What Happens When We Pray

I’ve recently spent time wandering through some of Ireland’s ancient monastic sites, and I continue to think of those monasteries and the beautiful settings where they were built. The buildings are in ruins now, emptied by war and worldly powers. Yet for a time these sites were a refuge for books and learning, and a place where Christianity met Celtic culture in a way that strengthened both.

Who could have anticipated the value of these sanctuaries to the centuries that would follow? The books copied by the monks in their scriptoriums salvaged Western learning after the fall of the Roman empire. Today, the religious impulse that gave rise to them permeates the walls that remain standing.

Clonmacnoise Ruins, Ireland

The stone structures with roofs open to the sky are beautiful remnants, the outward form of an encounter with God. Even more, the sense of divine presence in places like Clonmacnoise and Glendalough invites the pilgrim to seek his or her own encounter with the Source.

I happen to also be reading an exploration of prayer by Ann Belford Ulanov and Barry Ulanov, called Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. It’s an encouraging and inspiring description of what prayer can be. The divine intersection of my travels and of reading this book is something the Ulanovs would see as an answer to prayer, with God’s response often found in the small events of our lives.

In Primary Speech, Ann and Barry Ulanov offer insight into what happens when we bring our full selves to prayer—all our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and regrets, our best selves and our worst. Through prayer, whatever we bring to God is transformed. In bringing everything to prayer we open ourselves, and our lives, to being shaped by the divine—not in a way that denies our individuality but in a way that brings out the brilliance of the gems we were created to be. Prayer opens us to be healed and strengthened, our lives made larger and more joyful.

Primary Speech by Ann and Barry Ulanov

 

We can’t transform ourselves, but we can allow God to continue creating us. When we act on our deep impulse to pray, we experience the God who is always at work in our lives and who responds to our prayer in a variety of ways, which we will notice if we pay attention. Prayer opens a window to the stuffy room of our limited mind, and God is the fresh breeze that enters.

Paul Prather’s recent column on prayer in the Lexington Herald-Leader underscores this lesson for me. In his eloquently straightforward way, he says that even pastors are subject to forgetting to pray when life gets busy. But his recent recommitment to spend quiet time with God every day, even for just a few minutes, has brought him refreshment in the midst of a stressful life.

Prayer changes things. It changes me and it seems to affect the world around me. I’m a novice at prayer and may always be so, but beginner’s mind is not a bad thing. Who knows what might be possible?

 

Positive Energy and Prayer

Some of the important people in my life ask for prayer when things are difficult. Others ask for positive energy or healing thoughts when they are in need of support. Both are asking for spiritual support, but in different ways.

Bumblebee in Flight with Redbud Tree

There are good reasons for not using each other’s terms. Religious language may be associated with a world view so painful or constricting that a person rejects the language, the church it came from, and even what it refers to. Yet someone who rejects “prayer” may respond with warmth and love when the request is to “send good thoughts.” The value of the spiritual connection remains, it just needs to be seen in a different context, with a new way of being expressed.

On the other hand, shared language is part of what forms the bonds of a community. Within a community for whom prayer is a positive and meaningful shared experience, to ask for prayer is to make reference to what is held in common. To use another term would be to place oneself outside that shared experience and strain against the community’s identity.

So the language we use says something important about who we are. The difference in language reflects a difference in where we find meaning and belonging. But despite our differences, we share a need for the spiritual support of others. Regardless of how we express it, we know that we are connected in a spiritual way and that our connection matters.

I don’t know how prayer works. But I trust that we are connected to a level of reality beyond the physical world. Even the physicists tell us that beneath the appearance of things the world is made of energy. Some of that energy manifests as material objects, but matter is not the solid reality that we think of it as being.

Physics is offering us new ways of understanding creation and new metaphors. We are energy, we are connected to the energy around us, and connected to others through this energy. Our actions, our thoughts, and our love have an effect on the web of reality, the field of energy, beyond us. When we pray for others we are connected to them. Prayer directs our thoughts, our actions, and our love toward where they are needed, and puts more than we can know into motion.

There may be additional things we can do for the people we pray for. Thoughts, actions, and love can be directed in many practical ways. But prayer is an important means of putting energy into motion, of being connected. Many things can be prayer, or can be done prayerfully. Packing a box of supplies for people who need them as we direct our compassion toward them can be prayer. Bringing love and concern and hope for those who are suffering as we prepare food, or visit a hospital room, or write a note, can be prayer.

