Two weeks ago I invited Friends in my meeting to take a different approach to the news—one in which we came to it with the intention of prayer. I hope that some of them took up that invitation and I want to try to describe my own experience of what changed when I tried this.
Before this experiment, when I would habitually read one news item after another, (I don’t watch newscasts) without the prayer intention, I had a sense of tension building up within me until I just needed to stop reading. I couldn’t add any more to what I had taken in. The energy felt inwardly directed and constricted. At times I would find myself particularly drawn into details of a news item and caught by them as in a trap.
So, I tried coming to the news intentionally prepared and centered. I came with the intention of being open to the elements of suffering in its stories and would then pray wordlessly for healing. I came open to the stories which held feelings of rage at injustice. I would sit with that feeling, being present to those directly impacted, offering a prayer for them, offering a prayer for justice to prevail. I would pray for voters waiting in lines for hours, affirming their stamina and determination, praying for the whole voting process.
I found myself holding political leaders in the Light—those I felt were working for the common good and those who were working against it. Instead of feeling utterly frustrated by the dishonesty, corruption and manipulation on the political scene, I would identify the lack of truth and intentionally hold it up to the Light, praying for truth to be known and honored among us as a people. I also found that I could repeatedly offer up prayers of thanksgiving for people demonstrating integrity and compassion, humor, creativity and kindness. I seemed to notice those stories more than I had been.
Approaching the news in prayer felt less focused on myself and my own reactions and more like I was participating, with love, in the wider world—more connected to “strangers.” It also felt like it helped to deflate what felt like a balloon of anxious and angry judgment that would build within me as I read. My focus in reading articles changed from gathering information to seeking out where healing was needed. The energy involved shifted from one that was inwardly directed to one that was directed outward. I was aware of energy passing through me, rather than building up as tension within.
I was grateful that after the message where I invited us to try this prayer experiment, one Friend asked if we might explore the concept of prayer more because he didn’t think he prayed; the nearest he got to it was probably meditation.
I think most of us grew up with the idea of pre-formulated, traditional prayers, some of which are very beautiful, and which have stayed with us and become our own—prayers which now emerge from our own hearts; their words connect us not just with God but with worshippers across the world and through time. They are a source of comfort and strength.
For some of us, the prayers we learned in church early in our lives did not become our own and in fact felt more like a barrier to real connection with the Divine and with one another.
Prayer is many things and happens in many ways. It can be verbal and specific and it can be totally non-verbal—simply an orienting of our being toward the Spirit, “tuning in to the God frequency,” with GOD being a shorthand for that which is the creative, sustaining, and loving energy which holds and infuses the whole universe and each individual particle within it. It’s so hard to talk about one thing, like prayer, without getting into an entire spiritual cosmology!
While knowing that God is so much more, some of us do experience and find it helpful to speak anthropomorphically to and about God. Jesus talked to God as father. Our experience of God is sometimes powerfully personal and akin to what we know from human interaction. That’s who we are; that’s how we human beings understand things. To me, one of the wonders of the Spirit is the way it joins us wherever we are mentally or emotionally, enters into our condition, speaking to us in ways we recognize and comprehend. Sometimes we need God to be father, mother, or friend, and can find that as we open ourselves “God-ward” we experience God in that way.
Some people feel awkward “talking to” God. For me, it helps to talk to God in words sometimes, especially in times of challenge. I know that part of what is happening is that it helps me to focus on opening myself to something greater, and I have repeatedly experienced that strength and guidance does come through—maybe not right away, or in words, but it does come if I stay open and pay attention.
Sometimes our prayers are specific; prayers for something or someone—for healing, for a job opening, for a change in situation, for knowing how to help someone. They may be prayers for our own needs. Sometimes it feels helpful to name details and sometimes it feels right to simply “hold it in the Light” knowing that divine perspective and love is so much greater than our own.
I don’t understand why so much of contemporary spoken prayer is still expressed in archaic language, as if we needed a different language to talk with God. To me it feels like keeping God at a distance. I find that what matters is that prayer comes from the heart, that it be a genuine yielding and opening to the Divine.
“I don’t know how to bear this!”
“Show me the way”
All those short statements, coming from the heart, and directed to Spirit, are prayers, as are simply the feelings and yearnings associated with them—what makes them prayer rather than just statements or pleas, is that we direct them beyond ourselves and with faith that there that which is attentive to the motions of our hearts and who is responsive to us.
For some of us, it helps to have regular times of intentional prayer—whether we call it prayer, worship, or simply openness to Spirit. And again, such times may include verbal or non-verbal elements. In some ways, making this a practice, is a way of training ourselves to have an orientation toward Spirit at all times. It helps develop an awareness of the spiritual dimension of life. Some of us wish we carried with us that awareness at all times, but I think it’s rare for that to just happen out of the blue without us practicing and taking steps toward it through the habit of opening ourselves to that awareness. Perhaps then there might be what seems like a sudden opening, but on reflection, maybe that sudden opening came after long practice of the Presence.
Sometimes we think of prayer as something completely different from action, that it’s necessarily something quiet and meditative; however the two are inextricably linked. I have never forgotten the teaching that prayer is always a commitment—a commitment to do whatever part we are called to do to bring about the request contained in our prayer. Praying with our feet is an expression I’ve also found useful. What makes it prayer in action is the grounding in Spirit, the guiding and yielding to that guidance for action.
There are so many aspects to prayer! And as we broaden our understanding of it I think of the well-known example of Brother Lawrence—a monk who had the task of washing dishes in his monastery. What he found was that we can be in communion with God whatever activity we are engaged in. Simply doing our ordinary work with love and yielded to the Spirit is just as much prayer as any intentional time set aside to pray. He thought it was a serious mistake to think of prayer time as being different from other times: “Our actions should unite us with God when we are involved in our daily activities, just as our prayers unite us with him in our quiet devotions.” It’s not that some things are spiritual and some aren’t. You are either oriented to God or you are not. Certain action will arise from this divine orientation, but its source is Spirit.
Prayer is a spiritual practice.
It isn’t a technique.
Meditation techniques may help us open to Spirit but they are tools, not Spirit itself. They might help open the way, but they are not the energy of prayer which flows through the opened channel. An image might be of meditation putting the plumbing pipes in place, and prayer as the living water which then flows through them. At the heart of prayer is a faith that there is such living water, that there is God/Spirit/Presence/Mystery—that which is beyond us and yet intimately with us.
Also, prayer is not good wishes. It moves beyond our human good wishes to yielding ourselves into the flow of divine energy and perspective. It acknowledges our limited understanding and abilities but offers them in service to something greater.
If it isn’t already a part of your life I want to urge you to engage more and more in the practice of prayer including praying the news. Practice opening to the Divine in times of intentional prayer, verbal or wordless, and even perhaps try practicing the Presence of God in all activities as Brother Lawrence taught. The word “God” is a stumbling block for some people because of limited ideas of who and what God is. If you are one of those people I invite you to be open to a much broader and deeper understanding. For all of us, there are always more dimensions to understand and possibly to embrace.