Why I Pray – 6/28/21

Today we are starting a new series of reflections entitled “Why I . . . .”  Each week we will be looking at a different spiritual practice or aspect of spirituality, and I will be sharing how I find meaning in them.  By no means am I seeking to assert that my approach or understanding is correct or the only way to understand it.  However, I hope my own perspectives will be a starting point for others to share their own understandings, and perhaps be a means to begin looking at these aspects of spirituality in a new way.

Prayer was defined for me one way as a child.  Growing up, there were certain elements which had to be included in each prayer.  But most important was the confession of my sins.  I struggled to remember each time I did something wrong, every time I had a bad thought, every time I was not the Christian example I should have been so that I could ask for forgiveness.  There was a part of me that feared if I did not seek forgiveness for all of those things, I could end up in hell.  I gave thanks for the things I had in my life, fearing if I did not I could lose them.  I prayed for the well-being of my family and for God’s intervention on whatever was causing me to worry that day.  And I said words of praise to God in the hopes that God would look on me favorably.

As a child, this all made sense to me.  If I said these prayers faithfully, I could count on remaining in God’s good graces.  And if I truly believed God would give me what I asked for, I would receive the answer to my prayers.  But my prayers were not always answered, despite my faithfulness to following the routine.  Prayer became a matter of speaking a prescribed set of words to God, and these words became repetitive, started to lack meaning.

Over time, this became a chore.  A chore I no longer wanted to perform.  And I stopped praying completely.  The only way I viewed prayer or understood it was through that limited lens of God acting like a genie in the sky who granted wishes to some and denied those same wishes to others.  And that if I did not offer sufficient gratitude for what I had or remember to seek forgiveness for all I had done, it was unlikely those wishes would be granted.

Prayer also carried a lot of baggage for me.  As I have shared before, every time I was in church involved an altar call with the threat of hell.  And the only way I could avoid that eternal torment was to say the sinner’s prayer – confession of my own sin, my belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and my request for salvation.  This prayer, I was told, would only be effective if I truly believed and was earnest in my prayer.  And if I was, I would have an inner sense of salvation.  But I never had that sense, and so I began repeating that prayer incessantly, thousands of times over the course of years, hoping for that inner sense to emerge.

The anxiety which surrounded this prayer left its mark.  As I mentioned in my Mother’s Day reflection, it was not until I met my spiritual mother Mary that I began to view prayer in a new way.  She encouraged me to read the book, In God’s Presence, by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki.  And this book began to provide a framework for me to understand prayer in a way which conformed with my own understanding of the Divine and experience of the world.

I began to see the Divine presence as immanent rather than a transcendent deity.  I began to see God as an energy, a presence beyond my understanding which has an effect on what our world is becoming.  I have read of the Divine described with the metaphor of water.  Water flows and fills all of the cracks and spaces available to it, touching all that is in its path.  And the water not only touches it, it slowly and sometimes subtly changes those things.  Changes take place over time, are often imperceptible to us.  But over time, they can become significant, beautiful, creating awe.  I think of the Grand Canyon and how it was shaped over thousands of years by the flowing of the Colorado river.  The water doesn’t exert control over that which it flows.  But its presence can be felt, can evoke change.

While the water changes what it flows over, the water is also changed.  Particles of soil can change the color of the water, it picks up elements of what it flows over.  In the same way, the Divine is influenced by the world as well.  Similar to how our own relationships influence us, the way we understand and interact with the world, so our own experiences influence the Divine.

As my own theology emerged to view the Divine in this way, so did my view of prayer.  Prayer for me now is an openness to this Divine presence, a power which flows through our world.  But it also represents the Divine openness to me.  That in some way, the act of prayer can increase the ability of the Divine to impact the world.

I also came to believe that prayer can influence our connections with each other through this Divine presence.  Because each of us are connected to the Divine, the Divine provides a means of connection to one another, even with those we don’t know or can’t influence directly.  We can meet others through the Divine presence.  When we pray for the well-being of others, we are able to make ourselves relevant to their situation.  Praying for another allows the Divine to weave us into their stories.  We become of part of them, and they become part of us.  Through prayer, we open ourselves to become an expression of the Divine presence in the world.

The power of the Divine for me is expressed through the possibility of what the world can become when we participate in the Divine and its expressions in love.  Rather than viewing prayer in terms of painful memories of repeating the sinner’s prayer or viewing it as an empty recitation of hopes, I can view prayer as a practice and effort of collaboration with the Divine.

In her book, Suchocki explains this in terms of our relationship with the world.  “All things relate to all other things.  In this interdependent world, everything that exists experiences to some degree the effects of everything else.  We are so constituted that very, very little of all this relationality makes it to our conscious awareness.  But we are connected.  Praying lifts these loose connections to our conscious awareness in the context of God’s presence.  We begin to feel an echo of that divine meeting and weaving, no matter how distant the one for whom we pray.  Through prayer, we can begin to experience the relationships that are otherwise too subliminal for us to notice.”

This new view of prayer also allowed me to find meaning in forms of prayer I had abandoned.  For many of us, sin is not a useful concept.   And listing off a litany of what are proscribed as sin and seeking forgiveness is not a meaningful practice.  But I think this can also be viewed in a different way.  Through naming our struggles, our fears, our failings, perhaps we can open ourselves to that same Divine energy for good.  We are able to name who we are, how we are, and what we want to become.  It opens us up to Divine leading of what we might yet be.

One way I seek to open myself to this Divine presence is through centering prayer.  As part of this practice, I have a prayer word.  This word is a means to help me stay focused in my times of prayer, to push the competing voices out of our heads, to recognize the Divine presence with me.  A prayer word gives us something to return our minds to whenever intrusive thoughts seek to take our attention away, to shift our focus to the anxieties which fill our lives.

For those of you who are not familiar with this practice and may wish to try it, a prayer  word should be something short and simple. It should not have a lot of connotations associated with it that it will distract you.  You may choose something like Divine, Spirit, or Love.  Allow this word to come from within you.  But the most important thing is that the word you choose should express your desire and your intent to be in the Divine presence.

The time I spend in centering prayer ranges from anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.  I set a meditation timer so that I do not get distracted with keeping track of time.  I sit in our spare bedroom, a space which is comfortable and free of distractions.  During this time, I am aware of what thoughts come to mind, the voices which seek to distract me.  And when they arise, I push them away by returning to my prayer word.  This is the only activity I initiate during the time of centering prayer.  As I have continued this practice, I have felt more connected to that Divine energy which I believe flows through us and all that surrounds us.  And it has given me a sense of calm, a sense of being held by something greater.

Many of us may have baggage related to the concept of prayer, struggle to understand it in a meaningful way, or have moved past finding it a meaningful practice.  But however it is defined, I believe each of us seeks a way to reach out to something beyond themselves.  One of the most meaningful ways prayer was described to me was by my closest friend.  He identifies as an atheist.  One day we got on the subject of prayer.  And he told me he doesn’t believe in prayer.  But he did say that he keeps a picture of me and my family in his home.  And whenever he sees that picture he projects a positive energy to us, a manifestation of the love that he feels for us.  I was deeply touched by this and told him that he may not define it as prayer, but it is no less important or significant.

Like my friend, may each of us find our own way to connect to what is sacred for us, to in the words of Mary Oliver, find a silence into which another voice may speak.