The Wide Worlds of Prayer

by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Why ponder prayer?  Not to gain insight into How To, or to expand familiarity with Varieties and Shapes of prayer practice.  It isn’t about the results of prayer or the ethics of it.  I’m interested in the link between the opinions we hold about prayer and our sense of where we fit in the wider world.   In this sense, we’re talking about one’s existential position – our beliefs about what our individual lives are about.

Prayer presupposes a speaker and a listener.  The listener is a form of the Divine, usually determined by the religious conventions of the faith one is attached to.  By prayer, I mean the various forms of addressing ones thoughts, often in precise words, toward a divine entity whom one believes is listening.  It may be solitary, with others, silent, or voiced.

Everybody has an Existential Position

By Where We Fit or our Existential Position I mean how we regard ourselves when we step out of the here and now for a moment and grasp a bigger picture: looking at a newborn, a star-filled sky, a sunset, on a crowded ferry boat to the Toronto Islands, or in a huge crowd sharing  a happy moment (a winning goal just scored?).

My observation is that some people do a lot more Big Picture thinking than others, but that most people have something to say about how they regard the human condition – the place that each person holds in the world, in this life.   This view of where we fit impacts directly, I argue, on the role of prayer in a life.

Prayer as Irrelevant

Prayer is so foreign, so unnecessary and irrelevant for some people that they didn’t open this blog – it was such an unnecessary and boring topic for them.

Others are aware of people who pray and are irritated by them (“Do they think that God really prefers one football team over another – when both are praying for victory??”).  And some find that those who pray are an affront to their own sense of reason – prayer represents superstition, ignorance, lack of capacity to reason, backwardness.

Those who are emotional in their dislike of prayer maybe suffered condescension and hurt from ’Religious’ people.  But there is often an admirable stance taken: they seek to remain grounded in the material rational world.   They reject all ‘magical thinking’ and accept that this life, our personal span of years, is all that we have – no future heaven or hell.   Some express the hope that they will remain alive in the actions and memory of those they leave behind.

Impressive humanitarian acts are undertaken by those who are committed to our shared humanity, our hurting world.  They act not by divine command but from the heart.  The ongoing strength, the persistent kindnesses, are drawn from their well of caring – they do not draw strength from a relationship with a divine being.  They may keep going by virtue of the love and support of other people (and be subject to the verdict of religious folks that this is a way in which God works, quietly, in the world).

Prayer as Ritual

A worldview grounded in Obedience to Religious Doctrine can be a worthy source of good works.  Inculcated through hundreds of years from the pulpit and Sunday School, populations are trained to follow the Church’s rules regarding proper observance.  We learn the standard for personal salvation.  Society adopts the shifting patterns – remembering the painted image of a child kneeling beside the bed, saying his prayers.  One’s place in the world is determined by how well we follow the rules.  One’s church of choice has determined what the proper rules are and we violate those at our peril.

I remember being driven through the streets of (then) Bombay by a generous well-to-do local who wanted to take me to a park outside the city.  He rode pell-mell through several village roads filled with cows, chickens, people, seemingly oblivious to the possible disasters, all the while reading from a prayer book held in his right hand.  He told me he had to say his morning prayers.   To him, the saying mattered, the attention to what he said clearly didn’t.

I believe that churches are filled with many who are repeating the ritual words of prayer, and they are fulfilling their belief in what is required of them to be faithful.  The world view here is that there is a right way and a wrong way to live through this span of years and reward awaits those who follow the right way, as closely as possible.  That includes large doses of ritual prayer.

Rick Warren’s very popular religious guide, The Purpose Driven Life, sets out this path clearly – there is a correct way to be and to conduct a prayer life.

The Quest – Starting Almost From The Beginning

Some of us are wired in such a way that we’ve found ourselves out of sorts with prevailing religious doctrines.  We seem alone in trying to connect our personal sense of the vastness of the universe, the apparent ground-level miracles manifested in nature, our own hearts yearning toward something beyond .

Some satisfy the Quest by focusing on the wonders of unfolding  science.   Others, with this questing orientation, seek out communities where they can keep asking questions.  Religious doctrine handed down does not satisfy, but they enjoy the community of those who suspect there is something more than the material here and now.  Sometimes these gatherings are termed, “Church communities for those who don’t like Church”.   Ritual is used when it can bind those present, but opening oneself to let God’s love in is a greater emphasis.

Communal prayer here may include a list of requests (of petitions) to the divine, but words expressing longings for peace, reconciliation, inspiration in dealing with the pain of the wider world are included, and heartfelt.

Among the non-ritualized, personal prayer takes many different forms.   A lovely moment may provoke a prayer of thanks, or of humility.  A longing to talk to the great divine spirit can overtake at any time, and the prayer may be wordless.   The belief in a loving God, if this has been developed, allows many many forms of conversation with God – he did, after all, create each of us to be who we are.

In seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between orientation to the Ritual and the Quest.  The latter relies on a loving God to cherish our individuality; the former relies on an obedient human who is trying to fit herself to a proper model.  Too simplistic, of course but maybe useful…

The Essence of Living? Communion with God

To understand how a huge portion of the world’s population live, I think it’s necessary to try to understand those for whom faith provides the entire perspective on what life is about.

We are here to obey and to worship God.  All else is immaterial.

Thinking in this way eliminates concerns about politics for many.  God will work out the issues of power.  Some see themselves as intended to further God’s agenda as seen in the holy scriptures – they are hands and feet and minds of God in the world.  Thus emerge the jihadists.

I think the latter are more in tune with today’s Christian fundamentalists than are many who share the Christian religion.   Both hold the same world view of Right and Wrong, with one side needing to be vanquished.  Both want to impose their view on the Other – because they are absolutely convinced that their beliefs are the ones opening the doors to eternity.

It is a burden and a joy to carry the weight of such intense certitude.   Knowing one is Right – and wanting the world to be conformed to that which is Right because then peace and justice can reign – this feels like a glorious mysterious truth revealed to oneself.  Abandoning oneself, one’s attachments, one’s scruples, to this truth – no contest.   When so convinced, how can you not strive for universal obedience?  Only then will God be pleased!

It’s interesting that the practice of those who choose to stand apart from these certainties is now termed “Christianity Lite”.

A Prayer

If so inclined, let us pray for not expecting too much of each other!  Life ain’t easy.



Filed under A Bigger Circle, Rosemary's entries

4 responses to “The Wide Worlds of Prayer

  1. Here is where I jump in again. My view of ‘God’ was determined when I was about 11. It has worked for me all of my life and I can not only live with it, but can use it to commit my life to.
    1. God does not do anything to or for us.
    2, We are the God we seek.
    3. I am responsible for my own actions and have reason to feel badly or well about those decisions.
    4. When I pray, I ask for help with myself and my errors, whatever they may be. Although in times of stress, I have been known to ignore the first three .
    5. When I ask/think something negative, I only ask that God (my higher-self) respond in a helpful way. Showing me the errors in MY thinking/actions.
    6. If it turns out differently than I had (wanted/hoped) I eventually assume that it was supposed to be that way….and I must look to my own view of things to correct the errors.
    7. If it is about governments (either ours or others) I disregard all of the above and expect only greed and self aggrandizement to be the order of the day….or week…or etc.
    That’s it really.
    (Rosie, sometimes you are too cerebral for me.)

  2. Karen Thorpe

    very thought provoking.

    my life is a prayer
    I pray without ceasing – in a manner of saying
    I pray in silence
    I pray in gratitude
    I pray in loving attention
    I pray in song
    I embody prayer in dance, yoga and movement
    I am the prayer and the prayed
    I pray in the garden
    I pray when I ‘m walking
    I truly enjoy prayer
    I rest in prayer
    I pray with the ritual, communal, heart felt prayers of the faithful in every faith
    I pray in the footsteps of the saints who have gone before us and shown us the Way.
    I pray with my creative energy
    I pray with my sexual energy
    I pray from my heart, mind and soul
    I pray with tears of joy and sorrow for this dear world
    I pray with deep longinng for a real connection to the cloud of unknowing which is the divne
    I pray when I eat, I pray when I lie down and when I rise up
    I pray for those I love and for those I do not
    I pray for stranger and friend alike for we are all one as the Creator is One
    My heart burns with prayer like the disciples on the road to Emmaeus who were walking with Jesus but didn’t know who he was.
    I pray from my fear, loneliness, confusion, despair and dread.
    I pray for this dear planet and what we are doing to it.
    I am a seed in the rich, dark soil of prayer.
    I pray because I am prayer.
    Be still and know that I am God
    Be still and know that I AM
    Be still and know
    Be still

  3. What gifts both your article and the responses are!
    As one who remains a novice in this discipline, I think prayer to be the exercise of making room for God in the lives of those around me, not excluding mine. Sometimes prayer is an in-filling of peace as immediate as my next breath, other times a wrestling that drains me of all the strength I have.
    Like all things sacred, it is fundamentally communal and prophetic. It is the ‘not my will but yours be done’ struggle and exchange, the inspiration for our being lead where we’d otherwise not go.

  4. Barbara

    Thank you for your always thought provoking blogs.
    I feel especially grateful for this article, as you articulate beautifully in particular areas, much of what I am unable to.
    Diana (attitude) and Karen( prayer without ceasing _conscious or not); I am of like mind with you both.
    Thank you for fleshing out in succinct and lovely ways, my own feelings about prayer and our creator/God/higher self.

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