The small-group ministry gatherings have a monthly discussion topic; this month it’s prayer. I was asked to offer my thoughts on the subject.
Since this is Superbowl, I thought of a comment made by Frank Leahy, football coach at Notre Dame from 1941 – 1954. When asked if thought his team’s winning record had anything to do with the nuns praying for them he said, “Absolutely.” Then he added, “It also helps if you have four big linemen!”
We Unitarian Universalists tend to be cautious about prayer. We make fun of ourselves by saying we pray ‘To Whom it May Concern.’
We don’t assume that there’s an ear on the other end of our prayers.
I’m reminded of the atheist mountain climber who slipped off the thousand-foot cliff and was hanging on to a small shrub and screamed for all he was worth for help. The thunder crashed, lightning flashed and a voice came down from heaven and said, “Ah, my unbelieving son; all these years you’ve denied my existence, but your cry has penetrated the earthly boundary and I think you’ve changed your mind.”
The climber said, “Oh, yes, I believe, I believe.” The benevolent voice said, “Let go of the branch and you’ll float back up the mountain onto the path.” He held on for dear life, looked down, then looked up and said, “Is there anybody else up there?”
One of the most well-known stories in the Bible is the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus is said to have taught his disciples to pray—this is the source of the well-known prayer of Jesus, or the Lord’s Prayer–the Our Father, as my Catholic friends call it.
Before Jesus teaches that prayer, the story says, he prefaced it by saying, “Don’t be like the hypocrites who like to stand on the street corner to pray so they can be seen by men—they already have their reward. And don’t be like the hypocrites who like to stand in the synagogue to pray, so they can be seen; they already have their reward. When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret. Your Father who sees in secret already knows what you need before you ask.”
Some Unitarians follow the first part of the instruction by shutting the door to prayer altogether. They’re prevented from praying because they can’t conceive of a Someone who’s listening. We need to give ourselves permission to pray, without worrying about to whom a prayer is addressed.
During a visit to Israel some years ago I was invited to attend a service at an Orthodox Temple in Jerusalem. The women sat together behind a screen so as not to distract the men from prayer; the men wore a tallith, or prayer shawl. At certain times during the service the men pulled the prayer shawl over their heads, making a little tent where they could pray in private.
As I watched, I remembered the words from the Rabbi as quoted in the Sermon on the Mount: “Go into your closet and shut the door.”
The spirit of that suggestion can be followed simply by shutting your eyes and going into the privacy of your own mind, your own thoughts, which is the only place prayer happens.
During our service of worship I offer an invitation to prayer by saying, “I invite you to join with me in the spirit of meditation, prayer and reflection.”
The invitation to prayer doesn’t require an RSVP. But it does acknowledge that I do not presume to tell you to pray; I don’t presume that you should pray, or that you want to pray. So I simply offer an invitation, and I sometimes acknowledge that the prayer is not the words that are spoken – the prayer is the sentiment that is felt…if it is felt.
Those among us who have a problem with prayer can think of the time as meditation or the even less-religiously restrictive notion of reflection—just thinking together as I try to find some words to express things we’ve heard during candle lighting or concerns about world events.
Rather than asking ‘what is a prayer?’ I’d rather ask when does prayer happen for you, if at all? Is the song a mother sings as she holds her infant child a prayer? Is the sense of pride a father feels as he escorts his daughter down the aisle to be married a prayer? Does a flower sometimes excite a prayer in you?
John Ciardi’s poem, White Heron says it perfectly for me:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky—then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
The very idea of prayer and the assumptions one makes is one of the challenges of being a Unitarian Universalist minister.
When I offer a prayer I don’t say, “Let us pray.” I offer an invitation–a request for your presence, an enticement, if you will. If the prayer I offer works, then you will have your own experience, touching your own thoughts, supporting your own concerns of the moment. To entice is ‘to attract by arousing hope.’ It’s rooted in the verb ‘to set afire.’ One of the functions of prayer is to kindle a spark to warm the spirit.
I learned very early on that I often need to remove myself so I don’t get in the way of someone else’s process – and the religious life or the life of the spirit is ‘a process.’
My time in the pulpit is a time for me to be in process, and to assert myself…or insert myself. Otherwise, my task is, for the most part, to listen actively; it doesn’t mean disengagement; indeed, active listening is the most intensely active thing we do—any of us.
I remember my first day on the floor at Massachusetts General Hospital when I was in the CPE program (Clinical Pastoral Education) during my years in seminary at Boston University.
Each of the students was assigned an area in the hospital—folks we would visit to offer pastoral support. We were given a small card with information: the patient’s room number, name, date of birth, date of admission and their religion, if any. (Under the religion category some simply said, “None.” Those were my favorites.)
On the first day I got a special request to come to a certain room. When I got there I met a family from the deep south; the patient was a woman in her early 50’s and her husband welcomed me and thanked me for coming. He explained that they were born-again Christians and his wife was about to have open-heart surgery—this was in 1971, when the operation was new.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Reverend, we need to pray.”
