Feb 272011
 

The Apostle Paul admonished his followers to “pray without ceasing,” which might seem like an impossible goal.  If we take the admonition literally, and also think of prayer in the most common sense of bowing our heads, closing our eyes and speaking to God, then it would be practically impossible.  On the other hand, we don’t have to take Paul literally, but we can understand him to be strongly encouraging us to pray as often as we might. That shift opens the door for attitudes about prayer that aren’t trapped by all-or-nothing thinking.  It is also not necessary for us to be limited by one method of prayer. Christianity actually offers a wide variety of methods we can adopt to enrich our prayer lives, but it isn’t the purpose of this essay to examine or even list all the different ways we can pray.  So it is that this post offers some ideas on how we can more frequently attend to our relationship with the Divine in the course of a typical day for most Westerners, and thereby more fully enter into the heart of God.

If there is more than one way to pray, then perhaps we ought to begin by considering the very nature of prayer.  In The Essentials of Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill says:

[prayer is] that part of our active and conscious life which is deliberately oriented towards, and exclusively responds to, spiritual reality. The being of God, who is that spiritual reality, we believe to be immanent in all things.

In other words, prayer is intentionally giving attention to our relationship with the Divine, here and now.

The Love Affair with God

While we cannot limit the Divine to being a single person in the human sense, it remains that the expression of personal affection and devotion is one of the most powerful ways we can relate to God.  In Vedic terminology this path is called “bhakti yoga” (literally “devotion/participation” + “uniting”).  This experience was clearly part of the life of Jesus, who repeatedly declares his oneness with God, which he addresses as “Abba”, the Hebrew equivalent of “Papa”.

One of the most touching and memorable ways humans share their love with each other is through words and actions that express our feelings of fondness, attraction, admiration and even passion.  We may even acknowledge a sense of attachment and interdependence, such that we cannot fully conceive of ourselves without referring in some way to the beloved.  While the great mystic sages are united in claiming that blind attachment to a human personality is misplaced, interpersonal devotion is nonetheless well founded if we acknowledge that the Spirit of the Living God is shining through each person’s life in a limited and yet wonderfully unique way.  As mystics on the Way of the Heart, we owe it to God, our fellow human beings, and to ourselves to express our love for God as directly as possible within our souls and through our love for other people.  Any attempt to engage that love affair consciously and intentionally is prayer, and the following methods are based upon awareness of that truth.

Ritualized Prayer

When we love others, we often make it a point to share certain times of our lives with them.  We share meals with them, make phone calls or send emails, and we meet with them on holidays and other routine events.  In effect, we demonstrate our commitment to them, and so communicate our love, by establishing and maintaining rituals of interconnection. We likewise ritualize our connections with God in many ways, such as going to church or meditating routinely, or learning and practicing specific prayers at various times.

Building upon this dynamic, one of the most common ways to more fully incorporate prayer into one’s life is through ritually reading or recalling prayers at specific times of the day and night, such as upon rising, at meals and before sleep.  Further steps can be taken by saying those prayers at the turn of specific hours, or setting a minimum number of repetitions to be completed each day.  Praying the Rosary is one of the most widely practiced methods of Christian ritualized prayer, as is the children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge in ritualized prayer is not allowing the practice to become relatively spiritless, with some mechanical part of the mind simply replaying the words while the majority of one’s consciousness is occupied with anything but attention to the Divine.  Still there is hope that even in those cases the prayer is stimulating the soul in some beneficial way at an unconscious level.  Another challenge is that we may be in a setting where performing ritualized prayer aloud would be uncomfortable.  In these cases there is nothing wrong with performing them entirely within the imagination, making no external sounds or movements to betray the inner work.

There are many traditional prayers suitable for these practices. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm are familiar to most Christians.  Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer are also traditional favorites among Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

“Hail Mary” (Roman Catholic version)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. (“sinners” is omitted by some people)

“The Jesus Prayer” (according to the rule of St. John Chrysostom)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.

A number of doxologies, or short traditional hymns of praise, are also suitable. Here are two common examples:

“Gloria Patri” (an English version)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

“Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow”

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow; praise Him, all creatures here below; praise Him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Of course, many beautiful prayers have been composed by or attributed to Christian saints, and have become standards throughout the Christian community. Consider this one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

For the purposes of performing ritualized prayer from memory, it is perfectly acceptable to choose shorter excerpts or fragments of prayers. Here is an excerpt from a prayer by Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin:

May Thy life, which is one everywhere, transform my whole being in the unity of Thine image, my heart in the unity of Thy love, my activity in the unity of the works of justice, and my thought in the unity of all lights.  Amen.

