I open my day with prayer. It may not be the prayer you would pray, but it works for me. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a verse I repeat as I wake: “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment.”
This prayer opens me to the possibility of what might transpire. It is a request to be aware. I do not assume that I do this by myself; I understand that there is a power greater than me, which helps me to live more fully.
What exactly is prayer? Is it a formulaic set of words that must be said exactly as written? For some, the answer to this is ‘yes.’ The words bear witness to our heritage and to the power of form and ritual. The words are meaningful.
Is prayer free-form, a dialogue with the holy? Yes. Is prayer sometimes the act of writing in a journal or in verse? Can prayer be the act of painting, or drawing, or sculpting? Yes. Can prayer be listening to music or composing it? Yes. Service to others also can be a form of prayer; doing good works, repairing the world, can be concrete acts of prayer.
Prayer seems to be when we are taken out of ourselves, when we set our egos aside and move into the mystery, the awesome, the holy, the yet to be explained — when we lose ourselves in the other reality, when we say, “Yes!”
When should we pray? My answer is that we can pray anytime, anywhere. We can pray alone, with a partner, or with a group.
There are those who say the urge to pray is innate, that all humans pray in some form or another. I am not sure about the genetic predisposition, but I do know that most of us pray, and pray for the benefit of prayer. Psychiatrist Rama Coomaraswamy writes that we pray because “prayer is a response to an innate desire to improve ourselves, to better our state in life either materially or spiritually.” In other words, we pray because we get something out of it.
We pray to give thanks and praise. In these prayers we name the critical relationships in our lives, which allow us to see their importance to us. We become aware of our gratitude toward God, toward our friends and family, and toward life in general. It helps us keep a proper perspective; it keeps our ego in check while cementing our interconnectedness.
We pray to seek our better selves. We pray for forgiveness, reconciliation, and reconnection. As we pray we recognize our faults and see ways to overcome those weaknesses. In so praying we become even more aware of who we are and how we can be the best we can be.
We pray for serenity and tranquility. Our lives are filled with cacophony and clutter. Prayer can offer the state of being in silence, focusing on what is beyond our understanding, and allowing us to directly experience the wonder of our connectedness with the mystery. We become aware of who we are within and without the busyness of our lives.
Sometimes our prayers are requests or quests. We ask for help, for guidance, for sustenance, for love, and-or for peace. We pray so that we can be open to that which the mystery can provide. In my way of thinking, we are always answered, but we are not always open to the answer. Our prayers for requests provide an awareness of our dependence upon others. Prayer opens us up to solutions or clarifications that might not have been otherwise available.
Prayer is an experience; it is a form of spiritual practice. This means that if we are to comprehend it, we must do it often. Prayer is an opening of the heart and soul, an enlivening, deepening experience that moves us beyond the conscious mind to the deep places within ourselves. We open ourselves up to both light and dark, joy and sadness, and to our potential.
Prayer has a purpose; we may just not know it at the time. Prayer is beneficial. But to be beneficial, we must believe in the process and be intentional in our prayer life. A level of trust is required. We must go with the flow and allow the process to happen. And when we truly pray, we become aware of that which is greater than ourselves.
Annie Dillard wrote: “The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to ‘World.’ Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.”
Prayer, whatever kind you do, however and whenever you do it, opens your awareness to the mystery, to how we are all connected, and to possibility.
As Annie Dillard says: Pray without ceasing.
The Rev. Becky Gunn is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.