What is prayer? Prayer, as found at dictionary.com is:
1. a devout petition to God or an object of worship.
2. a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.
3. the act or practice of praying to God or an object of worship.
4. a formula or sequence of words used in or appointed for praying: the Lord’s Prayer.
5. prayers, a religious observance, either public or private, consisting wholly or mainly of prayer.
I would add one more definition: Prayer is the VISUALISATION for the manifestation of the ACTUALIZATION you desire. In other words, you just think the things you want or the change in the real world that you are hoping for.
Let’s start with the Christian concepts of prayer. There’s The Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the prayer that the pastor does to lead sinners to Jesus. There’s prayer in church, at meals and over the sick or dying. There’s the blessing prayers at a baptism, child dedication or a wedding. And for many, there is the daily prayers of their lives, an ongoing communication with their God. As a Christian, there are so many ways of prayer, so many types of prayers, that it can lose its meaning in the hum of the automatic repetition of words that have no thought behind them, no visualisation for the type of result that is desired.
Prayer is a mighty and powerful thing, but so many people tend to use it either as a way to get God to give them all the things they want or as the Pharisee did in Jesus’ parable: “Look at me God, see what a great person I am”. And sadly for too many Christians, the pat comment of “I’ll pray for you” is a rote and meaningless response to disaster, need and a request for help. It’s a way to sound like you’re doing something when you’re asked to pitch in. Jesus DID things throughout the Gospels and only PRAYED near the end of his human life. I have always liked Mother Teresa’s praying–done as she was helping others, active physical praying with hands that were working, eyes open to see the sacredness in the people she was caring for. Her entire life was a prayer. THAT is the kind of praying that will make a change, not the mouthing of words that mean nothing to the one saying them and certainly not when the pronouns being uttered are I, me, mine.
I want to specifically address memorized or “group” prayers, such as the Our Father (The Lord’s Prayer) or the Hail Mary. I’m going to start with a dissection of the Our Father, to start you thinking about what it is you are really praying when you repeat the words you’ve said so many times. I will warn you that I am not a Christian, but do believe in a Supreme Deity. Whatever words you use to speak to YOUR concept of Divinity, YOUR god or God, this prayer is still a good one for you because of what the words mean — to you. I am only offerring my ideas of what they might mean, so you are free to agree or disagree, but as long as it makes you think, my job here is finished, my friend. Where was I? Oh yes…
“Our Father, who are in Heaven” — naming the Divine (such a futile practice, but it’s like saying “Hi Mike” when you call your friend. Lets the person on the other end know that you are talking to them) and opening a dialogue with that Being. This, by the way, is completely for YOUR benefit. It actually opens your awareness, alerts your mind and soul, that you reaching out to the Sacred One (Or Ones, or God, or any god. Once you realize that this bulky and awkward method of naming the Divine/Deity/gods/God/Allah/Jehovah means ummm ANY Sacred Being to which you turn for help, we can stop using it and get on with our discussion of prayer. I’ll just use the shorthand of “G/god(dess) to cover it, ok? Just saying.).
“Hallowed be The Name” — acknowledging the Sacred and the fact that even while the naming of the Divine limits it to that concept, any name used for it is a Sacred Name. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Jesus, God, Allah, Jehovah, Ishtar, Horus, Odin, Brigit, Quetzacoatl, or Harvey. Whatever (name placeholder) you use to describe/name/address your G/god(dess)…you acknowledge and state the sacredness of that name.
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” — Things would just be so much better if everybody honored the sacred and lived their lives according to the knowledge that ALL is sacred. Compassion and respectful conduct towards not only other humans, but animals, the environment and the planet becomes second nature when your attitude is one of honoring the sacred within all. Earth could become Heaven if we all behaved that way.