Whether we call it positive energy or prayer, this way of sharing love and strength is an important part of caring for one another. It helps to know what kind of language is meaningful to the person we’re talking to. But whether we say, “You’re in my prayers” or “I’m sending positive energy your way,” we’re talking about a spiritual effort. Making that commitment means we care, we want to help, and we will add our energy to the spiritual network that sustains them. Its workings are a mystery, but the spiritual help we offer matters.

You might be interested in an earlier post, “What It Means to Say ‘You’re in My Prayers,” or in “How to Pray for Another.”

Impermanence

As part of the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville, April 14-17, 2015, these monks from the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion  and the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour created a sand mandala for the sake of wisdom, compassion, and healing.

 

The monks lean across lines and arcs

like the funnels they wield,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 1

as if tilting a column of sand

up the spine

to pour from a third eye.

 

The grains trickle in rivulets

between skeletal lines

penciled onto a blue field.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 2

This gold, this red,

in precisely this place—

the design takes flesh

in lavish detail.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 3

 

This work is prayer

begun with chant

from which the air yet hums.

Tibetan Chant Ritual

Ringing metal, rubbed like a firestarter,

sings as it coaxes sand

from the tiny mouth of a ribbed silver cone.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

For days the sand pours,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 4

the chants rise,

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

the mandala widens.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Nearly Complete

 

Each morning a ritual:

with one hand the leader rings a bell,

with the other he holds a blade.

Tibetan Ritual Table

Beside the completed design

sits a white flower

in a silver bowl.

Tibetan Sand Mandala with Lotus

Atop the lotus of sand

in the mandala’s center,

the bowl becomes a mirror.

Now the blade, ever-present

through all the days of creation,

cuts from the points of the compass

to the center—

destruction from every direction.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Silver Bowl

A brush sweeps the careful work

into swirls of muddied color—

Sweeping Away the Sand Mandala

a heart-sob—

for all the careful tending vanished,


Sweeping the Sand Mandala

for every thing of beauty gone.

 

Tibetan Sand Mandala Brushed Away

 

 

 

Tibetan Monks in Headdress

 

Behind four monks clad in gold,

Tibetan Monks Walking to the Ohio River

a quiet crowd walks to the river.

As if in tribute,

four golden planes fly

in formation overhead.

Golden Eagles Flyover

 

Standing in the current,

the silver-haired leader

tilts a vessel,

Tibetan Ceremony Pouring Sand

yielding to the river

the sand,

the work,

the prayers,

the loss,

the acceptance.

Tibetan Monk at the River

The river carries this embodiment

of compassionate understanding

out into the world.

Tibetan Monks at the River

 

Returning,

the four walk with ease,

smiling, their shoulders relaxed,

Tibetan Monks

while I keep taking

photographs to keep.

Lotus After Sand Mandala Ceremony

 

Susan Christerson Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer-Filled Air

At the edge of the parking lot at Third Street Coffee is a section of tall chain link fence. It might serve as a divider between lots, but its primary role is that of connection, just as the coffee shop serves to foster community. The chain link canvas is a place for statements to be made without words, a place that emanates prayers.

 

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

 

Mostly it holds small padlocks, an echo of the love locks attached to bridges around the world. The practice apparently arose from a poem called “Prayer for Love” by Serbian poet Desanka Maksimovic.  The result has been bridges where so many couples have attached locks as a symbol of their love and devotion that the cumulative weight threatens the structure of the entire bridge. The locks, meaningful as they are individually, become more than the bridge can bear and have to be removed. The fence at Third Street invites Love Locks for Lexington, a sign of commitment to this city.

The image of all those locks, the public statement that the love they represent matters, has power. The symbol of commitment, locked together in love, has power as well. An outward manifestation of an inward grace—that’s the definition of a sacrament. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of this expanse of chain link. It’s a structure that supports something sacramental, an organically arising symbol of devotion. The practice hasn’t been handed down through the ages, but is something rising up, like blades of grass.

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Also on the fence is a line of brightly colored squares of cloth, embellished with simple designs. What can they be but prayer flags, sending prayers and blessings into the world with every passing breeze, through every fleeting glance.

Some devout Buddhists turn small cylinders they carry with the words of a prayer tucked inside, or spin larger wheels built into the walls of a monastery or placed in the river and powered by water. Each spin of the prayer wheel sends the words into the universe, an act of merit for the one who offers the prayer. Prayer flags work the same way, releasing blessings into the air as they flutter in the wind, the air filled with prayer, thick with blessing, a palpable presence, the people changed by breathing power and grace, day and night.

Appropriately enough, there are coffee mugs on the fence at Third Street, too. There are more, of course, inside the café where it’s noisy with talk and laughter and music. The air is filled with the aroma of coffee, and bustles with the delivery of fresh Peruvian beans in a cardboard box, the opening of doors and scraping of chairs, the sounds of connection, conversation, the exchanges that change a day, change a life, change everything.

