentration, 3) Meditation, 4) Realization and 5) Thanksgiving.
Affirmative prayer may be accompanied by “I am” affirmations (“I am healthy/healing,” “I am happy/joyful”). I Am is also one of the many names of God. In Exodus 3:14, Moses encounters the vision of the burning bush. God speaks to him and commands him to rescue the Israelites from Egypt. In bewilderment, Moses asks “Who shall I say sent me?” And God said, “Tell them that I Am has sent me to you” (In Judaism, this is translated as, “I will be what I will be”). God then said, “This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.”
In the Unity tradition, affirmations are followed by denials — as a way to clear the interior space before filling it with new growth or intention. Affirmations are declared in the positive, and when we say “I Am _____,” we are saying “God in me is ______” or “God is _____ through me.”
Creative Prayer – Prayer can also take the form of musical expression, dance, art, etc. Anything that gets you moving, enacting, embodying and praying from the neck down. In his book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox writes, “The artist’s task is awakening awe and providing vehicles of expression so that we can express our awe and wonder at existence.”
He adds, “Reverence will become the test of our moralities: is what I’m doing, are the choices we are making, reverential to others — to Mother Earth, to generations of humans to come, to the particular individuals with whom I’m currently interacting, to our non-two-legged brothers and sisters with whom we share Mother Earth? Reverence can only grow out of a living cosmology.”
It is now up to us to cultivate and nurture an awareness of our role in the cosmos — our enmeshment and embeddedness. And, it is a higher form of empathy to hold deep reverence for all living beings as well as the Earth from which they have sprung. It is this attitude of gratitude and “giftedness” that we enter into when we pray. A recognition that each day is another chance to live and learn, love and serve.
For discerning and mature individuals on the spiritual path, it is our responsibility to try these prayer practices on and see how they feel — to perform the experiment and observe the outcome. We are a part of this creation in inexplicable ways. From the subatomic to the cosmic, from the spectrum of light to the harmony of sound, the Divine is always speaking through creation. And in our longing to be understood, it is this communication with each other (and the Ultimate Other) that builds and deepens our intimate relationship to mystery.