“Give us this day our daily bread” — Not a demand for things we want. Let me say it again, so that it really sinks it. This phrase does NOT mean I can demand that G/god(dess) give me all the things I want or think I “need”. This is an acknowledgement that we are provided for, on a very basic level, if we ask for it–and in fact, we are blessed with an (over)abudance if we will adopt the posture of grateful begging. Look to the Buddhist monks for this. They do not always fix their own meals. They have what are called “begging bowls” which they take out into their community and each person gives them some food. In this way, the people who are giving receive the blessing of sharing what they have–and they never share more than they can afford to give. They are not pauperized, giving up their “taxes” to the monks. It’s not a demanded thing. They either have food to share or not. The monks are blessed with food for their body and the honor of receiving those donations.
Small side note here: As Americans and as Christians, we have it drilled into us that it is “more blessed to give than to receive”. I call bullshit. Giving can be a wonderul blessing–as long as it’s not an ego stroke, doesn’t inflate the person’s concept of self because they are oh so generous. Receiving can also be a great blessing. You are allowing someone else the blessing of the giving and you learn how to accept with a full and happy heart, grateful without being embarrassed or ashamed of the need, without resentment at having to ask in the first place. It is no small thing to know how to receive honestly, openly, in perfect harmony with the giver. It is a blessing for both sides of that equation. Now back to what we were talking about.
One more comment of the concept of “grateful begging”. For a long time, I have used this analogy when talking to people about having things and abundance: how do you hold the most amount of sand? If you grasp it, it will slip through your hands and be gone. BUT…if you hold your hands out, cupped together, the sand will fill them and overflow. This is the abundance that G/god(dess) wants to give to you. If you grasp at things, you will never have as much as if you stand with your hands held out, in this attitude of grateful begging, ready to receive the amazing and overwhelming abundance that will come from the Sacred Being you are connected to.
“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” — frankly, if your life is dedicated to honoring the sacred, if your goal each day is to mark and show respect to all that is sacred as you encounter it in your daily routine, temptation and evil are not going to be problems for you. Well, not as much. Temptation, being tempted…happens to everyone, but needs to be acknowledged for what it is: the desire to have something that is not yours. Whether it’s an actual item or an intangible like a lifestyle or position, it’s still not yours. And by desiring more, you are in effect denying all that you have been given….turning your nose up at the G/god(dess)’s gifts. Stop it. (And I say that to me, as well.) Delivery from evil…I believe in evil. It does exist. It occurs any time and anywhere that the sacred is NOT honored, not respected. Evil is the opposite of the sacred and frankly, I don’t think that it’s scaled. There’s no such thing as “just a little evil” or one act being a “lesser” evil. Deny the sacred and that’s evil.
“For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory for ever, Amen” — A reaffirmation of the Sacred and all that comes from the G/god(dess), forever and ever. Amen. So Mote it Be. Namaste.
Having “deconstructed” the Our Father…let’s turn our attention to the Hail Mary (and all other memorized, repetitive prayers). I would offer the suggestion that rote prayer (any prayer that is a set, memorized bunch of words) serves the same function as a mantra–and indeed, IS a mantra. What is a mantra? Let’s go back to dictionary.com and see what it says:
1. Hinduism . a word or formula, as from the Veda, chanted or sung as an incantation or prayer.
2. an often repeated word, formula, or phrase, often a truism: If I hear the “less is more” mantra one more time, I’ll scream.
So it’s a word or formula (string of words) chanted or sung as…a prayer.
The object of a mantra is to focus your mind on the task at hand. The Little Engine That Could (“I think I can, I think I can”) and Dory’s “Just keep swimming” are both mantras for our daily lives, a formula for getting through or succeeding where we need the extra focus to achieve. But when you repeat a mantra specifically within the precepts of sacred space (in English: saying Hail Mary in church), you are focusing your mind, your consciousness, on the sacred, on G/god(dess) and your connection to Him/Her/It.