 

 

Does Prayer Make a Difference?

A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of friends who found it meaningful, I read Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. It describes his extended near-death experience, a story he would have viewed with skepticism before slipping into the coma in which his view of reality changed.

Believing that near-death experiences could be explained by certain types of brain activity, Alexander had long dismissed such experiences as hallucinations with no correlation to external reality. But with his rare illness, all activity was shut down in the part of the brain where such stimuli could occur. The kind of brain activity to which Alexander had attributed classic near-death experiences was simply not possible in his brain during this time.

I don’t share the skeptical view of the soul held by Alexander before his experience, but I would not have picked up this book without my friends insisting it was worthwhile. I’m glad they convinced me. I won’t try to describe the experiences he relates, but his compelling story has remained with me since I finished reading it. One aspect to which I keep returning has to do with prayer.

During his sojourn, the time came when he could no longer gain access to the divine realm. Alexander found himself sent back, descending into a physical world that he did not remember. But he was drawn to his destination in this life by faces and voices that emerged from the chaos and became clear to him. Later he realized that those whom he saw and heard were the loved ones gathered in a circle around his hospital bed, praying for him. The single additional person he saw was the minister’s wife, who was not at his bedside but prayed for him at home. He became aware of a young boy pleading fervently for his life, then realized with a shock that it was his young son. At that point, remembering his life on earth and people he loved, he re-entered the physical world. The prayers of others had oriented him as he moved between realms and led him back to his life.

It’s not hard to see the value of prayer in terms of naming our concerns and laying down our burdens. We draw strength from our sense of connection with others, and prayer brings us closer to God and to those for whom we pray. The affirmation of being heard helps empower us to cope with difficulties. Prayer also focuses our attention, helping us to recognize guidance from the divine. But to speculate about where our prayers go, or what it means that God hears our prayers, or how prayers work, is more difficult. How can we speak about any realm but this one, or any reality beyond our personal experience of prayer?

I had Alexander’s story on my mind when I learned that someone I care about had a sudden, debilitating stroke. His condition sounded dire. I was afraid for him and his family. I didn’t know what to ask for. But I prayed. I prayed for health and healing. I prayed for strength—for him and for his family. I thought about all of them continually. And I kept praying, as did his large family, a network of friends, and his church. Within a few days he came back in a way that seems miraculous, with a determined effort in physical therapy that allowed him to go home far sooner and in better shape than anyone could have hoped for.

What allowed this to happen? Did all of those fervent prayers change his outcome? Could they have affected his ability to recover? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it looks that way to me. The prayers didn’t make things smooth or easy, but in a time of extreme crisis they seem to have made a difference.

Yet on the dark side of answered prayers are those that seem to go unanswered, pleas for health and healing that do not come to fruition. Why would God intervene for some requests and not for others?

I have no good answer to that question. But the fact that miracles don’t occur every time doesn’t mean they never do. The world is more than we can fathom. And the messages all around seem to keep urging that we pray.

A Prayer at Easter

 

When the cup we hold is bitter
and its weight heavy to bear
May we look to the One who sustains us
in whom all things work for good.

When we lose our way in the dark
and the night is filled with fear
May we remember that love upholds us
and find strength renewed by the dawn.

And when we find that loss and sorrow
draw us to the tomb
May messengers of life and hope
roll away the stone.

 

May your Easter season bring the gift of life that blooms anew.

 

The Physicality of Prayer

We don’t just have a body, we are embodied. Christianity itself is centered on embodiment, with the incarnation of God into fully human form at its heart. Our bodies are central to who we are and how we experience this life. It makes sense that our physical selves would be part of how we pray.

It’s easy to get the idea that prayer is something we do in our heads, but sometimes what we need most is to get outside of our heads. Often when we place our bodies in an attitude of prayer, our hearts and minds will follow. Physical practices can help in getting out of our own way, in emptying ourselves enough to receive some spiritual nourishment.

There are many ways of cultivating a prayer life that incorporates the body. Singing, walking, dancing, gardening—practices that involve movement, the senses, or the breath can help us feel close to God when we enter prayer through them.

Praying in a different posture can bring about a fresh experience in prayer. The position of our bodies affects how we think and feel. Craig Dykstra, author of Education and Christian Practices said, “You can know things on your knees that you can’t know sitting in a chair.”

Even a simple gesture can make a difference. Praying with hands extended, palms up, offering to God our problems and ourselves, is a physical manifestation of a spiritual attitude. It helps us remember what we want to do. Praying with hands extended, forming an empty cup, ready to receive what God intends for us, is another way to reinforce the spiritual openness we want to bring.

