If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you’ that would suffice. – Meister Eckhart
I used to have an uneasy relationship with prayer. My introduction to any notion of what a prayer is, was at primary school when each morning we were required to stand and recite the Lord’s prayer (forgive us our debts — in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition). Little children learn verses easily and they fell off my tongue without much real understanding of the words and their meaning. This was what prayer meant to me for quite some time. Words that you are required to say. Words whose meaning and beauty have only relatively recently become apparent to me.
Prayer as other people’s words, and prayer as religious — and specifically Christian — people’s words, was pretty much my relationship to prayer for a long time. It didn’t occur to me that I could pray, even that I had a right to pray when I didn’t belong to any organised religion. What would I say and — more importantly — what, or who would I be saying it to?
As my spiritual path has developed I have come to understand something very different about the nature of prayer. To begin with, this was a very private and internal form of prayer that evolved out of my meditation practice. I thank those teachers who let me in on the secret that sitting quietly in meditation or contemplation can indeed be a form of prayer. It was a beautiful revelation to realise that saying something (to God) is not necessary — unless that is what you feel called to do.
Being in stillness and silence and allowing myself to listen to whatever stirrings might be moving in, or with or through me has become my core practice, one that is a profound and moving — and legitimate — way to encounter God.
The out-loud prayers came later for me. For a long time, my only encounter with spoken prayer were the kind that you hear in churches. Prayers of confession, of absolution, of intercession, of blessing. Prayers that are often spoken by someone else — a minister, priest or intercessor — on our behalf, to which we all say ‘Amen.’ Even though I didn’t grow up as a Christian, my view of prayer was very much from a Western Christian perspective, and this is true for many of us. Being introduced to Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and other, more expressive Christian ways of praying has transformed my understanding of what prayer is, of what a prayer can be, and of how to pray.
It’s a good question, especially if you aren’t religious. My view is that anybody can pray. Perhaps the biggest and best lesson I have learned about prayer that it isn’t about getting what I want. It isn’t a shopping list. Neither is it about appeasing any kind of God who needs his ego stroked. Prayer is an expression of the heart… something that I realised I was doing all along without knowing that it was prayer.
Showing gratitude for the earth, creation, food, relationships, and all the large and tiny blessings of life is right at the heart of prayer in most traditions. Gratitude is also a powerful practice that is shown (scientifically) to be a good thing for our wellbeing. In traditional settings, this might be a prayer of thanksgiving or praise, but it can be a more everyday gesture.
It can be as simple as pausing before taking a sip of coffee to acknowledge how good it smells. For me, this tiny prayer of grace is a quiet and personal acknowledgement that there is more to coffee than its simple caffeine hit. The coffee grew, people picked it and shipped it and roasted it and ground it and packaged it and brewed it before it got into my cup. And then there are all the factors of economics, and sustainability and ethical trading to consider. All in that tiny moment before the coffee passes over my lips. A prayer indeed.
We all express hope. Hope of a brighter future, hope for a good outcome, hope that something will change, hope for better health, and sometimes even hope for a peaceful death. Hope is an essential and innate part of human expression and survival.
In traditional settings, this might be a form of intercessory prayer — the kind where we ask for something from God. In more secular terms, if can imagine things being different or better, then I can contribute to the processes that will allow that to happen. Hope — even if it seems futile to outside eyes — is what allows me to carry on, to move through what is difficult and painful, to have a future.
My prayers of hope come in many forms but writing is probably the way in which I express hope most viscerally. I may not overtly write about hope (although I am conscious of doing it here) but in taking my words onto the page or into my blog I am committing an act of creative hope that there is a reason of writing and a future that I am writing into. This is why creativity, in all of its forms, is so good for our mental wellbeing. We are committing acts of creation that some (like me) might see as acts of co-creation with God.
Creativity is the essence of the daily act of prayer that is hope.
Compassion and kindness are key teachings in most religious traditions. In traditional settings, this includes prayers for others — for healing, for peace, for an end to suffering, and prayers for those who are dying.
I have learned most from the practices of Buddhism about the cultivation of compassion and loving-kindness. It is a practice that essentially involves compassion for oneself as well as for others. I have also learned over time, that this is key to the avoidance of burnout or ‘compassion fatigue.’ For me, the practice of compassion is a form of conscious and active prayerfulness, that sometimes I have to work really hard at. This is why it is a practice.
Compassion can be in the ‘obvious’ settings where compassion is seen as a requirement. As a hospital chaplain, my job is compassion. To be a compassionate presence for people who are sick and dying, and their families. In many ways, compassion is easy to practice in such as setting, where there are boundaries, and a job description. But when I remember to pause and breathe before getting annoyed at my partner for some minor — and ultimately unimportant — annoyance, I am practising compassion. When I remember to be gentle with myself over my innate clumsiness, I am practising compassion.
These tiny domestic remembrances are a daily form of prayer.
Meditation was my opening into prayer. Meditation isn’t necessarily prayer, but prayer can certainly be found in meditation. In the tradition of contemplative prayer, there is less focus on prayer as an outward act and more of a focus on finding stillness and silence. In traditional settings, this is more like the kind of prayer people do on their own, and that those in monastic orders do all the time.
In the silence, I am more likely to hear the voice of God, which is not really a voice at all, but more of a stirring. I find my deepest kind of stillness and connection in this type of prayer. When I allow my body, my mind, my thoughts to be quiet, then I can truly listen. I can also attend to my breathing. The simple in and out of the breath in the stillness of meditation is the most delicious prayer of aliveness that I can imagine.
We should seek not so much to pray but to become prayer. ― St. Francis of Assisi
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