Unitarian Universalists have a unique relationship with prayer. It can even be downright tricky for some of us. We are a religious movement that often has deep ambivalence about traditional religious words. We are a non-creedal faith tradition, where each of us defines our own theology, a lifelong work in progress. Newcomers to Unitarian Universalism frequently ask the question, “Do UUs pray?” The implicit corollary, the question behind the question, is often, “Can UUs pray? Can one pray in a religious movement that is not bound by one common creed or theological understanding? Can a faith tradition that includes humanists, agnostics, and atheists have anything to do with prayer?
To which my answer is, unequivocally, “yes.” Yes, Unitarian Universalists can pray, and yes, many of us do pray. It is also true that there are some Unitarian Universalists who do not pray, who are uncomfortable with the word because of past wounding in the religious tradition of their childhood, or who simply don’t see the need to pray, nor hold a theology that allows for prayer. But there are many who do, including myself. Now, this is my perspective on the matter, and it is, of course, simply that: my perspective. A sermon is always the beginning of a dialogue. It is the beginning of a conversation between and among all of us, internally in our own minds and hearts as well as out loud between us. It is up to you, to each of you, to continue the dialogue, adding your perspectives as well.
I was not always comfortable with the concept of prayer. I grew up essentially unchurched, and most definitely outside of the Christian tradition. Prayer was not part of my life, and my understanding was limited to the conception of prayer I saw in the greater culture. I equated prayer as asking God for something, some tangible thing or some outcome.
For example, here is a definition of prayer that comes from the 1897 Easton’s Bible Dictionary, that sums up much of what I and many UUs find difficult in the standard Western Christian concept of prayer. “Prayer is converse with God;” it starts out, “the intercourse of the soul with God, not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him.” And, of course, with that first exclusive masculine gender reference, they’ve lost my feminist, Goddess-as-metaphor-loving self. But it goes on:
“Prayer presupposes a belief in the personality of God, his ability and willingness to hold intercourse with us, his personal control of all things and of all his creatures and all their actions. Acceptable prayer must be sincere … offered with reverence and godly fear … [and must] be offered in the faith that God is, and is the hearer and answerer of prayer, and that he will fulfil his word.”
Well! If this is prayer, I don’t want it, thank you very much! I don’t believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing white-bearded-old-man-in-the-sky kind of God, and never have. I don’t believe in a literal separate Creator, who looks down upon the world and chooses which prayers to answer, and how, and when. If this is prayer, I can’t believe in it. Yet-is it? Is this all that prayer is? Is this definition or others like it, the end-all and be-all of prayer?
I have come to believe that there is much more to prayer than this definition suggests. After I became a Unitarian Universalist and began to explore and consciously seek to learn more about spirituality and religion and develop my own understandings and beliefs, I have become more and more comfortable with the concept of prayer. Prayer is a deep and evocative word, much like “worship” and “soul.” These are words that are part of our religious and spiritual heritage. And just as with certain other words, words like, oh, say, “patriot” or “family values,” we do not have to let other people have the sole and exclusive right to define them. We do not have to hand them over to a certain segment of the culture and let them be lost, trapped forever in a narrow definition that does not fit how we understand them to be. Some may not agree with this-prayer may be a word that is too loaded for you, that evokes memories of a restrictive belief or religious organization that has been left behind. And that is the right of each and every Unitarian Universalist. Each of us must do what is right for us. As for me, I choose to reclaim the word prayer, to breathe new life into it, the breath of Spirit, because prayer touches a place deep inside which no other word quite fits.
The words of Abraham Heschel with which we began the service have come to sum up what I understand about prayer:
Prayer invites God [or the Holy],
to be present in our spirits
and in our lives.
bring water to parched land
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city,
but prayer can
water an arid soul,
mend a broken heart,
and rebuild a weakened will.
This is a concept of prayer that I can believe in, a concept large enough and wide enough to hold my beliefs.
I can still remember the first occasion when I deliberately and consciously tried prayer. It was in the depths of winter, and I was about to step into totally uncharted waters. I was about to lead a pagan-style ritual in honor of the Winter Solstice. This was something I had never done before, something I had never even really seen done before, only read about. I was nervous and anxious, my stomach full of butterflies. I wanted so very much for the ritual to be meaningful, for myself and for all those gathered. And so I prayed, self-consciously, with at least part of my mind, the stubborn, rational left-brain, hanging back in observation, but I prayed. I prayed to “the Goddess,” knowing I meant by that symbol and metaphor, but still choosing to create an image in my mind’s eye to represent an embodiment of Spirit. I opened my heart, and poured forth all of my yearning and wishes and hopes. I prayed to be centered, to be calm, to be assured. I prayed that everything in the ritual go well, or at least, “well-enough.” And it helped. The act of prayer helped. Strengthened and encouraged, I was able to go into a new situation, in which the outcome meant a great deal, and do my best.
