a Sermon by Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak
preached on 28 January 2018
When I was a child, I prayed in many ways… in the masses I attended, saying the rosary, other devotionals and novenas. Sometimes it was connected with asking God for things. And I believed that if I was “good enough”, and said the correct amount of prayers or practiced the precise number of devotions, I would get what I wanted. But I have to say, I cannot recall a time
when my prayers had a direct response. Granted, some of these prayers also offered “indulgences” that would shorten my time in purgatory or provide me a priest at my death. I do not want to find out any time soon if these prayers have been “answered”, though!
To keep us kids in line, if anyone dared question the efficacy of prayer [like when the desired toy or hoped-for eventdid not materialize as requested], we were told that “Indeed, God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is ‘no’.” The supposed silence of God is not a denial of the divine or of the efficacy of prayer – it was just that we were praying for the wrong thing.
Perhaps it is as Oscar Wilde said: “Prayer must never be answered. If it is, it ceases to be prayer and becomes correspondence.”
What is prayer, exactly? How do you understand it now? and how does it function in your life?
Unitarian Universalist minister Ken Collier notes, “Prayer is anything that reveals to you the holiness, the beauty, the healing, the uniqueness, and the wholeness of your life.”
It creates space for our own heart’s and mind’s responses to the situations we find ourselves in… to our environment, to our fears, hopes and dreams. And the response to our prayers is not likely to be a booming voice from on high. It may simply be that voice, still and small. It may be our own inner wisdom, the stirrings of our hearts, from the center of your very being
reminding you of your place in the family of things, your beauty and creativity, the possibility that swells in each soul.
There are various spiritual disciplines and different ways to pray – including traditional spoken prayer, silent meditation, contemplation, prayer circles, devotionals, chanting, singing, even dancing. What does prayer look like for you? It could be something you learned, maybe in your childhood or as an adult, exploring different religious paths… a particular set of words that invoke something sacred or some deep memory: Our Father which art in heaven… Hail Mary full of grace… Baruch atah adonai… om mane padme hom. Or it could be the simplest form recommended by Mary Oliver, where she writes in “The Summer Day”:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed…
Paying attention, focusing on what is right in front of us,or within us…or reaching out beyond ourselves, either in thought or in word. Walter Brueggemann says that prayer is a “drama of acknowledgement and yielding”… where our paying attention can lead to awareness – an awareness that may reveal some blessing or may point to some harsh reality that we need to allow into our consciousness. And so we must yield to what we find in prayer.
There are several categories of prayer. I once heard them described in this playful way:
“gimmie”, “oops”, “ouch”, “wow” and “thanks” – more formally known as: petition, confession, intercession, praise and gratitude. And sometimes our prayers – our moments of profound attention – involve a combination of two or more of these. So herewith a brief guide through the kinds of prayers we might utter.
The “gimmie” style of praying is reflected in those prayers of childhood I mentioned. This is sometimes called “material prayer”, asking for all sorts of things – gifts, a new job, winning the lottery and the like. Like Janis Joplin’s song from the 70’s:
Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
How we understand that hope or wish to be fulfilled makes a difference. It is likely that this “gimmie” is more than whining to get something… it is an invitation to look deep within
to find what it is that we really seek. There is an element of “asking” even if we aren’t consciously petitioning for something – some “wants” and desires that we express as more like a hope or a wish. A reminder of something that may be important to us – not necessarily the “thing” we are wanting and wishing. And in this prayer, we may find that what we thought we wanted is revealed as something else entirely… so we face or yield to whatever life offers, even when it does not resemble what we thought we were asking for.
The second form – “Oops” – this is probably the hardest prayer… the times when we have realized we have done wrong, we have hurt someone or behaved in a way that is harmful to others or ourselves. We pray for forgiveness.
This is not the old act of contrition, hoping god can wipe the slate clean and give us another chance. The “oops” prayer comes to us when we recognize our failings, when we sense we have caused some hurt, when we realize we are in need of forgiveness. And in this we remember
that every human being makes mistakes and hurts others. The very human emotions of embarrassment or shame we may feel as we enter this form of prayer should not hinder us from seeking forgiveness.
Before we can ask forgiveness of another or find some way to make amends, we acknowledge, deep within our hearts, what has happened, and what we are feeling. The acts of contrition or amends-making may come much later, but the “prayer” of acknowledgment begets the necessary change of heart that makes it possible to take the next step in reconciliation.
