Tag Archives: Prayer

Prayer and humility

I have discoursed several times re prayer and its meditative function. I don’t believe that God sits “up there” waiting to bestow “stuff” on us when we want or to bail us out of a mess we have created with our life. I think prayer, like all dimensions of spirituality, is ultimately a mystery. I don’t know definitively how it works but I do believe that it is important that we pray.  So I think you should pray as you are inclined to pray. You know as much about this mystery as I do. But I hope that you will consider the perspective that I offer from time to time.

Rabbi Adam Jacobs made an interesting point in the Huffington Post that I would like to share. He noted that in the Hebrew language the word “to pray” is a reflexive verb, something you do to yourself. And the root of the word means “to judge”, “rendering the actual translation of prayer as something more akin to self-evaluation. Therefore, when a person stands before God to communicate, she is taking stock of her capabilities, current level of spiritual consciousness and willingness to accept reality for what it truly is. The deeper notion is that we are willfully trying to integrate the inescapable fact that we are utterly dependent on the Creator.”
The upshot of this observation is that humility is an essential element in prayer. And humility always comes hard to those of us who have been educated into “humility.”  And I close with my favorite Shakespearean observation re prayer, King Claudius on his knees in prayer, offering the following observation, “My words fly up.  My thoughts remain below.  Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

“Teach us to pray”

T.S. Eliot declared that, Prayer is more than an order of words, or the sounds of the voice praying, or the conscious occupation of the praying mind.” He recognized that prayer is not a perfunctory performance “because it is what Christians do”. You know, “Wind me up and watch me pray and therefore I’m a Christian.”

Prayer is a mystery and I’m not for sure how to define it. I think it always starts as a “perfunctory performance” but at some point in one’s life it needs to go beyond, to become more of a meditative enterprise.

I love what Shakespeare had to say about prayer in Hamlet. Hamlet’s step father, Claudius, is on his knees praying and lamented, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Shakespeare recognized that when we merely throw words around, when we trot out the usual “prayer” verbiage, when we are consciously choosing our words so that we “pray right”, then our prayers “never to heaven go.”

I recently started reading Thomas R. Kelley’s book, A Testament of Devotion, and he noted the following re prayer: We pray, and yet it is not we who pray, but a Greater who prays in us. Something of our punctiform selfhood is weakened, but never lost. All we can say is, ‘Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit.’

This is an overwhelming notion that I am presenting here. And I don’t have it figured out. And I don’t think the right thing to do is to wait until I have it figured out. The right thing to do is to pray and always remember what the Apostles asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (See Luke ch. 11))

Prayer and Presence

Prayer continues to be an essential part of my life.  And for me it is “meditative prayer” which continues to be a challenge because of that “monkey mind” which squeaks endlessly and jumps around….hmmm….well, like a monkey!  The goal is focus in which our hearts and minds are wholly open to God and not given to distractions.  Shakespeare best described this prayerful dilemma when Claudius (in Hamlet), kneeling to pray, lamented, “My words fly up.  My thoughts remain below.  Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

I also try to choose my words wisely in prayer.  I try to avoid, for example, saying, “Come Lord Jesus.”  For, he has already come and is present in all of our hearts.  To say, “Come Lord Jesus” is to speak of Him as if he is out there, not reflecting an awareness of his inner presence.  He is always here.  In fact, he is intrinsic to our very being.  In fact, without Him we would not even have “be-ing”.  This is relevant to the famous words of Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I,  (my emphasis) but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”  Paul was recognizing that his “not I” was now prevalent in his life–Christ.

When I pray for healing, I don’t pray, “Lord, please visit “x” with your healing power.”  I pray, “Lord, may “x” become aware today of your healing presence.”  For God’s presence, including his “healing presence”, is always with us.  All we have to do is get out of the way, let the ego’s grip on our life dissipate a bit, and the Spirit of the Lord is waiting.

self soothing strategies

In my practice as a therapist, “self-soothing” strategies were a basic intervention that I offered.  This refers to behaviors and patterns of thought which would help the client cope more adaptively with “the thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to.”  (Shakespeare, “Hamlet”)   These could be something as simple as saying a brief mantra from time to time, planting a flower, taking a walk, watching a favorite tv show, or preparing a special meal.

