You cannot pray with words.
It is an obscenity, a scandal and an outrage to associate words with prayer.
You have ceased to pray
When you translate prayer into words—
And make a mockery of the entire experience.
Prayer IS experience!
Prayer is the experience of life!
The experience of being alive!
We hear, “Pray without ceasing,”
And we think, “How do we do that?
We have to do our taxes,
Pay the bills,
Get the cat to the Vet.
We have a life to live!
We have to fit prayer in when we can.”
But. If we heard, “Live without ceasing!”
We would have no problem with that.
“That’s the idea,” we would say.
“No one wants to cease living!”
Prayer is life lived the right way.
When we live well, we pray without ceasing.
Prayer is what we feel, not what we say.
Prayer is beyond words, a felt communion with experience, with life.
Prayer is integrity, a way of being, a way of being in the world—
A way of being at one with the world—
Of recognizing our oneness with the world,
Of recognizing our helplessness, vulnerability, gratitude, thanksgiving, dependence, pathos, sadness, joy, etc.
On a feeling level,
With no words involved.
Prayer is knowing,
More than thinking or talking.
Prayer is an attitude—
A good faith connection with all living things—
A frame of mind.
Prayer is the spirit with which we go about our life.
Prayer is the word for being right with our life.
Prayer is the word for the direct experience of being alive.
We pray with “Sighs too deep for words.”
When we try to put it into words,
We break the spell,
And can’t get it back
With an entire dictionary at hand.
Prayer is what we feel,
Not what we think.
Our experience has to be made conscious
For there to be more to us
Than the spiders and flying squirrels,
And all the animal world.
We are here to be lights in the darkness of being,
said Carl Jung and Jesus,
To make the unconscious conscious—
To think about what we feel.
We think with words.
We talk about experience,
And think about experience,
And reflect on experience
And create new realizations.
This is called experiencing our experience,
And it’s the greatest thing the world has ever known.
It’s the way of deepening, expanding, enlarging our experience
To take more than just 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,
And that leads to something else,
And creation takes off at warp speed,
And the world is transformed overnight every night, or so.
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 it is.
Prayer is experience, not words about experience—
And prayer is words about experience
Expanding, deepening, enlarging experience
By reflecting on experience
And transforming experience by way of new realizations.
And so, the eternal validity of the prayer,
“Lord, teach us to pray.”
Amen! May it be so!
We rob prayer of its vitality and its capacity to heal, 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 art, our genius—forth 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 or, individuation, to use Carl Jung’s term, is the work of articulation—of prayer—of 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 we perceive to be 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: “Let there be!” Prayer is as truthful as it gets.
Prayer is a form of hermeneutics, which is concerned with seeing and saying the truth. Hermes was the messenger of the Gods in the Greek Pantheon, the master of eloquence, interpretation, translation, explanation, right seeing and saying. It is from the word “Hermes” that we get “hermeneutics,” interpreting and making plain the truth. 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, in no time at all.
We do not think of truth as something that is changeable. We want “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”—and the implication is that it will always and forever be just what it is. We consider Absolute Truth to be, like God, “Eternal, Unchangeable, Immutable.” However, this is not the case with either truth or God. Neither is static, but dynamic, changing, shape-shifting, evolving, emerging, unfolding, becoming. We have to be as quick as truth is—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. “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 no longer the way to think! The new wine is fermenting! 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.
Jesus says the second greatest commandment is, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In the Sermon on the Mount, he 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?” (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 stark 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 that which 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—and the work of prayer. We are dealing with quicksilver here, as slippery a substance as there is on the entire Periotic 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 are to 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, constancy and one-way-only-ness (the right way, of course), we only show that we don’t have a clue.
Prayer is truth. Truth is contrary, contradictory. Prayer is the struggle to say what is and what 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 is 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.
We feel better when we pray truthfully—putting it all on the table, getting it all out, saying how it is and how it also is with us—in exactly the same way that we feel better talking to a therapist. Prayer “works” to calm the spirit, soothe the soul, focus us, ground us, settle us on how things are, and what we need to do about it. 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 court rooms, 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—communion that is not thought so much as experienced, felt. We pray like we are compassionate. 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, in response to the time and place of our living. 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 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? Before we decide that there is really nowhere to turn, and we will have to take what comes or die? It’s easy to talk ourselves out of praying, because, on a strictly logical, intellectual level, prayer makes no sense. It’s like talking to an invisible friend. But, before the Rational Sentinels catch us in the act and shame us for it, we pray—easily, spontaneously, universally.
There are at least seven spontaneous, automatic, instinctive “prayers of the heart” which we find ourselves praying without meaning to or thinking about it. “Help!” “Thank-you!” “I’m sorry!” “Wow!” “I love you!” “Be with me/us!” and “AARRRUUUGGHH!” are all uttered, or thought, by everyone of us at different points in our lives to no one in particular. “I love you” is especially interesting. It’s been an unconscious, as in not-deliberate, mantra of mine for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what I mean by it. I don’t know if I’m saying it to myself, if some aspect of myself is saying it to me, or if “we” are uttering it in the direction of the Mystery of God, or if that is the phrase we all need to hear, particularly if we didn’t hear it enough in a way that “rang true” in our early years. Beats me, but it is there, un-beckoned.
All the others also are spontaneous responses to the experience of life, and function as prayers of intercession, petition, thanksgiving, confession, praise and angst. It is not a question of using them to readjust external, physical, apparent reality, or of contemptuously discarding them when they fail to work in that way. Prayer is not a weapon we wield in subduing the earth, or controlling any aspect of life on the earth. Prayer is comfort for the soul, and an expression of the soul.
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 box of chocolate. 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 is to be seen and what needs to be done, squares us with how things are, and helps us make what can be made of things in 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.
Or do they? I only speak out of my limited experience. Test the hypothesis yourself. Do you prefer the company of people who pray, or the company of people who will not allow themselves to pray, and regard with disdain those who do? My unstudied inclination is to say that prayer is the elixir of the soul, and keeps the soul pliable, alert, awake, aware, and ready for life and all that comes with being alive, fully, wholly, completely, delightfully alive.
Call this the Dollar Prayer Hypothesis and put it to the test. Think of the people who are the best people you know, whom you enjoy being around, who are truly good places to be—who enjoy life, and living, and being alive, and who bring life, and love to life, through their way with life. And ask these people how they understand prayer, how often they pray, what form their prayers take, what they do that could be construed as prayer (if they don’t pray formally), and when, and why, and where, and for how long at a time, do they pray. Push them for answers to all of your questions about prayer. See what they say. I think the best people pray. See if this is borne out in your interviews.
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, heartless, soul-less stone instead of a human being.
The human thing is to pray. It is to say who we are and how it is with us, to open ourselves to the full experience of being alive, to say, from the depths, “Help!” “Thank you!” “I’m sorry!” “Wow!” “I love you!” “Be with me/us in this experience called life!” “AARRRUUUGGHH!” We say these things without thinking, without meaning to, without noticing what we are doing. We pray without a particular theology of 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 must be done.