Reflection #72 (4th June 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Prayer is, as I mentioned at the start of the service, a perennial topic of exploration at church. It’s a topic we keep coming back to, and rightly so, because the practice of prayer is central, foundational, in pretty much every spiritual tradition you care to name, which indicates it is something we ought to be paying attention to and engaging with, even if our collective relationship to prayer as Unitarians can be… a bit complicated. Prayer is something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years – and a lot of shelf-space too! – I’ve got all my books about prayer lined up on a shelf over my bed and even if I only count the ones that have got ‘prayer’ in the title we’re looking at a stack of forty-nine books. This is not me trying to show off! Just an indication that (a) there’s a lot been written about the subject from a variety of perspectives and (b) prayer is something I am fascinated by and continue to wrestle with.
Of course we Unitarians do pray, collectively, in our services – especially those of us who attend our regular ‘Heart and Soul’ spiritual gatherings which are essentially a Unitarian prayer group in disguise – and I know that plenty of us do have our own personal prayer practices too – but it’s not something we seem to talk about all that much – not something we tend to foreground as a vital part of our shared religious life. It seems that sometimes our – laudable – commitment to reason leaves us reluctant to wholeheartedly enter into prayer when we’re not sure who it is we’re praying to, or what it is we’re even doing, or why. It can leave us praying-with-the-handbrake-on, emotionally speaking, and not fully engaged. If this sort of reservation resonates with your experience, you might appreciate the following words from Anne Lamott, taken from her slim volume on prayer, ‘Help! Thanks! Wow!’
She writes: ‘You may be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer”. Prayer is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or… to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s… let’s not get bogged down in whom or what we pray to… Prayer is us reaching out to something having to do with the eternal, with vitality, intelligence, kindness, even when we are at our most utterly doomed and sceptical. God – however we understand ‘God’ – can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation… It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.’
Words from Anne Lamott. Or perhaps we can understand prayer in the sense that we heard about in the piece that Sonya read for us earlier by UU minister Vanessa Rush Southern. The purpose of prayer, on this account, is to ‘put our hearts in the right place’. And what does prayer look like? Well, the different ways we might pray are almost limitless – we can be silent – or speak or chant – or write or draw – or pray with our whole body – we can pray alone or together – with rituals, like candle-lighting – spontaneously or rote – using formal and traditional language or expressing ourselves directly and from the heart in our own voice. We can ‘Pray All Ways’ as Edward Hays said. Sometimes we can get snagged on one particular idea of what prayer is ‘supposed’ to look like, but there can be a liberating joy in experimenting, being playful, challenging ourselves to mix it up a bit.
Whatever form it takes, perhaps there’s a common thread of helping to shift our perspective – you could think of it as getting in touch with a ‘God’s Eye View’ of your life and the life of the world – tuning in to some kind of Universal Consciousness – or connecting with your own inner wisdom. Prayer is a practice that can help us shift ourselves out of everyday autopilot mode, and into a way of being that’s a bit more intentional, re-aligned with our deeper purpose and values.
When we’re feeling a bit lost, or adrift, or stuck – all of which can happen quite often, I find – prayer might just remind us who we are, and whose we are, and what matters most of all in this life.
I especially appreciate the angle taken by the UU minister Erik Walker Wikstrom in his book ‘Simply Pray’ (the reading we just heard from Brian only gives the briefest introduction to Wikstrom’s ideas but that book is one I’d count as a huge influence in my own spiritual journey; it got me over some of my own hesitation around prayer and in turn it’s shaped the way I lead our prayers in church). I want to acknowledge that this influence also touched my best friend Jef Jones, former leader of the Brighton congregation, who died just last month; I know Jef did a lot over many years to pass on this way of thinking about prayer, to introduce prayer practices, and to cultivate a prayerful spirit in the congregation; so knowing that Brighton would be joining us today, I chose this topic in Jef’s honour.
Erik Walker Wikstrom encourages us to put aside those thorny questions of ‘who or what are we praying to?’ – that’s why his book is called ‘Simply Pray’ – his is very much a ‘just do it’ approach. If we waited until we were certain about our theological interpretation of prayer then we’d never do it at all. His understanding is that the practice of prayer has value even if it ultimately turns out that the only person who hears our prayers is us (or, in the case of communal prayers, there is worth in the acknowledgement of our shared human condition). Having carried out a comparative study of prayer practices in a number of the major faith traditions Wikstrom concluded that there are four main strands of prayer that are pretty much common to all. He calls them ‘Naming, Knowing, Listening, and Loving’ – these are terms that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Heart and Soul – it’s the simple structure we’ve been using for many years now to pray together as a group.
To unpack it a bit: Naming prayer is simply a gratitude practice – a mixture of ‘Thanks!’ and ‘Wow!’ – reviewing your day and noticing what’s been good – whether that’s simply appreciating humble everyday pleasures or standing gobsmacked in awe at the cosmos and the wonder of creation. Knowing prayer is a practice of honest self-reflection – reviewing your own actions and attitudes – noticing where you did well, where you made mistakes – seeking guidance to put things right. Listening prayer is simply contemplative stillness – ‘a silence into which another voice may speak’. Loving prayer is bringing our awareness to the needs of others who are struggling and suffering, both close to home and around the globe, and expressing our compassion and hopes for them. Naming, Knowing, Listening, and Loving. There are many ways to pray but that’s not a bad start.
If you’re anything like me, you might find prayer comes most easily when you’re struggling, and that it’s more likely to bubble up spontaneously as a cry for help when life seems especially tough (and crying ‘Help!’ is also a form of loving prayer, by the way; it’s a form of healthy self-love and self-compassion to recognise when we’re pushed beyond our limits and we need help from beyond). But there is something to be said for intentionally cultivating a regular prayer practice, and making it an integrated part of our everyday life, instead of something we only turn to as a last resort when things are desperate. So why not try sitting in bed last thing at night, or first thing in the morning, any quiet moment you can claim really, and giving yourself ten minutes to go through the four strands of prayer – naming, knowing, listening, loving – in your mind, in your journal, or spoken out loud. You don’t have to do this alone – you could make this a daily ritual you do with someone you live with – you could exchange prayers-via-text with a friend – or come to Heart and Soul! As Wikstrom says, in the end, there is no substitute for getting your feet wet, so just do it: Simply Pray.
To close I want to offer just a few words from another Unitarian thinker, Jack Mendelsohn, by way of encouragement to find your own way with prayer. He writes: ‘Prayer is an effort to reach deep and to reach out and to become what we would like to be and need to be and ought to be. Proper prayer is not a petition to escape realities. It is an effort to understand them, to deal with them… to grow in courage, strength and in faith. The purpose of prayer is to transform those doing the prayer, to lift them out of fear and selfishness, into serenity, patience, determination, belonging.’
And doesn’t that sound like something we could all do with a bit more of in our lives? Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: