While I declare as a Christian, since renouncing my atheism I’ve only prayed twice. Once was for my children, who lived through a time of great fear in their lives. The other was for the woman I was in love with, asking that she be prepared to receive all the beauty that life held for her.
It’s odd, then, that I often feel guidance coming to me.
I didn’t understand what was going on until I came across Talking to God: Portrait of a World at Prayer. This beautiful coffee-table volume includes reflections on prayer by the faithful of many religions. The essays are collected in three sections on supplication, praise and meditation.
The most common phrase in the Bible is a variant on “fear not.” Supplication is the act of reaching out to the divine power for strength to do good in a world that too often exploits our weakness. The elements, disease, and predation (human or animal) all cause us to expect death, and so the loss of the joy that we have discovered in living. This causes us to call out to the divine presence to direct a portion of its power to protect us. When death is not imminent, the habit of prayer may lead us to ask for intercession in other matters.
Even when no direct response is provided, the psychological benefit of supplication is in allowing us to name our fear. As the Buddhists teach us, this brings the power of reason to work, which helps to quell our dark emotions. Having named our fear, we may be able to speak of it to others, and thus to rally others to our aid.
It is when we move beyond emotion to reason that we enter into prayerful praise. This is a celebration of the virtues that enable us to overcome adversity. Among these are patience, courage, compassion (in ourselves and others) and discipline. While praise of the virtues has always been recommended, I believe that there is a physical aspect to the process that has not been fully appreciated. It is suggested by this quote by Jakob Boehme, the German mystic:
If you ask why the Spirit of Love cannot be displeased, cannot be disappointed, cannot complain, accuse, resent or murmur, it is because the Spirit of Love desires nothing but itself, it is its own Good, for Love is God, and he that dwelleth in God dwelleth in Love.
Thoughts are physical things. When we ponder an idea, we reach out with our mind into a “space of ideas” to establish a connection. Think of it like a telephone line: where at first we have to work laboriously to connect to the strength of a virtue, when we praise it, we build a direct line to it, and can reach it almost immediately.
The amazing thing about this stage of prayer is in discovering the incredible power of the virtues. Why are the virtues so powerful? Well, the reason that predators use fear to control us is because it’s easy. Those people, such as Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth, that struggle and eventually overcome fear have to be stronger in their spirits than the predators that seek to destroy them. Eventually, that strength becomes so great that the are able to actually banish the precursors of fear from the minds of those that seek to harm them. They succeed in this because the predators, in taking the easy road, never develop their spiritual muscles. Furthermore, predators wallow in a set of ideas that really don’t care about them. At the first sign of spiritual weakness, the vices turn on their favorites and consume them. Thus when Jesus went to the cross and forgave his tormentors, their vices could not enter into him, and so turned back against their source.
When we pray in praise, we tap directly into the strength of the virtues built in the space of ideas by our great religious avatars. As we see this taking hold in our lives, our praise becomes more and more fervent. Because we seek joy in our lives, we walk about sharing our strength with those we care for, protecting them from fear as well. This is the stage of meditation.
In meditation, we enter into experience without expectation or judgment. We seek, not knowledge, but the sensation of our bodies, hearts and minds. In allowing those sensations to enter into us, we close the gap between the experience and the virtues that surround us. When there is pain or dissonance, we allow the virtues to enter into the experience to create healing and harmony.
The first time I realized that I was meditating (almost constantly) was in Cub Scout monthly meetings. The Scout Master was a shy about public speaking, and I would get this strong sense of fear from him when he stood up to present. I would just close my eyes and send him my confidence and admiration. His voice would steady.
For those that aren’t in the habit of praying, this can be a frightening experience. It’s like an invasion of their selves. I’ve had some really hostile reactions. Many aggressive men assume, for example, that I’m gay. They aren’t habituated to receive affirmation in any other way than through sex. The rest of their lives are organized around conflict.
In organizations, the response is more complicated. When we start to heal anger and fear, the participants become aware of their psychological dependencies. As victims become aware of how their trust is being manipulated, they may react to the healer as the source of paranoia, or even worse as the cause of the breakdown of trust in their relationships with predatory leaders. Such leaders often present themselves as noble interlocutors in the conflict that they engender among their followers, and when that strategy is revealed, the followers often rally to those that prey upon them, blaming the healer for the insights they bring!
As Boehme testified, the healer succeeds eventually when (s)he seeks nothing except the opportunity to allow the virtues to enter more deeply into the workings of the organization. Others finally realize that they feel far better in the presence of the healer than otherwise, and begin to work effectively against the true source of their problems.
So what I’ve come to understand is this: we pray to bring the divine presence into the world. Whether we are asking for help or mediating in its delivery, the end result is the same. The only way that God comes into this broken world is through prayer, and in its ultimate expression, that occurs through those that surrender themselves joyously to love of everyone willing to receive it.