Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Let Life Be Your Prayer

I love this song it speaks to me in so many ways and about so many different times in my life...

For most of my life prayer meant nothing to me. I did not see its purpose or point and therefore never engaged with it, well except in those dark deadly moments. Things have changed in recent times and prayer is now something that is a vital part of my life. I pray a lot, perhaps constantly. I see this blog as a prayer if I’m really being honest; I see everything I do as a form of prayer.

The first prayer that I intentionally wrote was at a World AIDS day service I attended a few years back. I was trying to heal some of the wounds left by my dad’s life and death. He was a gay man who I am told had died of an AIDs related illness. Near the end of the service the vicar asked if people would like to write a prayer. I wanted to say something, but didn’t know how to. I just simply wrote a message of love to my dad, I expressed my regret for all that had gone on between us and hoped that he had now found peace. Looking back now that was probably my first sincere prayer and it has had a lasting effect.

So what exactly is prayer? I do not think that there is a simple answer to this. If we explore the different faith traditions there are a variety of examples. Not all prayers are addressed to a diety or deities. Some address God, but still others speak to the earth or the universe and there are others that simply invoke a blessing. Some prayers address a masculine understanding, others a feminine one and still others invoke a purely impersonal image.
It’s funny but this makes me think of a facebook update that I wrote recently. I ended it with the phrase God bless and stay free, it’s something I say a lot. A colleague replied “And Goddess bless too”. I remember feeling ever so slightly irritated by this because when I think of God I don’t think of a person male or female. That said she did make a good point, because when many folk think of God they do put human characteristics to this image and male one’s at that.

Not all prayers are spoken. In the Japanese Shinto tradition prayers and blessings are calliagraphed on paper streamers and tied to the braches of trees and bushes. As the streamers wave in the wind the blessings then fly out over the world. In Tibet prayers are carved into wooden band wheels which are spun like a top sending the prayers up into the sky. Sometimes the wheels are positioned in a stream so that the current of the water spins the wheels and the prayers are then carried off without the need of human assistance.                

One of the five pillars of Islamic practice is to pray facing Mecca five times every day, here it’s not so much the words but the direction of the prayers that matter. During the middle ages monastic orders that took vows of silence considered work done by the hands as a form of prayer – therefore everything that was done in life was considered a prayer to God. This seems very similar to the mindfulness practiced by Zen Buddhist – in which every action is practiced with deep attention. 

And what about singing – something I love. I believe it was Augustine of Hippo who said that singing is praying twice. Now I’m not one to agree with Augustine, all the time, in fact rarely to be honest, but here I do. When I am singing I feel closer to God than in virtually any other activity I engage with. Singing for me is a deeply mindful and yet at the same time liberating activity. “How can I keep from singing?”

I have in recent time begun leading Singing Meditations and I have to say I love them. I feel utterly connected during this simple practise of song chants interspersed with silence. Each session takes on a life of its own depending on the participants. The singing is a prayer which builds with power and deepens the connections between the participants and the divine; the silence is a form of meditation, when the divine speaks to those participating. By the way this practice is fun too, I find it incredibly exhilarating. It touches those parts that are are rarely reached.

Prayer takes many forms and it need not be seen as a purely solemn activity, practised in isolation. Yes we can close ourselves away and pray in isolation, but it’s not essential. Neither do we have to necessarily use words when we are praying, every activity we engage in can be a form of prayer.

But what about the atheist, how and why should they pray and what could they possibly gain from it? As I have already stated prayer in many human religious traditions is not always directed at a deity or deities. It can be seen as a form of concentrated thought or an attempt to connect to that greater reality within our own humanity.

Prayer is that hidden treasure that we don’t often see. In fact we can easily view it as a weakness and denial of our humanity to even engage in the practise, I know I once did. We can easily despise the need for it and yet prayer can enable us to do what we may well have considered humanly impossible. It’s certainly given me the courage to face what at one time I would have considered humanly impossible obstacles.

All of us at one time or another experience moments of crippling fear, or feel the need for personal confession. We are all hit by moments of regret, inadequacy, alienation and loneliness. We all at times become aware that we have hurt others. We also experience moments of awe, wonder and absolute bliss, when the simple beauty of life just overwhelm us. There are other moments when we experience the frustration and utter dejected desperation of life’s tragedies, when we would invoke every single power that the universe has to offer to change the course of some event. Whether these feelings, emotions, these elemental responses are addressed to a personal God or whether they are experienced inwardly in a more meditative sense, the substance and the need is still there. Why else would prayer, in one form or another, have developed in every culture throughout human history?

For a religious life to be full and rich it has to deal with every element of human existence, from joy and celebration, to grief, frustration, anger, bitterness and utter desperation. For the religious life to be authentic surely it must give voice to every aspect of the human experience. The religious life has to involve prayer.

Rheinhold Neibuhr once said “Prayer does not change things; prayer changes people, and people change things...Prayer is not hearing voices, prayer is acquiring a voice.”

Prayer is vital to me because it unlocks my potential and loosens the chains of fear; prayer allows me to fully function in the world; prayer allows me to live in a way I didn’t think possible until I began to fully experience it; prayer enables me to connect beyond the confines of myself to a greater reality; prayer gives me strength and direction and allows me to give myself fully to what I am doing; prayer enables me to see the things in me that need to change. Cold hard logic, simply sitting and thinking does not seem able to do this, nor does conversation and counsel alone. I have discovered that I need to connect beyond the confines of my human experience to truly experience my full humanity. Prayer enables me to know that something in the corner of my life that I cannot quite see.

Life is becoming my prayer. It is opening me up to every encounter in every moment and enabling me to experience the divine in every aspect of my life.

I thank God for discovering the power of prayer...my life is becoming one big prayer...

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