Sprucing up our image of prayer
Let’s talk about prayer. It means different things to different people. For some, it might be the recitation of prayers memorized in childhood. For others it might mean petitioning the Almighty for things we want or for favors for others, such as health for an ailing relative or friend. For still others, prayer might be a nuisance and impractical.
While all of these, except the last, are worthy, they do not galvanize our energy for the pressing work of justice nor do they lead, generally speaking, to the direct experience of God known as mysticism (I say “generally speaking,” because Ram Dass tells the story of the woman who identified with his exalted experiences in India because she had experienced them while knitting!).
In my own background of Roman Catholicism, anything beyond petitionary prayer, lighting candles, saying the rosary or attending mass, was considered the realm of the formally religious: priests, nuns and those who entered religious orders like the Dominicans or Jesuits. This, too, is now a dated way to look at prayer, because a deeper prayer must now be viewed as a universal vocation, an intrinsic part of being human.
Like breathing. One of my favorite forms of prayer is simply to relax and bring my attention to my breathing. When my attention drifts, I bring it back gently, and without judging myself, to my breath. This return to the foundation of my being keeps me anchored in wisdom throughout the day. Without daily spiritual practice like this, we can drift off into madness, such as viewing war as a solution to conflict or becoming enraged at polluters instead of confronting them with an unwavering persistence and focused depth.
No doubt prayer may seem a dreary, boring process to some, another chore for the “To Do List.” It can seem that way if we feel it as leading inevitably to brow-beating groveling before the throne of Him Who Makes the Rules. Once we discover the One this is all about really does love us unconditionally and that “unconditionally” does not mean “as long as we are behaving,” then the thought of taking time to relate to that One becomes a cheerier prospect.
Matthew Fox reminds us of what he calls the “Via Positiva.” If we view the spiritual journey in a systematic way, the first, crucial phase is to marvel at creation, to fall in love with the universe, to see the wonders all about as a world of abundance given as a gift to us. From this flows joy, a fun-loving spirit and a renewed experience of being childlike, of being loved. If we neglect this phase in our eagerness to deal with climate change, for example, our efforts will lead to anger and burn out.
These are some basic reflections about prayer and praying. With this foundation, everything in our day becomes a prayer, because we find the One in all things.
Bill O’Brien is a consciousness coach and shamanic practitioner. He and his wife Linda have lived in Shepherdstown since 2005. He can be reached at email@example.com.