I got a really interesting letter in the mail yesterday. The subject was prayer.
Prayer (I suspect) is a subject lots of people find profoundly unappealing, if not a downright turnoff. Our contemporary religious climate is a messy stew of atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, fundamentalism, dogmatism, authoritarianism, know-nothing-ism and the like. No wonder if it’s unappealing and a mess! Many of my friends find themselves highly allergic to anything that smacks of “religion” in that sense.
How about this, though? How about the enormity of the cosmos, the grandeur of planet Earth, the natural world outside my window, the smile of the UMass bus driver, a baby’s two arms around Pauline’s neck? Or if some of those are too cliche-d or smiley for you, how about waking in the night with an undefined question —a sudden loneliness —the nostalgia for something we’ve never experienced — the feeling, as Maurice Sendak definitively put it in his book title, Higglety Pigglety Pop, There Must be More to Life than This. Or how about the feeling of gratitude that — rarely perhaps, but occasionally— surges up within us, the feeling of being blessed beyond belief by — what? The feeling of wanting to say thanks — but to whom?
God as reality may or may not exist, be knowable, be attainable — but God the concept almost invariably gets in our way, because what I’m talking about here isn’t theoretical or intellectual, it’s experiential. And being so, needs a way of being apprehended when it’s experienced, needs a way to be expressed.
So — getting back to that interesting letter, after detailing in a whole paragraph the lengthy laundry list of styles and forms and formulas of prayer, the writer says:
“But we must remember that it is also simple stuff. The contemporary American writer and essayist Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies: Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” A woman I know says for her morning prayer, “Whatever” and for the evening “Oh, well.”
The writer of my interesting letter includes a short poem by Mary Oliver, called “Praying”:It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
For anyone who’s still with me, this is how the writer concludes his letter:
“The doorway is always there. And it is always open.
And that’s all my message to you (and to me) for today: whatever happens, oh well, pay attention.
(As it happens, the writer of this interesting letter is a monk, a Protestant monk, just to upend a few preconceptions: Brother Robert Sevensky, Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross. When I met him years and years ago, a young monk then, he was a plain-spoken down-to-earth kind of person, and he seems to have matured into the fullness of that. Thank you, Brother Robert.)
“whatever happens, pay attention” now, wouldn’t that make a great t-shirt? 😉
That’s cool, Cynthia — one way for wearers to get people to pay attention to them? 😉
Thanks for this. The essence of prayer ~ simply being. It’s an amazing life….
Occasionally things are simpler than we think — just let it happen. Thanks for the comment and visit, Amy.
Thanks for this. I have no profound thoughts to add, I simply think that you have expressed all this incredibly well!
Sometimes profound thoughts get in the way, Karen!
(One of my frequent thank-you’s is your blog)
‘The door is always open…’ That door is at one end of a short corridor – it’s the door at our (opposite) end of that corridor that we have to choose to open. Reminds me of the painting in St.Pauls Cathedral – ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock…’ God – should you choose to believe – is awaiting upon our choice 🙂
I wonder, what stands at the door for each of us may be exactly what we longed for — perhaps without even knowing it.
“God” or whatever is the force of creation is not “off the rack”, it’s custom-made. (Or so I believe)
Hunt certainly struck a powerful chord with The Light of the World, one of the most famous and acclaimed paintings of its time.
I would agree with Anne Lamott about the two best prayers!
They certainly go right to the heart of the matter!
There are certainly big overlaps between concepts such as meditation, prayer, mindfulness, trances, etc, etc. All involve a certain sublimation of self into a more holistic concept of reality. There is a different intellectual overlay to each though, which will make a difference to which a person chooses to attempt. As long as one is intellectually happy with whatever overlay applies to your method to engagement with a broader sense of self, I think all can be useful in helping gain calm & perspective on life.
I suspect that your “broader sense of self” pretty well correlates with my “something larger than myself” as the goal of spirituality in whatever form (including psychotherapy, so far as I’m concerned).
People are so various, their perspectives so multitudinous, that what counts — as you say — is the “fit” between the vehicle and the person. He drives a Beemer, I love my Subaru Forester, another rides a bicycle, my granddaughter drives a bus, and then there are the Harley people. Some people walk.
So long as they all get where they’re going, eh?
I’m particularly struck with your concise “helping gain calm & perspective on life.” I don’t think I would have come up with that at all, and yet when I see it here, I say, Yes. Of course. Calm, for one’s personal well-being. And perspective being a key to reality.
