Prayer

I.

Prayer is where we articulate the truth of how it is with us, sometimes with “sighs too deep for words.” We rob prayer of its vitality, and of its capacity to heal and restore our souls, bind up, make well and encourage us for the task at hand when we reduce it to a list of needs and blessings. The spiritual task is to wake up, grow up, square up to the truth of how it is with us, get up and take up the work of bringing ourselves—our gift, our genius, our daemon, our art—forth in doing what needs to be done in the present moment of our living.

We do not pray to get. We pray to be. To be who we need to be, doing what needs to be done the way only we can do it, where, when and how it needs to be done, in each situation as it arises. All our life long.

Prayer puts us in sync with ourselves and our life by articulating what is important and providing us with the emptiness, stillness and silence required to pray in a manner “too deep for words,” in order to know what’s what and what needs to be done about it in each here/now of our life.

We do not pray best with words. We have ceased to pray when we translate prayer into statements. We make a mockery of the entire experience. Prayer IS experience! Is our response to experience! Is the experience of life, living, being alive to the time and place of our living!

II

We hear “pray without ceasing,” and we think, “How in the world would we do that?” We have to do our taxes, pay the bills, get the cat to the vet, water the lawn, change the diapers, do all the things that need to be done in a day! We have a life to live with all the responsibilities that come with it! We have to fit prayer in as we are able!

But. If we hear, “Live without ceasing!” We would think, “Yeah, sure. What do you think I do?” We would have no problem with that. We don’t cease living until we are dead. Except, of course, we do cease living long before we are dead. We go through the motions of life without being alive to what we are doing. We live out our lives without being alive anywhere along the way.

Prayer is life lived as it should be lived—life lived the right way—alive to what is happening and what is called for in response in each moment of every situation, all our life long–in tune with yin and yang (Pronounced “Yong”), the “right order,” doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. Life is prayer when it is lived this way, in alignment with the Tao, with ma’at, with the flow of life and being.

A life well-lived is a life lived in this way and is prayer without ceasing. Is being here, now, to integrate opposites and dance with the contradictions, balance Yin and Yang. Harmonize Mythos (Instinct/intuition/imagination/creativity) and Logos (Reason/Logic/Intellect/Analytics). And do what needs to be done all the way along The Way. To live like this is to pray without ceasing!

III.

Prayer is what we feel and how we respond to that—not what we say. Prayer is beyond words, a felt communion with experience, with life.

Prayer is integrity. Sincerity. Spontaneity.

Prayer is a way of being, a way of being in the world, a way of being at-one with the world, of recognizing and acknowledging our oneness with the world, with all that is in the world, living with “Namaste” to the world!

Prayer is recognizing and acknowledging our helplessness, vulnerability, gratitude, thanksgiving, dependence, pathos, sadness, joy, sorrow… On a feeling level, with no words involved.

Prayer is knowing what we know and responding appropriately to what is called for. Prayer is an attitude, a perspective, a way of being in the world, with the world. Prayer is a frame of mind—a good faith connection with all living things. Prayer is the spirit with which we go about being alive.

We pray with “Sighs too deep for words.” When we try to put that into words, we break the spell, and cannot get it back, with an entire dictionary/thesaurus in hand.

Prayer is what we feel, not what we think, but. Our experience has to be made conscious, for there is more to us than with the spiders and flying squirrels, squid and bison. Our place is to be lights in the darkness of being (In the words of Carl Jung and Jesus of Nazareth), to make the unconscious conscious, to think about what we feel, to live with a foot in two worlds—the unconscious and invisible world and the conscious visible world—and make the connection between worlds–by articulating what we “apprehend that cannot be comprehended” (Abraham Heschel).

We think with words. We talk about experience. We reflect on experience. We interpret experience. We create new realizations and imagine new possibilities and transform the world we experience through experiencing the world we experience.

Experiencing our experience is our gift to the world and it is the greatest gift the world has ever known. Experiencing our experience is the way of deepening, expanding, enlarging our experience to take more than our experience into account. When we think about our experience, we bring contrary experiences to mind, and see how disparate experiences are similar, related, and not so different after all—and how seemingly identical experiences are nothing at all alike.

Thinking about our experience opens up worlds upon worlds of additional experiences, and, like that, we are onto something never thought of, never realized, never known—and that leads to something else, and creation leaps forward, evolving as it goes, and the world is transformed overnight, day-by-day, all because we think about our experience. And this, too, is prayer.

Prayer is where we articulate the truth of how it is with us—the truth of how things are—and where we realize what that means, and what that calls for, and what we are being asked to do in response. As we “pray without ceasing,” we live prayerfully/truthfully, and make all things new by the way we respond to the experience of being alive.

IV.

We rob prayer of its vitality and its capacity to heal, restore, our souls, bind up and make well, and encourage us for the tasks at hand when we reduce prayer to a list of needs and blessings. The work prayer requires of us is to wake up, grow up, square up to the truth of how things are, get up and take up the call to bring forth our gifts, our nature and our virtues, our art, our daemon, our genius in doing what needs to be done in each situation as it arises.