I was made aware last week how this same notion of “self-soothing” can apply to spirituality/religion.  I was at a thrift shop and encountered a person who frustrated and angered me, inducing…shall we say…unsavory thoughts.  I immediately trotted out a little contrivance that I’ve borrowed from the Buddhists—“mindfulness”—and was able to then step back from moment and recognize this evocation of feelings in my heart.  I recognized that this immediately made me feel better about myself and spared me from the orgy of shame and guilt which once would have beset me.

Now some would respond to an experience like this with a trip to the confessional or would silently (or openly) castigate himself/herself for being such a sinner.  But each of these three maneuvers is merely a “self-soothing” activity and each has its place….though I much prefer mine!  It is important to have strategies to make us feel better about ourselves, to assuage our guilt/shame over the misdeeds or errant thoughts that come daily.

 

prayer

I like to revel in the ethereal.  That is quite obvious.  But, I like to come down from the ether and dwell here on the earth again, anchoring my heart and soul with the tribal gods (or god) and their wisdom.

Thus, when I pray, I bring to the moment my perspective as God
as a Process, an Infinite Unfolding in a vast void.  I bring to the moment a mind steeped, not just in Christianity, but in the wisdom of world religion and philosophy.  But, in prayer I rein in my imagination and mind and humbly pray, “Our father which art in heaven….”

And today, the first thought in my mind was, “This is the day that the Lord hath made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”    For, once again I am alive and will have a beautiful world to enjoy.  I will enjoy good coffee, good food, good wife, good doggies, good friends.  And for this plenty, I offer my gratitude, not to an ever-expanding universe part of which I am, but to “god.”

Meditative prayer

I think it is important to pay attention to how we pray.  Often when we pray we are merely chattering, tossing words around, praying to some kindly old gentleman “up there”, possibly one who sits on a golden throne with a baby sheep under one arm and a thunderbolt under the other.  Our prayer is often of the “gimme, gimme, gimme” genre, reflecting a vision of God as sitting “up there” with a huge duffel bag full of goodies to toss our way.  But an essential dimension of prayer is to clear our minds, to rein them in, to focus—that is, to meditate.  Meditative prayer can help us find our center and from that center we can make better decisions about our day to day life.   We could even, then, say “The Spirit of God leads us in making better decisions.”

Our words speak volumes about us, including the words we use in prayer.   Our word selection and the nuances of our speech reveals where we are existentially and spiritually.   For example, our word selection in prayer can reveal the perception that He is “afar off”, that He is “out there” and that we are fundamentally estranged from Him.  It is this perception of estrangement that leads to the belief that our tone of voice, our volume, and our ardor will help influence Him in his responses.  We forget that though God is transcendent He is also immanent.  In the words of Jesus, “The kingdom is within.”

prayer

I think it is important to pay attention to how we pray.  Often when we pray we are merely chattering, tossing words around, praying to some kindly old gentleman “up there”, possibly one who sits on a golden throne with a baby sheep under one arm and a thunderbolt under the other.  Our prayer is often of the “gimme, gimme, gimme” genre, reflecting a vision of God as sitting “up there” with a huge duffel bag full of goodies to toss our way.  But an essential dimension of prayer is to clear our minds, to rein them in, to focus—that is, to meditate.  Meditative prayer can help us find our center and from that center we can make better decisions about our day to day life.   We could even, then, say “The Spirit of God leads us in making better decisions.”

Our words speak volumes about us, including the words we use in prayer.   Our word selection and the nuances of our speech reveals where we are existentially and spiritually.   For example, our word selection in prayer can reveal the perception that He is “afar off”, that He is “out there” and that we are fundamentally estranged from Him.  It is this perception of estrangement that leads to the belief that our tone of voice, our volume, and our ardor will help influence Him in his responses.  We forget that though God is transcendent he is also immanent.  In the words of Jesus, “The kingdom is within.”

more re “awful grace”

Now, Emily Dickinson got it “awfully” and apparently several times.  But, from this trauma a lot of beautiful, thoughtful poetry ensued.  Let me illustrate:

 He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers — further heard –
Then nearer — Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain — to bubble Cool –
Deals — One — imperial — Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –

When Winds take Forests in the Paws –
The Universe — is still –

Now most of us do not get it so “awfully.” Neurologically we’re are wired so that at worst we deal with garden variety anxiety and depression. But there are those who get their “naked soul” scalped. In modern times, there is Eckhart Tolle. And, even Byron Katie. And then there is the Apostle Paul in biblical times.

A tale of grace spoken of in an earlier blog about the contemporary poetry and memoirs of Mary Karr. Particularly in Lit, she eloquently and passionately describes her difficult childhood, her abuse, her abuse of alcohol and drugs, and a difficult marriage.  Substance abuse was the arena in which she wrestled with God most intensely, fighting tooth-and-toenail to resist God’s grace.  And prayer was the most difficult phase of this “wrestling” with God.

Now I can’t describe this as an example of someone having “their naked soul scalped”.  But it was not the aforementioned garden-variety neurosis and depression.

meditative prayer

I don’t think most of the prayers in my life have made it past my halo.  Most of my prayers have been mere chatter or desperate petitions for God to undo some bit of foolishness that I had trotted out.  And I’m not for sure what prayer is about, even now; but I know it is helpful, if for nothing else than a meditative effect.  “Chatter” prayer is simple, you merely trot out the usual verbiage, the usual “well worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.”  (Conrad Aiken).  But meditative prayer is a challenge for me.  It is so hard to quieten the mind, to follow the biblical admonishment, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Shakespeare grasped the importance of the meditative dimension of prayer.  In Hamlet, King Claudius kneels in prayer and laments:

My words fly up; my thoughts remain below.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

 

 

 

Mary Karr and prayer

Mary Karr has written three best selling memoirs—-Cherry, The Liars Club, Lit.  She has also written several books of poetry.  Her writings chronicle a very difficult life in a small East Texas town in the 1960’s.  Her parents were conflicted….to say the least…and she soon turned to drugs and alcohol.  Her last memoir, Lit, summarizes again her upbringing as well as her marital woes, difficulties in raising her son, and her continued descent into alcohol and drugs.  Her writing was the only thing that kept her going.  She finally “bottomed out”, as they say, and ended up in a rehab and in a 12-step group.  Recovery was very difficult for her and one of the most difficult parts of it was learning to pray.  Her sponsor told her prayer was a necessary part of the process but, having been raised in a very irreligious, even atheistic, home prayer was difficult.  As she began to pray, she prayed angrily and disrespectfully to God.  But she was honest.  She learned that she had to kneel to pray.  That too was hard.  But slowly she relented and began to pray fervently and today prayer is an essential part of her life.  She became a Catholic  One thing she learned to do, upon instruction, was to “pray the alphabet.”  This meant going down the alphabet and finding some to correspond with each letter to give things to God for.

I now “pray the alphabet” myself.  This has a meditative dimension for me, helping me to focus and helping me to meditate.  Another thing that has helped me immensely is to realize that there is not a corporally-existing deity “out there” who is listening avidly to my prayer, waiting to heed to be beck and call.  I don’t know where the prayers go but I do believe they make a difference.  I just don’t know how and I don’t need to know.  I know that spiritual leaders over the centuries have advocated prayer.  If people like Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart….not to mention the “upper echelon” of teachers such as Jesus…then it is important to pray.  One important dimension is that it offers good energy to others and to our world.  (See Peter Begsa re quantum physics and prayer.)  And, also check out this link for an interview of Mary Karr and her struggles with prayer, the church, and spirituality as a whole:   http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/175809 .