Thanks so much for the visit and comment!
Growing up, I overheard many heated religious arguments between my maternal grandmother (Baptist) and my father (Catholic). It’s amazing how the details of religious beliefs sometimes get blown out of proportion. I agree with you, “Whatever happens, pay attention.”
As if the details were the thing itself — like short hair versus long hair.
In one of the several usually unread books of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels he portrays the bitter combat between the people who crack open their eggs at the large end and those who do so at the little end, the Big-Enders versus the Little-Enders. How can you possibly pay attention that way!
I’m with you, Theresa.
I have to pinch myself when I remember the twilight zone of religious beliefs and the drama we lived with in our family, a permanent vail of tears! But the many wonderful, most simple details which make up a moment, the baby’s arms around Pauline’s neck, and the snow crystals on our window, so much for which to be thankful!
The greatest meaning carried in the smallest simplest things —
And as a credo, you’d have to go a long way to beat thankfulness.
Thanks so much for your comment, Patti.
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Thanks very much, Cynthia — the great reward of blogging is when we discover we touch one another with our words! (as yours about the woodpecker touched me)
I loved what the monk wrote. «a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway» … those words spoke to me in a special way. I don’t have any problems with my faith, even though I can’t be labelled Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or any other of the world’s greatest religions. Watching the rhythm of the tide, the rocks on the beach, the first crocus of Spring, a newborn baby …. and perhaps most importantly; my own consciousness … that I know that I am I (does that make sense?), the list could go on.. but to me, that’s as much of a religious experience as a visit to a church. The miracle of life. I can tell good from evil … whether that was inborn or learnt … I don’t know. Perhaps there’s a «god gene»?! … I wouldn’t know that either but does all this really matter?! We human beings tend to spend great amounts of energy on discussions leading nowhere. Discussing religion would be like discussing what colour the wind has. I strive for some peace of mind, I do pay attention and I live my life as best as I can. My faith is simple, and I don’t believe that it takes a lot of studies to believe in G-d.
Loved the analogy about the cars and the Harleys 🙂
I think that sentence of yours is perfect:
“Discussing religion would be like discussing what colour the wind has.”
(Especially so if you reflect that the Holy Spirit is the wind that bloweth where it listeth)
To be aware of life as a miracle seems to me to be the essence of one’s own belief, however it then gets expressed.
(I’m the boring but steady Subaru: are you the Harley??????)
I was nodding all the way through your post. I agree that paying attention is of prime importance. I believe in Karma, and making informed decisions, but, I am too impulsive at times. Moreover, paying attention also in turn means learn from your mistakes. To learn, you need to know what the mistake is…sleepwalking your way through life seldom helps 🙂
No, sleepwalking your way through life doesn’t help. And it’s so boring, like the opposite of real adventure, which includes
the risk, the mistakes, the gradual maturing —-
Thanks so much for your response, Kamakshi.
Ah yes, our experience almost always demands expression of some sort, doesn’t it?
The first known use of the word “pray” was in the 13th century (according to Merriam Webster) and is derived from the old High German word fragen, to ask (and the Sanskrit word, pṛcchati, he asks). Prayer is often considered petitionary (Anne Lamott’s, “Help me, help me, help me!”) but gratitude makes a prayer, too, as Mary Oliver so deftly points out. Paying attention is perhaps the highest form of praise.
As for open doors and other voices, I think the existence of such things is entirely subjective. I’ve experienced both and though neither has convinced me of the presence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God interested in me because I’m one of His, I nevertheless delight in both the petition and the praise because they make me feel part of this life I find myself living, part of humanity with its frailties, its failings and its soaring capabilities (though there are times I pray I was a dust mote or a leaf or anything other than what I am), and part of nature itself. It’s enough (for now).
Enough for now is enough for always — since now is what we live in and all we have!
Thank you, Pauline, for the German and the Sanskrit and the lovely reflection in its entirety.
(Yes, gratitude also makes a wonderful prayer, as in Anne Lamott’s afternoon prayer: Thank you thank you thank you.)
Ah Rebekah, you have hit a nerve. Your consciousness, our consciousness. What is it really. All we know is that it is there. Our dreams, love, feelings, touchings, and yes, awareness. Science has nothing to say. They cannot because it is the ultimate mystery, and probably will remain so. All that we can do is continue to live it and enjoy it and be astonished by it. But most important of all is to give it our attention.
Thanks for the comment, this is rapidly turning into one of THOSE posts, when the discussion in the comments is more interesting than the original post.
Thank you, fb
Science tells us HOW … but not WHY 🙂
The answer to “why” is “because” – ask any kid (or most moms). My mother, who used to teach high school science, was fond of saying that a good many facts are based on theory.
Your mother was certainly right-on, then and now.
I think your closing statement is very profound. The door is always open whether we pay attention or not. I like that you leave the room open for interpretations. Personally I generally have a problem with religion, simply because I see that as man-made, a way of controlling others and a way of gaining power. As for a divine spirit, a god or whatever one chose to call it, that is a different story. As you write, that all comes down to what each of us experience.
Too often “religionists” use religion just in the manner you describe, to control, to gain power. Don’t you wonder sometimes at how many people have the chutzpah (colossal gall) to think that God is choosing them to speak to? No one would realize from this behavior that humility is one of the seven cardinal virtues!
My husband often says, look at the scope of our infinite universe! All such gods are too small for him.
Any one interpretation is likewise too small.
Thank you so much for joining in the conversation, Otto.
Quite correct, Rebekah, but in the case of consciousness Science is flummoxed also in the area of HOW –the poor dears. They haven’t the faintest idea of what things combined to produce consciousness or if this is even an acceptable hypothesis in the first place.
For some enlightenment, we may have to turn to the philosophers for guidance. You might consider taking a gander at Colin McGinn’s The Mysterious Flame. McGinn is an eminent philosopher teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey. A Brit who, in my opinion, has an easy, clear and elegant style. It’s available at the usual sources. Cheers.
Thank you, FB! 🙂
That’s exactly what I need; «accessible guidance» …and he writes elegantly, to boot. I’ll go and check him out here and now!
This post has been lingering in my mind overnight, especially with regards to *prayer*, so here I am, back again.
There have been times in my life when I felt like «who am I to ask/tell G-d what to do … I, who am so humble and insignificant?!» Those times, and now too, I’ve found a passage in ‘Our Father’, that is all I need …. regardless of which persuasion I’m of:
“Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven”
If we might call this a prayer of acceptance, it becomes clear in how many traditions (some of them, like Zen, and psychotherapy, essentially secular) this is an extremely important and powerful type of prayer. What counts is the discovery of what is yours.
For a long time, the word “prayer” was not a part of my vocabulary, even though it was a part of my general experience (having been raised Catholic). But its association with “religion” is what made me stop using it. I would say, instead, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts,” or “I’ll send you positive energy,” neither of which held the same meaning or intention.
So, I started using “prayer” again – “I’ll keep you in my prayers” – hoping people hear it and interpret it and find comfort in the intention.
Although, I met a woman on a hiking trail once day and she was telling me about a hurtful situation. When I said, “I’ll keep you in my prayers” to her, she immediately said “I don’t pray.” And we found ourselves in this awkward conversation – two strangers quantifying their spiritual beliefs for each other.
Despite that, I’ve come to appreciate the word “prayer.” It, like meditation, has so many nooks and crannies.
(We’re back again, aren’t we? To the meaning of words? )
At least two decades ago a very unusual priest of my acquaintance was maintaining that a whole new vocabulary was needed in religion; so much of it, he felt, was hopelessly tainted for many people. If only, he would go on, we could find new and neutral words that didn’t carry alienation like the old vocabulary…
And here you are, giving an example of exactly this need, more significant than ever. Happily you’ve arrived at your own satisfactory definition of “prayer”, with all its nooks and crannies. I love this! So true — The more important the word, the more nooks and crannies?
We never do stray from the meaning of words, I guess —
I do think the door is always open, but I think the way we interpret what’s behind it will also change what it is. For me prayer as such is not important, but I think it is a way to connect with either a higher level of yourself or something beyond yourself. For me being out in the wilderness comes closest to what I believe a prayer could be.
I think there are many people who join you in finding the “Divine” — in any form you choose to define and/or experience it — in Nature.
Interestingly, in traditional Christian theology, there are four “faces” of God, and one is Nature.
Who would have thought that your heart episode would have brought such wisdom to light?
May I add another prayer I used when nothing else seemed possible. It was “HELP”
That was a long time ago and I’m still here.
Somehow this post slipped through my email cracks; I’m just now getting to it.
I loved the “Whatever” and “Oh, well” prayers; perfect approach for high-strung people who could stand a daily reminder of lightening up and letting go… 😉
Do you know people like that???
(I ARE one! Maybe ur2?)
Um…I might happen to know a gal that is a smidge like that… 😉