“Ouch” – the third category – is related to oops, but in these prayers we are feeling the pain of life’s vicissitudes. Maybe we can catalogue how this suffering has been inflicted upon us, and know whom to blame. More likely, we are suffering the randomness of fate… the disease that invades our bodies that we must confront; the grief that envelopes us in the loss of loved ones, mourning that creates a void that seems impossible to fill; the loneliness and insecurities of modern life weighing heavy upon us; the confusion, frustration or outrage generated by the state of our world. How do we utter these prayers?
The psalmists of old offered lamentations that called out to god to deliver them from their suffering. We find ourselves praying these prayers through our tears, our confusion, our fear. This prayer is perhaps offered in silence, as Reverend Unger reminded us, in holding the hand of another and feeling the Spirit of Life moving between us. Whether we actually utter words that describe feelings of being forsaken or lost, or whether we reach out to others or not, naming our human condition opens us not only to our grief but to our healing as well. Those same psalmists offered words of consolation as well — assurances that there is some comfort, some protection, some security in that holy power – however you name it – some person or belief or inner strength on which we rely. It is there for us, if we but open ourselves to notice it.
This, then, could be the “Wow” prayer – it can be as exuberant as a cheer and as silent as a sigh. This may be the easiest form of prayer… one I find myself doing most reflexively. It is the simplicity of looking up at clouds in a multi-colored sunset sky; or the delight at the sun glinting of crystals of ice and snow on a bracing clear day; the brave green shoots of crocus and daffodil each spring; the awe inspired by canyons of stone, etched out over eons; the wonder of ancient temples and of modern skyscrapers of steel.
And so much more… the velvet touch of the newborn’s nape, or the smell of the crown of their head; the blessing of an elder celebrating a long life; the return of health after an arduous illness. We all experience these moments great and small… wow.
These moments don’t sound like a typical prayer, and I can’t recall uttering any words other than “wow” or “oooh” in the moment. But the simple act of noticing is enough to change something deep within. And being able to remember and recall those moments, and feel again the sense of wonder renews my connection to life when I’m in those times of “ouch”.
And finally, “Thanks.” The medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying: “If the only prayer you say in your whole life is Thank You, that would suffice.”
If we will admit to any prayer at all, this would be it. It isn’t just in the fourth week of November
that we should cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” A prayer of “thanks” might naturally flow out of a prayer of “wow.” But it also comes out of the simpler moments, too.
The prayer we utter, the prayers we are – are the kinds that encourage and engender spiritual and psychological maturity. The prayers we say, consciously or unconsciously, don’t often have a direct, external response. We rarely have concrete proof of our prayer’s efficacy. Yet this kind of prayer is efficacious, for it makes a difference in our lives. Lon Ray Call’s definition is such a strong reminder of what prayer can be for us… as Jerry Johnson reminded us last week,
“Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things.”
Prayer changes us. Even without the involvement of a deity, some kind of prayerful attention has the potential to change us, or strengthen or inspire us, so that we can do what must be done. There is an element of surrender in prayer, characterized by poets and theologians of every age, and seen so clearly in the practice of Islam.
W. H. Auden said: “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man we so concentrate his our attention – on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God – that he we completely forget s his our own egos and desires, he is we are praying.”
Believer or skeptic, scientist or artist… or some combination of all those things [which I dare say can describe any one of us!] – we surrender to something, be it God, beauty, knowledge, wonder, fate. This is the beginning of prayer.
I think we human beings “pray” more than we realize. Perhaps our whole lives can be a form of prayer, where we find our purpose becoming one with more depth and meaning. For there is yet another form of prayer we find in the traditional Unitarian Universalist covenant that says “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth its sacrament, and service is its prayer.”
If we accept this, and recognize those moments of prayer for what they are, we add greater depth and meaning to our lives, and indeed give that gift to one another by creating the space for prayer. These times of attention, those moments of courage and openness, all allow us to be more fully human… not more saintly or closer to God, but more of who we are meant to be.
Prayer open us up to the life beyond the confines of our own bodies, our own souls, our own needs. Prayer involves presence… taking in what we see or feel, open to the moment, sensing being part of all that is around us, past and present. It invites reflection and rumination…
cultivating an attitude of reverence and respect — for ourselves, for one another, for stranger and friend – openness, inclusion and acceptance.
There is joy and pain, hope and sorrow, fear and courage. Prayer is gratitude for it all.
Sometimes there are words; sometimes there is a conscious organization of thought directing feelings toward understanding and action. And sometimes the moment simply “is” – woven into the fabric of our lives. It is in our thinking, our doing, our sharing, our singing.
Rumi reminds us to not get caught up in words and worrying, but to give oneself over to the stirrings of the soul. The prayers of his religious tradition, the prostrations and words, were just one expression of that union with the divine, the Other…that union that is available to all of us.
from Jelaluddin Rumi [translated by Coleman Barks]
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.