I stumbled on my words and suggested that the Southern Baptist in the Chaplain’s office would be better suited for them and I went to the office we all shared, told the teacher/chaplain, and he put a little note on the bulletin board that said, “Bill: a family requests you to go to room 672 for prayer – Hall is a Unitarian, he doesn’t pray.”
I stood and stared at that little notice and realized that this would not do; I needed to get myself out of the way and be there for anyone who asks me to serve in a ministerial capacity, like prayer. I don’t remember making some kind of conscious decision – but I remember how clear that lesson was.
Before the day was out I visited with a man recovering from open-heart surgery – a man in his early 40’s; he asked me to pray with him. He was an Episcopal; he had the Book of Common Prayer in his room, which I used. We developed a close relationship – in those days open-heart patients were in for several weeks. After a week or two he asked me to serve communion to him; but, again, I hesitated; but I’d learned my lesson. I did ask him if he’d like an Episcopal Priest, and he was very clear: “No, I want you to do it.”
I went to the Chaplain’s office, got instructions and the little box with the necessary elements for his communion, and went to his room and served him…I served communion, but I also served ‘him.’
I’ll share one other incident that provided a powerful and penetrating lesson about prayer for me. I got a card for a young woman, 32 years old, and as was the custom I spoke with one of the nurses before going into the room to see what I might learn about this young woman’s situation. I was told that she was terminally ill and very close to the end. Her religion was listed as Methodist.
The patient was very alert and talkative, which, given what the nurse had told me, was surprising. After several minutes of good conversation, during which she acknowledged her terminal condition, I asked if she wanted a prayer. She did. So I leaned over the bed, held her hand and began to pray, including some expression of the need for the courage to face one’s mortality; and I realized that my eyes were filling with tears, and before I knew it, one of the tears dropped from my face onto hers; up to that moment we both had our eyes closed.
I felt extremely self-conscious and wanted to apologize, having been told that tears from a chaplain are inappropriate. As soon as that tear fell I opened my eyes, and she opened her eyes, and our faces were just inches apart and she said something I’ll never forget: she said ‘thank you.” I knew what she meant; she was thanking me for cutting through the formality; she was thanking me for the compassion; and in that moment I learned something about prayer – that it’s not about the words, it’s about something else; it’s about connecting; it’s about the possibility of removing the barrier that separates us, one from another.
Indeed, the word compassion means ‘to suffer with another,’ or ‘to feel with another.’
It’s about getting yourself out of the way; it’s about connecting; it’s about authenticity – you can’t fake it; you can’t simply say some words and call it a prayer. Those words ring hollow.
That’s why I introduce the pastoral prayer every Sunday by saying, “I invite you to join with me in the spirit of meditation and prayer and reflection.”
You can choose what to call it: meditation has an Eastern ring to it – the Buddhist monks talk about emptying or calming the mind; to think on something; to engage in purposeful contemplation.
Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.’
Worship, in its literal sense, is the intentional process of thinking about, or ‘contemplating,’ what is important in life. The word worship comes from the Old English ‘worth-ship’ weorthscipe : weorth, or ‘worth.’ What do you value? What’s more important; most important?
The problem some Unitarians have with the word is seen in the dictionary definition that says, “Worship: the reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object; the ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.”
The word prayer is rooted in the Latin precari, ‘to entreat’ – a fervent request; to petition God or the gods for a favor.’
During the recent coal mine disaster we watched families and friends of the victims gather in the little church to pray for their survival; then word came that they were all safe and they offered prays of thanksgiving to God for answering their original prayer; then word came that nearly all of them had died and some of them cursed God for failing them.
For some Unitarians, prayer is problematic; it sounds primitive, as if there was a god who could be persuaded to intervene and change things by request, like a disk jockey who plays songs from the listening audience.
Someone said, “Prayer doesn’t change things; but prayer changes people, and people change things.”
A few years ago Ed and I collaborated on a CD we called In Times of Trouble. I recited a variety of prayers and prayerful readings and Ed interspersed the readings with appropriate music. We included selections from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu traditions as well as prayerful poems.
I like the way the 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it. He said, “If the only prayer you know are the two words ‘thank you,’ that’s enough.” A sense of appreciation needs to be reinforced, which is why I’ve encouraged you to memorize the wonderful prayer poem by E. E. Cummings that begins, “i thank You God for most this amazing day.”
This, I think, is what Meister Eckhart meant when he said, “What a man takes in by contemplation, that he pours out in love.” He said, “You may call God love, you may call God goodness. But the best name for God is compassion.”
Another simple prayer appreciated by many in twelve step recovery programs is Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Courage is a big word – it’s rooted in the word for heart.
That’s the essence of prayer – it’s about heart; it’s about feelings; it’s about compassion; it’s about the ability to feel a deep sense of thanks for the people in your life – the people who have loved love into you; the people who cared enough to offer constructive criticism; the people who have called you to your better self; the people who have been able to forgive you and allowed you to offer your forgiveness to them; the people who have helped you to see the mundane facts of life ‘from the highest point of view.’
Poets have been helpful to me, so I’ll close with a poem/prayer from Pablo Neruda – an invitation to meditation, prayer and reflection: Keeping Quiet.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems to be dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.