Prayer is at the heart of the work to be awake, aware, and alive. The work of self-realization, of  individuation, to use Carl Jung’s term, which is the work of articulation—of prayer—saying who we are and also are, how it is with us, what is important to us, and what we need in order to do what is ours to do within the context and circumstances of our lives. We pray ourselves into being. The word of creation is a prayerful word, a truthful word. Prayer is as truthful as it gets.

Prayer is a form of hermeneutics, which is concerned with seeing, and saying, the truth, even as it evolves, changes, transforms in relationship with its circumstances and our perception of them.

Hermes was the messenger of the Gods in the Greek Pantheon, the master of eloquence, interpretation, translation, explanation, right-seeing-and-saying/right-saying-and-seeing. It is from the word “Hermes” that we get “hermeneutics,” interpreting and making plain the truth. It is worth noting that the Roman name for Hermes is Mercury, which is also known as Quicksilver, something that shifts, moves, changes quickly, such as the interpretation, understanding of truth—and even, truth itself. Now it’s this, now it’s that. Look quickly if you want to see it. It is on the way to becoming something else, perhaps its opposite–because truth is not a steady state of being, but a reflection of our perception of what’s what and how things are, which is constantly shifting and impossible to pin down, or pen up!

We do not think of truth as something that is changeable. We want “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!” The implication being that truth will always, and forever, be just what it is. We think Absolute Truth, like God, is “Eternal, Unchangeable, Immutable.” However, this is not the case with either truth or God (And so Meister Eckhart could say, “The final leave taking is leaving God for God”).

Truth is not static, but dynamic, changing, shape-shifting, evolving, emerging, unfolding, becoming. We have to be as quick as truth, as God is if we would keep up, and know in this moment what is trying to be known here, now. “You don’t keep new wine in old wineskins,” said Jesus, because new wine is still fermenting, and will burst the old wineskins that have lost their elasticity and cannot expand to incorporate the new ways of understanding the world, life, ourselves.

Truth evolves. The movement of truth is everlasting and everywhere. “It’s a new world, Golda,” said Tevya. We have to be ready to receive well the world that is changing before our eyes. The way we have thought is not the way to think! Wake up! Wake up!

Things are not what we think they are. This is the nature of truth, which is like quicksilver, turning, changing, becoming more than we ever imagined, something other than we would ever guess. The nature of truth is reflected in the polarities that define existence: This is the way things are and this is the way things also are. But which way is it really? we ask. Both ways! At the same time.

The second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus espouses the Golden Rule (which was not original with Jesus by a long stretch): “In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You think that’s clear don’t you? Well, square these two texts with the parable about the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13). Sometimes we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and sometimes we say, “Who made me your caretaker?” (cf. Luke 12:14). Sometimes, we do it this way, and sometimes, we do it that way. And, how do we know when to do what? We take our chances and learn from our mistakes.

The polarities are evident throughout the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes, which themselves are polarities in opposition to the apocalyptic and messianic expectations of Jesus’ day, Jesus says, “Don’t think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets! I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17), then he spends the rest of the Sermon on the Mount setting aside the popular thinking about the Law and the Prophets. “You have heard it said,” he says time and again, “but I say unto you!” (For instance, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ But I say unto you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you to take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.’”)

All of which is to say that the truth is expanded, enlarged, deepened by what is also true, and that we who want things spelled out, and made plain, have to understand the nature of truth, and the task of hermeneutics, interpretation, explanation. We are dealing with quicksilver here, as slippery a substance as there is in the entire Periodic Chart of substances.

Truth will not be nailed down, codified, defined, locked up, walled in, roped, thrown, tied and branded. Truth is this AND that. Sometimes it’s like this, and sometimes it’s like that. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Which way IS it? Both ways at the same time And we live within the polarities, between the opposites, laughing at the very idea of saying how it is really without saying how it also is really. If we strive for consistency and constancy and one-way-only-ness (the RIGHT way, of course), we only show that we don’t have a clue.

But I digress. Prayer is truth. Truth is contrary. Prayer is the struggle to say what is and also is, to live on the boundary between Yin and Yang, in the tension of opposite truths: This is the way things are and the way things also are and that’s the way things are! Prayer is waking up, squaring up to the difference between how it is and how we wish it were, bearing the pain of that contradiction, and bringing forth who we are as a blessing within the context and circumstances of our lives. That’s what prayer will do for you. It doesn’t end there.

We feel better when we pray. Prayer “works” to calm the spirit, soothe the soul. Prayer renews us for the task at hand. It’s therapeutic to pray, to lay it out, to say what’s what, to articulate what is happening, and what we can do about it, and where we need help with it. Just saying, “Help!” helps.

