Practice of the Week
Prayer is not about asking for stuff with any expectation that it will magically appear. Prayer does not require believing in a personlike entity or committing to the notion that reality-as-a-whole has knowledge and desires.
It does help to address the prayer to something other than yourself, though it’s fine if you understand this as merely a device to help you hear yourself better – like beginning your journal entries with “Dear Diary.” It’s a good device – helps you really do it, slow down, complete your sentences, present yourself without the shortcuts habitual to our rushing thoughts.
So that's part one: imagine reporting to someone whose judgment you need not cajole, who will never hold against you whatever you say, and whose sympathy is assured. Maybe you’re sure there’s no one there, or maybe you suspect it. That’s fine. Pretend. Role-play. It's good to exercise the imagination. Knowing when to go ahead and play make-believe and burst the bonds of the literal and prosaic -- and when to return to those bonds -- is the better part of wisdom.
So start the prayer, "Dear _____." What you put in the blank is up to you. A few options:
- Ghosts of my ancestors
- Saint Francis
- Ground of being
- Source of healing and wholeness we call by many names
- Breath of life in the world
- Aliveness of reality
Kneeling is good, though by no means necessary. Kneeling tells your body, "we're doing something a little different from the rest of life now." It helps the body take seriously what you're doing -- and the body, after all, runs our lives a lot more than the thin layer of upper cortex that likes to believe it's in charge. It also seems to help to look either down or up.
Prayer is about caring enough about life – yours – to check in with it, see how it’s doing. The purpose of imagining you are reporting to something outside yourself is to discover what you say.
Then begin. So what do you say? What goes in part two, the "body" of the prayer?
Anne Lamott’s latest is a little book about prayer, and the title is three words that say it all:
Help. Thanks. Wow.That’s it. Help. Thanks. Wow. To take up a practice of prayer means that you’ll regularly say those three things. You’ll say them to yourself, and in private, because prayer is not for display.
Sometimes you say, “I sure do need some help. I don’t know what to do.”
Sometimes you might be specific about the sort of help you’d really like, and that’s where the idea of prayer as asking for things comes from. But the point isn’t to ask so you can get it. The point is to ask so you can hear your own heart’s yearning. The exercise of expressing what you seek is helpful. Sometimes the expressing creates a freedom that allows us to let go of the desire. Other times, expressing what we want helps us see it in a new light so that we can take more effective action.
Sometimes you say, “Thank you. Thank you for a day of sobriety, for my granddaughter, for the blossoming azaleas, for air.”
And sometimes you say: “Wow. I’m stunned. I might or might not also be grateful, but mostly right now, I’m stunned. I gasp. The song of a bird, an image of war, the massive scale of poverty, the infinity of the cosmos. Wow.”
Wow is what you say when you look at the ocean for the first time, or the Grand Canyon, or a solar eclipse (though a pinhole projector).
Help. Thanks. Wow. Saying it helps us know we mean it, that’s all. It helps us become self-aware, which we rarely are. A regular practice of prayer changes us, but it changes us so slowly that it’s easy to think nothing is happening, it’s not doing anything, it’s pointless. As the years wash up like waves, the habit of daily prayer gradually yields up its fruit of self-awareness.
You know who you are – really know. You know where you fall down and need help. You know what you love and are so grateful for: those are your resources are for getting back up. And you know you’re alive in a world of wonder.
It’s one thing to have a moment of irritation, sadness, anger, disappointment, fear. Such feelings, too, are threads in the fabric of the wonder of life. It’s another thing to nurse such a feeling like a grudge, to run a cognitive loop to tell myself over and over not just that I’m having the feeling, but how justified I am to have it. Every time I want to cling to my own crankiness, wield it with righteous conviction, I am forgetting who I am. Saying help and thanks and wow gradually gets me where I’m quicker to remember again.
Then, at the end, part three: say, “Amen.” Or say, “and so it is,” or, “truly,” since these terms are translations of "amen." Also popular is, "blessed be." All these endings underscore that prayer is not about wishful thinking, but about being in touch with things exactly as they are in your heart. It's about blessing what is -- even if "what is" is your own desperate need for help.
Help. And so it is.
Wow. And so it is, truly.
* * *
Previous Practice of the Week: "Be Mindful"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"