Reading: From Emerson’s Essay “Self-Reliance“
Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view… As soon as (we feel) at one with God, we will not beg. We will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature.
One of the jokes we tell about ourselves is that Unitarians pray ‘to whom it may concern.’
The cartoon showing a Unitarian praying has her say, “Dear God: if you are there, and if you care, and if you are listening…”
Prayer is one of those ticklish words. It needs to be handled tactfully–to talk about it without offending, or appearing to deprive someone of something that’s meaningful to them.
A prayer is usually thought of as addressing God, or a god, or some other object of worship.
Traditional prayer comes in specially worded form, like the Lord’s Prayer, which addresses God the Father; or the Hail Mary–the Ave Maria–which is a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary, the mother of God.
The etymology of the English word prayer is from Latin precârius, ‘obtained by entreaty, from precârì, to entreat.’
Our word precarious shares the same root, of course. One of definitions of precarious is ‘to be dependent on the will or favor of another.’
It’s interesting: precarious — ‘lacking in security or stability; subject to chance or unknown conditions.’
That’s one of the times when prayer is helpful.
People ask, “Do Unitarians Pray?”
Jamie, our Director of Religious Education, showed me some pages from our Unitarian Universalist curriculum materials that give children a way to respond when someone asks them questions like: what do you say when someone says: do you pray, or what about Jesus, what do UU’s believe about God, or heaven and hell, and so forth.
The responses come from the mouths of children as cartoon style characters. About prayer they say, “We all have our own ideas about prayer. Most UU’s would not pray for special favors from God…but would hope to feel in touch with the power of goodness in the universe. Some of us say the kind of prayer that helps us look inside ourselves…we can live a better life.”
Since we Unitarian Universalists do not have a prescribed form or order of service, and since each of us is free to have our own thoughts, ideas and beliefs, we create a service of worship which suits us. It varies, of course.
Here at the Unitarian Church in Westport, we generally include our affirmation, which is the one thing I brought here seventeen years ago, believing that it’s good to have something we can affirm and say together when we gather.
At our Sunday service we generally include an invitation to candle lighting, which often includes requests to keep someone in mind – someone going through a difficult time.
And, generally, one of the ministers offers an invitation to meditation, reflection and prayer.
In the spoken meditations or prayers which I offer, I choose not to address the deity by name. I want the prayer to be inclusive. If I prayed, “Dear God,” I know it would exclude people who do not believe in a God who is listening and who needs to be convinced to alter the universe for our needs. If I say “Lord,” some say it is gender specific- ‘a lord is a man of high rank in feudal society.’
I include the word prayer in the invitation to meditation and reflection because I know that for some people it is important to think in terms of prayer, and not simply reflection or meditation.
Language is important. It can divide, and it can do so just at a time when we hope to be inclusive.
The word meditation looks like the Buddha.
The word reflection looks like a man ‘stopping by woods on a snowy evening,’ then moves on because he has ‘promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.’
What does prayer look like? For some, prayer looks like a picture of hands folded, or a stained glass window.
As a child I liked to talk with my Catholic friends about their experience in confession. I found it interesting that they were punished with prayers: “The priest told me to say ten Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.” Our penal system was initiated by Quakers who called a prison a penitentiary–a place to contemplate one’s life. The penitent is remorseful or sorry for one’s sins and will repent.
One of the winning-est football coaches at Notre Dame was asked if he thought the nuns’ prayers before the game helped his teams to win. “Yes,” he said with a sly grin, ‘and it also helps to have four big line men.'”
Public prayer can be controversial. Prayer in school was ruled to be unconstitutional–a decision with which I agree, with some considerable regret.
Westport clergy are asked to offer public prayer at the monthly RTM meeting. When I arrived in town 17 years ago I participated and would offer a poem, or the piece about the duck ‘riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf,’ which ends, “I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.”
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic. Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him. I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.
The religion of a duck is about as generic as you can get.
Several years ago I decided to refuse to offer any form of so-called prayer at the Representative Town Meeting, for a few reasons, the most important of which is that there were members of the RTM who refused to come in to the meeting until the prayer was over. They pricked my conscience and I realized that I did not want to impose any kind of religion on anyone.
I also found it rather vacuous. I would have to arrange my schedule to be at their meeting at 8 p.m. and then I’d leave either immediately following or I’d slink out soon after the meeting started, wishing I was invisible.
