I Pray Thee: Pray

We need a Unitarian Universalist theology of prayer, because, for many of us, what we learned in childhood about what prayer is doesn’t make sense to us anymore, so we don’t pray.

Prayer is not about asking for stuff with any expectation that it will magically appear. Prayer does not require believing in a personlike entity or committing to the notion that reality-as-a-whole knows or desires.

It does help to address the prayer to something other than yourself, though it’s fine if you understand this as merely a device to help you hear yourself better – like beginning your journal entries with “Dear Diary,” as if you were writing to a pen-pal. It’s a good device – helps you really do it, slow down, complete your sentences, present yourself without the shortcuts habitual to our rushing thoughts.

So that's part one: imagine reporting to someone whose judgment you need not cajole, who will never hold against you whatever you say, and whose sympathy is assured. Maybe you’re sure there’s no one there, or maybe you suspect it. That’s fine. Pretend. Role-play. It's good to excercise the imagination. Knowing when to go ahead and play make-believe and burst the bonds of the literal and prosaic -- and when to return to those bonds -- is the better part of wisdom.

You can address the prayer to "God," "Goddess," "Jesus," "Mary," "Avalokitesvara," "Vishnu," "Thor," "Ghosts of my ancestors," "Saint Francis," "Reality," or -- the two I most frequently invoke -- "Ground of being," or "Source of healing and wholeness called by many names." You can address your prayer to an imaginary person you name "Hilda," or "Cuthbert." In some ways it does matter whom you name as your addressee in prayer, so try out various possibilities to see what resonantes best with you. As far as whether or not you actually are praying, it doesn't matter how you name your (imagined) listener. Put "Dear" in front -- or don't -- as the spirit moves you.

Kneeling is good, though by no means necessary. Kneeling tells your body, "we're doing something a little different from the rest of life now." It helps the body take seriously what you're doing -- and the body, after all, runs our lives a lot more than the thin layer of upper cortex that likes to believe it's in charge. It also seems to help to look either down or up.

Prayer is about caring enough about life – yours – to check in with it, see how it’s doing. The purpose of imagining you are reporting to something outside yourself is to discover what you say.

Then begin. So what do you say? What goes in part two, the "body" of the prayer?

Anne Lamott’s latest is a little book about prayer, and the title is three words that say it all:

Help. Thanks. Wow.

That’s it. Help. Thanks. Wow. To take up a practice of prayer means that you’ll regularly say those three things. You’ll say them to yourself, and in private, because prayer is not for display.

Sometimes you say, “I sure do need some help. I don’t know what to do.”

Sometimes you might be specific about the sort of help you’d really like, and that’s where the idea of prayer as asking for things comes from. But the point isn’t to ask so you can get it. The point is to ask so you can hear your own heart’s yearning – and thereby reveal to yourself also an option of maybe letting it go. Maybe.

Sometimes you say, “Thank you. Thank you for a day of sobriety, for my granddaughter, for the blossoming azaleas.”

And sometimes you say: “Wow. I’m stunned. I might or might not also be grateful, but mostly right now, I’m stunned. I gasp. The song of a bird, an image of war, the massive scale of poverty, the infinity of the cosmos. Wow.”

Wow is what you say when you look at the ocean for the first time. I will always remember a story I heard the first year I was serving the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida. It seems that a member of the congregation had a relative who had reached the age of 80 and had spent her life in the same north Alabama town in which she was born. She had never seen the ocean. So the family got together and planned the trip so she could see ocean. The elderly relative was brought out to the beach, and she gazed upon the ocean for her first time: this vast expanse stretching to the horizon in 180 different degrees of directions. She said, “I thought it would be bigger.”

That story is so memorable because it’s so funny, and because I can’t wrap my mind around how the ocean could not be a “wow.”

Help. Thanks. Wow. Saying it helps us know we mean it, that’s all. It helps us become self-aware, which we rarely are. A regular practice of prayer changes us, but it changes us so slowly that it’s easy to think nothing is happening, it’s not doing anything, it’s pointless. As the years wash up like waves, the habit of daily prayer gradually yields up its fruit of self-awareness.

You know who you are – really know. You know where you fall down and need help. You know what you love and are so grateful for: those are your resources are for getting back up. And you know you’re alive in a world of wonder.

It’s one thing to have a moment of irritation, sadness, anger, disappointment, fear. Such feelings, too, are threads in the fabric of the wonder of life. It’s another thing to nurse such a feeling like a grudge, to run a cognitive loop to tell myself over and over not just that I’m having the feeling, but how justified I am to have it. Every time I want to cling to my own crankiness, wield it with righteous conviction, I am forgetting who I am. Saying help and thanks and wow gradually gets me where I’m quicker to remember again.

Then, at the end, part three: say, “Amen.” Or say, “and so it is,” or, “truly,” since these terms are translations of "amen." Also popular: "Blessed be." All these endings underscore that prayer is not about wishful thinking, but about being in touch with things exactly as they are in your heart. It's about blessing what is -- even if "what is" is your own desperate need for help.

Help. And so it is.

Thanks. Truly.

Wow. And so it is, truly.

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