I recently saw this and thought it very pointedly correct: Prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is when you listen to God. So I prefer meditation as a regular activity over prayer simply because I need to listen to what G/god(dess) is trying to tell me. If prayer (or meditation) is a conversation with G/god(dess), it should be a two way street, not a monologue of “I want this” and “I need that” and “Give me all the good stuff”. Have you ever started talking to someone, with the point of asking them to do something…given a long list of why they should do it, pleadings about doing it quickly…only to have them look at you and say, “But it’s already done, if you had given me a chance at the beginning of your speech to tell you…I could have saved you the breath and effort you just made.”? I suspect that’s how it goes with G/god(dess). As Infidel Guy says, “What is the purpose of prayer? What can a finite being on Earth possibly tell an omnipotent, omniscient, Universe-creating deity that he/she/it doesn’t know already? If prayer actually worked, the Pope would live forever.”
The only argument I would offer him is that prayer does actually work. All that we ask for, all that we seek is given to us, beyond our wildest imagination. We just need to remember that sometimes, the answer is “NO!”. And sometimes, the answer is “Yes, but you’re going to be sorry. Learn this lesson well, My child.” As I said up there in the opening paragraphs, prayer is a mighty and powerful thing. Be careful what you pray for, because you may get it. And think your prayers through very carefully. Mark Twain wrote a story called “The War Prayer” — (http://www.ntua.gr/lurk/making/warprayer.html for the entire story, totally worth the read, please do!) — which clearly demonstrates what happens when you pray for things without thought for the consequences. Your prayer for wealth might cause poverty for someone else. Your prayer for health might lead to a physically able life filled with spiritual dis-ease. (Yes, “DIS – ease”…lack of ease) Your admittedly benevolent prayer for someone else might actually create hardship because you interfered with the sacred progression of their life as it was to be.
Prayer is a lot more than just some words strung together and flung out into the Universe, with the faint hope that *someone* out there will hear and answer us. Prayer is the creating of the image in our minds (VISUALIZATION) of the events we hope to see come true (ACTUALIZATION). Remember? That’s where we started this conversation. And here is where I am going to get controversial: Prayer most often seems to be about these three pronouns: I, me, mine. Even when it’s ostensibly for someone else, it’s still “Hey G/god(dess), *I* want you to heal Joe/help Kerry/guide Sam to You.” I think it’s a really good idea if You listen to me and do what I think is best. Arrogant, just a little? I am not saying that all prayer is like this, just that enough of it is we ought to really reconsider even praying at all. Leave G/god(dess) alone, He/She/It has enough to do without listening to our pathetic whining.
If you must pray, do it in motion. Do it with the attitude that you seek what is your life’s path, the life that the G/god(dess) gave to you, to find the sacred in all. Pray by planting a garden of vegetables that will feed your family…or feed hungry people in your community. Pray by preparing a meal for family and friends. Pray by tending to the sick, fighting for the downtrodden, holding the hand of the dying, greeting the baby that has just been born. Pray by walking as you are able to cut down on the use of fossil fuels. Pray by recycling to reduce the strain on this planet we call home. Pray by giving time and money to those who need, within your neighborhood or city…or across the world.
Pray by being honest in your business transactions. Pray by doing your job faithfully and diligently, striving to achieve by being the best *you* and by your effort. Pray by listening to your child and really paying attention to him/her. Pray by knowing where your child is and what they are doing–and by being a consistent and fair disciplinarian. (If you discipline, punishment is generally NOT necessary.) Pray by honoring your parents and all of those who were there to help guide you in your life–whether through just your actions or by taking care of them, in turn, in their old age. Pray by showing your true and living devotion/faith to G/god(dess) to those who do not believe as you do–without denigrating their beliefs and with the understanding that there are many paths with just one destination. You can pray with your entire being, by seeking the sacred with any action or thought you have, with every moment in your day. If you do that, you will pray by living a holy life. You will be praying by honoring the sacred wherever you find it and therefore honoring with every act and every word, the connection between all of us.
And at the end of the day, meditate….to hear what G/god(ess) will say to you.
And I close this with the Sanskrit word, Namaste. It means this:
“I honor the place in you where Spirit lives.
I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Truth, of Light, of Peace,
When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me,
Then we are One.”