As I have come to define it, prayer is a spiritual act, the act of centering and grounding. Prayer helps me to reach a place of stillness inside, a place of calm. At the heart of prayer, at its essence, what makes prayer for me is the intention. If words are said or actions are done with prayerful intention, then it is prayer. Poetry often acts as prayers, finding a way to express the inexpressible. There are certain poems, like Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” that immediately acts as prayer for me whenever I hear or read them. Poetry that touches our hearts at a depth-level can be among the deepest and most powerful, the most prayerful prayers. Songs and chants can be prayers, the music making a link between head and heart, and helping us access the spiritual dimension of our soul. So, too, can music without any words be prayer-and often, more powerful than anything with words. Movement can be prayer. Silence can be prayer. And as we acknowledge every Sunday morning, service can be prayer.
Some might ask, how, then, does prayer differ from meditation? Meditation and prayer are deeply akin, of course. It can indeed be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Some make the distinction by contrasting the acts of speaking and listening-prayer is speaking and meditation is listening. To God, to Spirit, to Life, to one’s deeper Self, to the All that is Everything. This is a useful thumbnail definition, but it does not fully capture the depth of what prayer is. We use words, often, to pray, and our culture has conditioned us to think of prayer in terms of words. But in my living, organic definition of prayer, its heart is deeper any than words. The impulse to pray, the prayerful attitude, come from a place within the deepest reaches of our souls, a wordless, shimmering place of immanence and transcendence, both. As the poet Joy Harjo says, “To pray you open your whole self, to sky, to earth, to sun, to moon, to one whole voice that is you.”
If we do use words, the best prayers are often the simplest. Writer Anne Lamott suggests that the two best prayers are: Help, and Thank you. Help, and Thank you. We ask for help when we are in need, when we are frightened and tired and overwhelmed. “Help me!” we cry, either internally or externally, implicitly or explicitly. Help me! God, Life, Higher Power, Divine Source, spiritual energy that flows through the Universe, deepest Self-whatever, however, just help. Help me hold on. Help me get through. Help me find a better way.
And “thank you.” The medieval German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart said it best: “If the only prayer you [say] in your whole life [is] ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” That would suffice. How we pray is far less important than the act of prayer itself. Let us give thanks, and be glad. Let us honor the lives from which our own lives are made possible. We are part of an interconnected, interdependent web which is infinitely larger than our particular selves. And we give thanks.
Along with these two foundational prayers, I have added another: “namasté.” Namasté is a Hindi phrase which comes from the Sanskrit word, namas, meaning “bow” or “reverential salutation.” There are a number of ways to translate this phrase into English, but the one that resonates most strongly for me is, “The Divine in me greets the Divine in thee.” Namasté is another way to honor the interconnected, interdependent web of life which we did not make and do not control, but which we are privileged and lucky enough to be part of. To say, “namasté,” mindfully as a prayer, is to honor the wondrous, breathtaking world around us and inside us. Whenever I see something that catches me up, in beauty or awesomeness, whenever I have a moment of connection to the wide and sparkling Universe, that prayerful impulse wells up within me. To the crescent moon in the night-falling sky: “Namasté.” To the wild geese high overhead, or the dandelion springing up through the crack in the cement: “Namasté.” To the wind and the sky, the mountains and the grass, the wild roses and the fireweed: Namasté, Namasté, Namasté.
Now, does prayer “work”? And even if it helps the one who is praying by calming and centering us, does praying for others have any effect? Truthfully, I just don’t know. At my core, I am agnostic about many things when it comes to religion and spirituality-agnostic in the oldest and most literal sense of the word. It is not just that I don’t know, but that certain things cannot be known. They are part of the Mystery, beyond human ken. But when I feel a need for centering and connection with something greater than myself, I pray. And when someone I care for is hurting, I pray. I pray because the act of prayer helps me, but I also pray because, like chicken soup, it can’t hurt, and it might help. I certainly recognize that there is more of Mystery in the Universe than I or we can ever figure out. If we are all interconnected, as I believe deeply that we are, if energy is exchanged between all beings and all things at a subatomic level, then who knows what effect prayerful, positive intention may have?
I pray to touch in to my own Deepest Self. I pray to find the stillness deep inside, to be able to come to rest in the place where I can hear “the still, small voice within,” the voice of Spirit. I pray because I have found, from experience, that it helps me. When we define prayer in an inclusive way, it can be big and deep and wide. In fact, prayer can be big and deep and wide enough to encompass the many different perspectives and theologies of Unitarian Universalists. As Heschel says, “Prayer invites [the Holy], to be present in our spirits and in our lives. Prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” Or as Episcopalian priest Alla Renee Bozarth puts it, prayer helps us to “be awake to the Life that is loving [us],” to “make of [our] life an offering.” And Mahatma Gandhi agrees; “Prayer,” he says, “is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” Prayer can help us connect with the Web of All Existence, and touch in to the deep wellsprings of Life itself. Refreshed and renewed, we can then return to the work of our lives and the work of the world-living lives of authenticity and meaning, and working to make the world more fair and more just, more loving and more compassionate.
May it be so! Blessed be, and Amen.
Ruth Greenwood, Student Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
February 24, 2008
© 2008 Ruth Greenwood. All rights reserved.