A follower recently emailed and asked that I share some thoughts about prayer. Ask and you shall receive:
I have struggled with the concept of prayer for many years. When I was a boy I had to memorize Roman Catholic prayers and recite them repeatedly. In my youth, frankly, I did not know what I was saying. In retrospect, some were beneficial…others didn’t mean much.
After college in my early professional life, I stopped praying. As I matured, I prayed on and off most usually in times of crisis.
As I began to think about seminary, ministerial study and service, I became very aware that my prayer practices needed to attention and improvement.
In many ways, my desire to be a minister was the catalyst for me to begin to look inside to find the Sacred and to begin to figure out how to recognize the Sacred, discern what was Sacred and not Sacred and begin the journey to figure out how to communicate with it. I had spent many years looking for God outside myself. My process of self-discovery was very much about finding God in me.
Please know that just because I am an ordained minister does not mean that I consider myself an expert on God or prayer. Your experience of the Sacred, of prayer or meditation is just as valid as mine.
Some will argue that prayer and meditation are two very different things. I disagree and I am allergic to arguments… so for me and for my ministry I consciously choose to use the words interchangeably. I am also suspect of books that seek to tell me how to pray… what to say when I pray and how to pray “effectively.” So meditation and prayer are synonymous for me. As an nondenominational interfaith minister, I find some people are more comfortable with meditation as opposed to prayer… I am am very OK with choosing the word that conveys the best meaning.
Theologians teach us there are several kinds of prayer. I am not so sure its important to get caught up in the varieties/flavors of prayer but I’ll briefly outline several here. Different theologians, religions and cultural traditions suggest many more variations but the central prayer themes seem to be:
*SUPPLICATION – prayers asking God to do something. Commonly called prayers of request or petitions. A very common form of prayer.
*INTERCESSION – prayers asking God to do something for others. These prayers plead or beg God to act in a particular way for the benefit of another.
*FAITH – prayers asking God to tell us, show us, demonstrate to us what God wants us to do. These prayers frequently seek a solution or a particular outcome from God.
*AGREEMENT – prayers asking God for something together (Think New Testament: “When two or more are gathered together in my name…”). Also called corporate prayer. This is community prayer in churches, temples, mosques or synagogues.
*THANKSGIVING – prayers expressing thanks or gratitude to God for what God has done or what we think God has given to us.
*FORGIVENESS – prayers asking God to forgive yourself or others. Also known as prayers of expiation or penitence or repentance.
*PRAISE – prayers of worship and adoration focusing on who God is. Recognition of the Sacred… the Universe… the One… our Higher Power.
*CONSECRATION – prayers of blessings or dedication – setting someone/something apart and designated as special, sacred or honored for safety, protection and preservation. We bless marriages, pets and food.
*CONTEMPLATION – prayers of presence, mindfulness, meditation, quiet, solitude.
Some people pray with their eyes closed…others look at crosses, statues or religious icons. Some meditate with mantras or use mala beads or rosary beads while reciting the same sound or prayer over and over again. Some rock back and forth… others are still. Some prefer to pray alone. Others prefer to pray in community. Some pray spontaneously while others prefer to pray with ritual and on schedule. Some pray with lighted candles… others prefer to pray in the dark. Some use prayer books or prescribed centuries-old rites or litanies. Some pray freelance with spontaneity. The more I minister the more I discover that a lot of people pray… but they don’t recognize it as prayer.
I pray for the living and for the dead. I pray for family and friends… some more than others depending on my perception of their needs and wants.
Rather than dissecting, analyzing or qualifying prayer, I prefer to just do it. I don’t say this sarcastically. My personal and ministerial approach to God is always in search of paths of less contemplation and more action. Consequently, when I have the opportunity to meet with other ministers I am always interested in learning how they pray.
I like to think of prayer as a lavish buffet offering many choices depending on my mood, time of day, my stress level and what’s on my agenda with God. Someday’s my ‘To Do List’ is cluttered and needs attention. Other days, I intentionally delete my agenda and simply sit in the presence of the Sacred in search of a still point. I have found that I can settle on one form of prayer for awhile and then try another when the time or situation feels right.
Honestly, sometimes prescribed prayers work best. I don’t have to really think about what I am going to say because I have the words. Prescribed prayers allow me to focus my attention on known words and the intent of those words. I think less and pray more, so to speak. I am fond of the Prayer of St. Francis. It resonates with me and I have it memorized.
I pray The Lord’s Prayer most frequently with others – particularly when I’m ministering with family/friends at a time of a loved one’s death and that person is identified as having been Christian. Loads of people know the prayer. Its familiar. I think it can help comfort and assure. I will frequently ask folks to join hands and say the prayer with me or at least to respond to the final Amen.
I have short Jewish, Islamic, Christian and Buddhist prayers in my smartphone that are readily available if I am called upon to minister to persons of those religious traditions.
A German priest named Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), once upon a time said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” That sentence all by itself is sometimes my prayer. It is a very powerful thought that can serve very potent actions.
Before ministry, I would have defined prayer as a conversation with God. I no longer say that because sometimes when I pray, I do not talk to God nor do I talk to myself. Now in my ministerial life, I have come to believe and practice that whether I call it prayer, meditation or contemplation – its all the same: Prayer is awareness of who I am in the presence of the Sacred. That’s what I call prayer today.
I pray in a number of ways. I frequently pray in bed before getting up in the morning. I am learning to always begin with thanks for what I have. I pray before I write. I pray driving my car. I pray publicly and privately. I pray in my living room or in the park watching kids feed the ducks. I am conscious of keeping my prayers positive and upbeat and hopeful. Wile I might recognize pain, grief, loss, anger, confusion, doubt I consistently try to end my praying on a positive note. I used to pray asking for things. Now I practice praying thanksgiving. While I try to say thank you a lot and I am mindful of being thankful for who I am and what I have…I am not so good at thanking God. I find that more frequently I pray in surrender. I want my ego to get smaller and smaller. I want my openness to the Sacred to get larger and larger. I pray for patience, tolerance and forgiveness. I have prayed walking city sidewalks, hiking wilderness trails, sitting on isolated beaches staring at the waves, watching water flow over rocks in streams… and in traffic.
I have prayed with joy and sadness. I have prayed with anger and revenge and guilt. I have prayed for peace, a new job or to pass a test. I have prayed in hope and in despair.
Just very recently I have become fond of these Internet/social media invitations to pray in community from where ever you are at a designated time. These world prayer efforts are attractive to me. As I continue to practice them, I’ll consider those global prayer initiatives for another blog post.
As an interfaith minister, I do not judge anyone’s prayer as long as the outcome of the prayer is for the common good. I say this openly, because any prayer to any deity that results in violence, destruction or hatred… is not prayer. Let’s call sociopathic internal dialogue what it is: evil.
Prayer/meditation is always in search of peace in my mind, compassion in my heart, health in my body, belongingness in my soul.
The Compassionate Gardener meditates/prays. I want blessings upon my intentions, plans and actions as they take form into my crops and harvest. I believe that success comes from mindfulness, flexible adaptation to constant change and recognition that I am never alone. Conversely challenges need to be considered prayerfully seeking new solutions and opportunities. I meditate about the fertility of my soil. I pray about the quality of my seeds. I meditate about being in synchronicity with Nature while mindful of the right balances of light and water and fertilizer. I pray to remember the need to protect my Garden from scorching sun, damaging winds or pests that eat the fruits of my efforts.
Mediate/pray with me… Pray/meditate for me… for Hope = Compassion + Forgiveness. How do you pray?