Also, I agree with those who recently were offended by a prayer offered by a clergyperson who prayed in the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To say that this kind of prayer at RTM is insensitive puts it mildly. It is downright offensive, and contributes to a general feeling of animosity about religion.
Paradoxically, this prayer put energy behind the silent effort to stop having clergy pray at the RTM.
Prayer is and always should be a private matter. It should never be imposed.
Someone said: “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people, and people change things.”
What do we change? What can we change?
We can’t, for example, change the past, but we certainly can change the way we think about the past. We can blame parents, we can blame teachers, we can blame a former spouse, we can blame the boss or the profit motive…and we can get bogged down in blame. Prayer is a means of changing the way we think about the past.
We can change the way we think about ourselves. After feeling bogged down in guilt, blaming ourselves, we can put things in perspective, especially in terms of how we want to be in the future.
Prayer can help change the way we deal with feelings of guilt, inadequacy…and fear.
The prayer of a soldier in a fox hole–the famous atheist who in a time of need turns to prayer for help–is a good example. We pray for strength.
The prayer of a man about to undergo heart surgery…or the prayer of the physician…is a good example.
When I was in seminary, fighting prayer, wrestling with the question, ‘To whom do we pray?’ I did CPE (Clinical Pastoral Training) at Mass General Hospital. After a couple of sessions of classroom training they let us loose on the floors to visit unsuspecting patients–unsuspecting, in part, because we were so green, or wet behind the proverbial ears. On that first day I got a request to go to the room of someone who needed to see a chaplain, and when I walked into the room I was greeted as pastor, as in “We’ve been waiting for you to come, pastor.” And the gentleman explained in his southern accent that his wife was about to go in for open heart surgery, which in 1971 was frightening. He explained that they needed the ‘help of the Lord,’ and wanted me to pray that way.
I told them that I knew just the pastor for them, and went nervously to the chaplain’s office and explained the situation. The chaplain in charge left a note for a young man who was a southern Baptist.
There, on that bulletin board for everyone in the class to see–including me, of course, was a note that said, “Jones, please go to room 511 to offer prayer. Hall is a Unitarian -he can’t pray.”
When I read that note I was not only embarrassed, but shocked. I don’t remember talking about it in our class sessions, which I must have done. But it got to me. It hit me. It was humbling and informative.
It has stayed with me. It was certainly with me the day I went to the Episcopalian’s room and was asked to pray, which I did, and as a result of the prayer and the conversations that followed I developed a close, caring relationship with this man who was recovering from open heart surgery.
He appreciated being alive. One day he asked me to bring communion to him and I drew the line there and explained why and told him that I’d have the Episcopal on our staff bring it. He said, “No, I want you to bring it.” So I went to the chaplain’s office and got instructions. It turned out to be pretty simple- there was a box with the things in it and I brought it to him and served it and I came to appreciate the deeper significance of communion for those who believed.
We live and learn.
I learned from the patients at Mass General, and I’ve learned from the people I’ve served for thirty-plus years in parish ministry.
I like the prayer attributed to Saint Francis:
Make me an instrument of peace; where there is hatred let me bring
love, where there is sorrow, joy.
May I seek to comfort others more than to be comforted;
To understand others more than to be understood;
To love others more than to be loved.
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.
This prayer, in an abbreviated form, is printed in our hymnal. The line about dying to be born to eternal life is omitted, for obvious reasons. But let me simply say that this prayer, as a poem, speaks to me; to die in the sense meant here is not a physical death, but it is to get one’s own ego out of the way in order to touch something deeper than one’s self…to feel part of that which is eternal by losing, for a moment perhaps, the kind of self-consciousness that feels like it has to be in charge…it’s simply an expression of a kind of letting go.
How do we get ourselves out of the way? It’s simple: by loving, comforting, attempting to understand others by listening–more than trying to be comforted, loved or understood, we transcend, for a moment now and then, at least, that which holds us down and locks us in: we are ‘born to eternal life,’ which has nothing to do with length of time–it has everything to do with a quality of time.
Another examples of a prayer that has helped lots of people, especially those dealing with addictions is the famous Serenity Prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I’ll close with one of my favorite prayers, which was offered by Chief Yellow Lark:
O Great Spirit whose voice I hear in the winds, hear me. I come before you one of your many children, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people, the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.