Prayer does not rearrange the universe to our liking. Cemeteries are filled with people for whom prayer did not work. So are mental wards, prisons, nursing homes, and battlefields. We wouldn’t need dentists if prayer worked. Or hospitals. Or carpenters. Or Prozac. It would wreck the economy, if prayer worked. But, we wouldn’t need an economy if prayer worked. The fact that prayer does not rearrange the external world to suit our liking will not stop us from praying. We pray because we cannot help it. We cannot not pray, except, perhaps, by thinking exclusively about not doing it, and that becomes prayer-like in its own, ironic way: “Please don’t let me pray today!”

About those who say they do not pray, I say, they don’t understand prayer as the opening of the spirit, of the self, to that which is beyond us, to more than meets the eye, to that which has been called, among other things, “God.” Prayer is casting ourselves into the Presence, the Mystery, the Wonder of the Sacred Source of Life and Being—that Numinous Reality which primal peoples experienced and referred to as “God.”

We might think of prayer as communion with the Sacred Source of Life and Being. It is not thought so much as experienced, felt. Prayer is an awareness like the experience of compassion. We don’t think, “Okay. I’m going to be compassionate now.” We don’t say, “Let us bow for a moment of compassion.” We are compassionate, spontaneously, automatically, naturally. That is how we pray.

We are built for prayer, for seeking help, companionship, connection, communion with whatever we envision as being beyond us, yet within us, and capable of helping us, by receiving us, accompanying us, connecting with us. Where do we turn when we have nowhere to turn? Before we reason things out? That would be the unmovable spot, “the still point of the turning world” (W.B. Yeats), the axis mundi, the world axis, that grounds each of us, anchors each of us in the truth of our own being. Prayer is the connection with the source of life and being–with who we are–stabilizing us, restoring our balance and harmony, and positioning us to do what needs to be done in each situation as it arises.

Prayer is also a mirror reflecting how it is with us on the spiritual level. Prayer reveals what is important to us. Prayer discloses what we want, what we fear, and the extent to which we consciously “turn to prayer,” or fervently reject it, exposes our understanding of the nature of the universe and the character of God, and indicates our tendency toward hope or despair. Prayer is a litmus test for our spiritual health, a barometer indicating the degree and quality of spirit within. It is a contradiction in terms to consider ourselves spiritual if we do not pray. It’s like a fish claiming to be a fish without swimming. We pray like a fish swims. It is what we do in response to the circumstances of our life.

And, if we don’t do it, if we are ashamed of it, if we view prayer as superstitious and childish and an obvious waste of time because we tried praying once and our parents divorced, or our spouse died, or any one of ten million other things didn’t go our way, and that just proves that prayer doesn’t work, I’m here to remind you that we don’t pray because prayer works. Prayer is not like a child before a candy counter pleading with her parent for a package of peppermint. We don’t pray to get what we want, or to avoid what we don’t want. We pray like a fish swims. It is what we do in response to the circumstances of our life.

Formulating verbal prayers, articulating what is important to us in each moment of life, saying what is true and what is also true in the here and now of existence, makes conscious what needs to be made conscious, enables us to see what needs to be done, squares us with what can, and cannot, be done, and helps us make what can be made of things within the context and circumstances of our lives.

Ah but, this is such a hard sell in the western world. We don’t do anything in the culture of the west that doesn’t pay off. We run a cost/benefit analysis before brushing our teeth. If we cannot calculate the results of a potential endeavor in a way that is obviously profitable in a quantifiable kind of way, we don’t fool with it. We don’t do anything that doesn’t “do any good.” And, it is obvious to us that prayer is one of those things.

For some time now, we have been of the opinion that we are on our own in this world. The Holocaust seems to have been the turning point for a number of us. If that is the best God can do, we reason, then we are just as well off praying to the Void, or not praying at all. We gave up on the idea of a God who can deliver a worthy future for the asking, and began to look to ourselves as the responsible agents of creation. We talked of “the courage to be,” and stepped alone into our future as those who knew that what happened there was up to us.

The posture of the Stoic Existentialist (Or the Rugged Individualist) doing what must be done with a granite face and a grim disposition, is not the posture of prayer. It is not a posture that lends itself to warmth, and good humor, and resiliency, or, even, likeability. People who do not allow themselves the privilege of praying from the heart—regardless of whether it is pointless, useless, and a waste of time—seal themselves off from one of the soul’s true joys, and increasingly become less joyful themselves.

I don’t think we can be alive, in the fullest, truest, sense of the word, without praying. And, the point of prayer is not getting anything done, it is praying! We don’t pray because it works, and is an effective way to alter the world of external, physical, apparent reality. We pray because we must, because we can’t help it, because its as natural as breathing, and because to not pray is to be hyper-vigilant and always on guard in order to keep ourselves from relapsing into the superstitious practices of our ancestors—and to become a cold, calculating, heartless, soul-less stone instead of a vibrant human being.

We pray without theology, or belief in God. Prayer is the environment in which the soul thrives, the air the soul breathes. When we consciously open ourselves to, and participate in, the experience of prayer, we nourish that which nourishes us on a level beyond rational comprehension. We pray because prayer grounds us, encourages us, sustains us, and enables us to face what must be faced and do what needs to be done about it throughout the time left for living.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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