Internal Chant

Just as we frequently stir the memory of a beloved in our hearts and minds, we can redirect our awareness to the Divine through frequent, silent repetition of a few words, phrases or a short sentence that naturally evokes spiritual thoughts or opens the heart to God’s presence.  This practice is a sacrifice of some portion of one’s moment-to-moment consciousness, allowing internal space to be devoted to purposes more meaningful than the petty obsessions that too often waste our time and energy.  At first, it may be necessary to frequently remind oneself to return to the chant whenever the mind is not occupied by something of immediate importance.  In time the practice can become more like a constantly flowing stream that one joyfully hears again whenever other sounds have quieted.  Some people practice the Jesus Prayer this way, and you could also employ one of these options, among many others:

Be still and know that I am God.

Thou art with me.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Love God and thy neighbor as thyself.

As you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me.

I and my Father are one.

Please note that for this form of chanting we have not included any sacred names or words, such as Adonai, Elohim, Emmanuel, Yeshua Xristos, or Maranatha.  The chanting of sacred words, either silently or aloud, is recommended for times dedicated specifically to that purpose, and is often done in conjunction with other rituals and meditations. These matters are important and deserve further attention, but are tangential to our consideration of prayer in the typical course of daily life.

Love Notes & Other Keepsakes

One of the most pleasant ways we express our thoughts and feelings for loved ones is through sharing written words, pictures and other mementos with each other.  Heartfelt letters, poetry, songs, and even greeting cards are tangible manifestations, actual documents, of love.  We can relate to the Divine in the same way, and that is precisely what has led so many people to write their own prayers, or compose spiritual music and poetry.  Many great paintings and sculptures have also been expressions of prayerful states of mind. Other people find it meaningful to keep a journal or diary in which they write entries addressed to God, just as they would write letters to a most trusted friend.

When we receive artistic gifts from others, or make them for ourselves, it is very common to set them out where they can easily be seen and revisited, or to preserve them in collections of keepsakes through which we occasionally reminisce.  People typically frame the most cherished pictures or writings, making them perpetually available.  Many of us also do these things with the spiritual writings and icons we find most inspiring.  Every time we lay our eyes on such artifacts, they provide an opportunity to remember our relationship with the Divine, and to attend to it in that very moment.  Sometimes, and often just when we most need it, these items catch the eye not so much as reminders to attend to God, but rather strike us as personal messages from the Divine, reawakening our hearts and minds to the immediate presence of infinite wisdom and love.

Laborare Est Orare

“To work is to pray.”  This motto summarizes the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide to Christian monks of many orders that places honest work on an equal footing with religious study and formal prayer.  This value is present in the teachings of many spiritual traditions, and so we do well to incorporate it into our own lives.  As noted in the previous section, spiritual works of art often come from a reverent or inspired state of mind, and this can be true for almost any kind of benevolent human activity.  While it may be difficult for some of us to see our occupations in terms of relating to the Divine, it helps to remember that each person we interact with is a child of God, a manifestation of the Logos and a vessel of the Holy Spirit, and that even the most isolated work may touch the lives of others in some way. So we can at least be prayerful in how we work, knowing that to work in the spirit of love for our fellow human beings is to serve God (Colossians 3:23)

Silence

Have you ever noticed the touching sense of peace and comfort communicated by lifelong partners or old friends as they quietly go about their business with awareness of each other?  We can relate with God in much the same way.

Conclusion: Deus Caritas Est

This Latin phrase translates to “God is love”, a timeless axiom reminding us that we can have no truer concept of God than all-knowing, all-powerful, limitless and perfect Love. With this view in mind, we recall that in the Acts of the Apostles it is said, “we live and move and have our being” in God. That statement brings us back full-circle to the initial reference from Underhill, which voices the mystical realization of God’s presence.  When these ideas connect, we cannot avoid considering all of existence as an expression of Divine Love, no matter how distorted or corrupted many of its particulars might seem to us.  Of course, the challenge is to be mindful of this reality, to wake up to it and see it as clearly and directly as possible.  This wisdom is beautifully composed in 1st Corinthians 13:8-13:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We are always and everywhere interacting with God, being loved by God, and we are prayerful to the extent that we are mindful of this truth.  All the methods of prayer we have been considering are meant to nurture such mindfulness, and each has its own value. But there is no substitute for the simple moment-to-moment remembrance and appreciation that the Divine is always right here, right now, both within us and without us, and this presence is Love.  Even in moments of the worst struggle and suffering, even in the hearts of people whose words and actions inflict pain, anger and despair, even when reason and understanding fail, and even in our own souls when we betray those closest to us and betray ourselves, Divine Love calls out and patiently waits to be rediscovered, embraced and shared, and this is a deep secret of acceptance and forgiveness.  To be loving is to midwife the Divine in giving birth to Itself, and there is no greater form of prayer than this.

Agape