I want us to talk this morning about the spiritual practice of prayer. I want us to think about what it might mean to us to pray. And I want to invite us to pray together.
When it comes to spiritual practice, prayer and meditation are the two big ones, two sides of the same coin, in some respects, but very different theologically. I want to suggest that both are necessary for spiritual health. Meditation invites us to seek and experience the oneness of the universe, our deep interconnectedness. In meditation, we hope to melt away our awareness of the self in recognition of a greater wholeness. Meditation is the practice of our seventh principle: affirmation of the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.
Prayer, I would argue, invites us to remember the Self, to remember that even within the interdependent web, each of us is separate and unique. Each of us has a still, small voice within. Each of us has unique gifts to share. To pray is to acknowledge that there is an “I” that is both separate AND part of the collective “we.” To pray is to acknowledge that the Self has yearnings, has needs, has joys and sorrows, and that all these are okay things to have, and they are necessary things to express.
There’s no reason that Unitarian Universalists can’t or wouldn’t pray, but my sense is that more of us meditate than pray regularly. We offer two meditation groups here at Chalice: the women’s meditation and Buddhist study group meets here on Wednesday mornings at 10 a.m., and the Zen meditation class meets here Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. We also offer Tiajii and yoga classes here on Tuesday evenings, both of which can be understood as types of meditation or as meditative practices. These are wonderful groups and classes; I know many of you attend regularly and reap the benefits of a regular spiritual practice. And I am grateful for those of you who lead these groups.
But my point is: we have multiple opportunities for meditation and meditative practice together, but we have no prayer circle at Chalice. We don’t even have a time we CALL prayer as part of our regular worship service. And we don’t have something we call a benediction at the end of the service, a final blessing to send us on our way.
I haven’t been here long enough to say definitively why we don’t have these things. It may be that nobody was interested in prayer before now. But I HAVE been here long enough now to know that some of you DO pray, and many of you are at least interested in considering what prayer might have to offer as a spiritual practice.
I think the central question for us as Unitarian Universalists is: if we are to pray, who or what are we praying TO? The idea of prayer often brings with it the image of kneeling, hands clasped together, eyes lowered, an embodiment of humble supplication. This image of prayer suggests PETITIONARY prayer, the act of ASKING, pleading, wishing for divine intervention. This is prayer to God as that old man in the sky, a God who controls and intervenes. Or God as Santa Claus, ready to reward us if we have been good enough.
But there is so much more to prayer than this one notion of it. Certainly we CAN pray in petition, asking for what we need because we DO have needs, and it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
But we can also pray in adoration, an expression of our joy at the beauty in the world around us. “Breath of all life, hear my song of praise for the beloved earth beneath our feet, the precious air that fills our lungs, the shining sun against our skin, and the morning dew that nourishes the flowers and trees.”
We can pray our contrition, our regret, our sorrow that our actions sometimes fall short of our ideals. “Spirit of love, I’m sorry my greed has blinded me to the needs of others.”
And we can pray our gratitude for life’s myriad gifts and blessings. “Mother of all, father of all, thank you for this gift of community, this nourishment of spirit.”
To whom do we pray? Does it even matter? Prayer is an ancient practice, pre-dating any specific religious tradition. The simplest prayer, after all, is the words “help me.” In our times of deepest despair, how many of us have cried from the depths of our grief, cried out to we know not what, pleading “help me. Help me get through this.” What our rational minds might reject in the clear light of day, our aching and secret souls yearn for.
Likewise, the clasping of hands, the placing of palms, the opening of hands, all of these are ancient gestures, not particular to any specific religious tradition, and none of them necessary to pray unless they happen to be necessary to YOU.
To whom do we pray? Does it even matter? Perhaps we are simply speaking to ourselves, naming our own hopes and fears, calling forth our own inner strength to act in response. Perhaps we are acknowledging our interdependence, calling out to the interconnected web to hold us closer or more gently. Perhaps we are invoking forces of co-creation that swirl around us, providing direction to what had previously been chaos.
To whom do we pray? Does it even matter? Whatever our individual theologies, prayer is the act of communication between the Self and whatever it is that that Self holds sacred. Even when we pray together, I would suggest that prayer is an expression of the Self, the individual heart joining with other hearts, lifted up, reaching out, or even turning in.
Now, you may not realize it, but we do pray together here at Chalice, in my observation, and we do so in a several different ways. At the end of most of our worship services we pray together in song, a prayer of petition: “Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free. Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.”
Already today we sang together our gratitude: O we give thanks for this precious day. Our hymns are often prayers.
We also share joys and sorrows, most often verbally. We don’t do so in the form of prayer, but the naming and sharing of what is central to our lives is a prayerful practice. It’s a way that we NAME for ourselves and SHARE with each other those events that are central, asking for support and care. Asking to be raised up by one another, like our song this morning. If prayer is the act of communication between the Self and what the Self holds sacred, then surely Joys and Sorrows—in which individuals communicate with the sacredness of our community—then surely Joys and Sorrows is a type of prayer.
And those of you who pay attention to the subtleties of worship have noticed that I usually end my sermons with a few words of blessing, my prayer for what I hope will come from our reflecting on these topics together, followed by the closing words, “May it be so. Blessed be and amen.” I’m told that some of you LIKE that closing very much. And I’ve been asked if it’s okay to respond to those words, by repeating “blessed be” or “amen.” So I wanted to let you know that it IS okay to do that, if my blessing words speak to you in a way that you want to affirm and share that my prayer is your prayer too. Words like “amen” and “blessed be” at the end of a prayer all have the same meaning, which is like, YES! Or ME TOO! Or RIGHT ON!
Of course, as with everything we do here, you don’t need to participate in any way that doesn’t speak to you, so if repeating “amen” or “blessed be” isn’t meaningful or comfortable for you, then of course you won’t.
Yes, our prayers may be spoken, sung, chanted, danced, painted, drawn, collaged, drummed, rung, screamed. Our prayers may be offered in silence or aloud, in community or in isolation, in prepared form or in spontaneous declaration. There are as many ways to pray as there are prayers to be offered.
Poet Joy Harjo writes, “To pray you open your whole self / To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon / To one whole voice that is you.” I believe our whole selves CRY to be opened. Our own inner voices clamor to be heard, our whole selves yearn for expression. So much more than what we allow day in and day out, our little conversations about where to eat and did the laundry get done and who’s going to gas the car. “To pray you open your whole self.”
It’s terrifying. It takes courage to pray. It takes courage to open our whole selves to our one whole voice. What might we say?
We have such a hard time listening. We have such a hard time listening to others. I wonder if we don’t have a hard time listening to ourselves too. I wonder if we aren’t afraid of what our whole selves may demand of us, if given a voice.
Prayer is the act of communication between us and whatever it is that we hold sacred. As an act of communication, it runs both ways. Once we’ve released what’s on our minds, given expression to our one whole voice, THEN we can listen. THEN we can hear. THEN we can receive. With our whole selves opened, what might we hear?