Solitary physical work can be another opening to prayer. Tending the yard, doing laundry, cooking, even filling the gas tank—all can be an opportunity for prayer. We can offer thanks for the strength to do the work, and ask for the ability to work generously. We can use it as a way of noticing the interconnectedness of our lives, praying for those who will benefit from the work we do as well as those whose work has allowed us to accomplish what we’re doing.

And finally, placing ourselves in a different setting can help us step away from the noise of our lives and enter into prayer. We don’t have to go into the woods, or to the beach, or to a quiet chapel to pray, but it can help. We are affected by our surroundings, and so is our prayer life.

What helps you to feel the presence of the divine?

It’s Not Too Late to Enter Lent

We’re a week into Lent, but it’s not too late to think about a Lenten observance if you haven’t already. At the service I attended on the evening of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, the thing I heard that struck me most was, “At the end of Lent we will be different.”

It’s true. When we take up some kind of spiritual discipline for Lent, we will be changed. We can be sure that in knocking on that door, it will be opened to us. That’s the reason to enter into these forty days of spiritual focus—a period of time long enough to foster real growth yet limited enough keep from being too daunting.

Even a simple observance over the period of these weeks leading to Easter can make a difference. I’ve written about some ideas for that in the post, “Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent.”

I’m exploring different kinds of prayer this Lenten season. This week I’m immersed in the psalms. Simply reading a psalm every day, slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, can be a rich Lenten observance. Especially if you understand the enemies and foes mentioned there as being your own personal demons.

At my church we’re exploring the subject of prayer during Lent, in classes and in worship.  Our senior minister is talking about prayer during his sermons over the next few weeks; his first in the series is about the power of simple prayers and how there is no “right way” to pray. He mentions Anne Lamott’s writing about the two best prayers she knows: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  You can listen to his March 13 sermon, “Prayer: What’s the Point?” here.

Finding a way to pray, or perhaps even a new way to pray, over these weeks of Lent seems to me like a way of inviting transformation. But whatever we choose, taking on a Lenten discipline is not so much a matter of buckling down as a way of opening up.

It’s not too late. What would you like to find on this journey?

A Box for Prayers

Thinking back over the week, it’s interesting to recall several conversations about prayer. Not a subject that typically recurs so often. With life moving quickly along from one thing to the next, I didn’t notice this thread weaving through the past few days until I stopped to reflect on what the week has brought.

This is a reason to write a blog, by the way. It helps me pay attention. The blog becomes a box for reflection, and its presence is a constant reminder to place something in it. A box for prayer can work the same way.

To one of these conversations from the week a friend brought a gift she had received—a beautiful handmade wooden box, shaped something like a medium-sized apple. The lid lifts off with a long stem-like handle to reveal a rounded interior, sanded smooth, the grain visible in the dark wood. It has just enough heft to feel solid in the palm of one’s hand.  After living with the gift for a few weeks, she realized that it would be a box for her prayers.

All sorts of prayers can be placed in such a box. Prayers for others can be held there, represented by a name written on a slip of paper. A gift that the day brings, a worry we can’t let go of, a feeling of fear or grief or longing—the concern and gratitude and pleas that color our spiritual life all have a place in a box for prayers.

To give our prayers a tangible expression is a comfort. A similar practice happens on a larger scale in Old Jerusalem where the Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, holds the prayers of visitors who tuck their written words into spaces between the ancient stones. The space is considered holy because of the Jewish tradition that the Divine Presence remains there. More than a million notes are placed there every year. Semi-annually the notes are collected and buried on the Mount of Olives.

Most of us can’t place our prayers in the Wailing Wall, but we can set aside a sacred space of our own. It might feel right to ask a blessing on that space, or it may be enough to let the blessing come from the prayers with which we fill it. They may be in the form of written words, or in a simple nonverbal prayer such as lighting a candle.

A box for prayer might be a metaphorical one as well. It can be a place to visit that feels set apart. It can be a time of day. It can be the experience of sacred writings, or music, or art. It can be a ritual that helps to place us in the presence of the divine. It can be anything that helps us see that we are standing on holy ground.

What have you found that serves as a box for prayer?

Prayer for a Grieving Friend

In recent weeks, several friends have experienced a profound loss of one kind or another. In the midst of a celebration of light, their worlds hold a great portion of darkness. The contrast can make this a difficult season. This post is a prayer for those who grieve, especially during this season, and for the friends and loved ones who long to comfort them.

Through this dark valley I would ease your way,
reassure you of the goodness of life,
even of your life.
But I have not traveled this path you tread,
nor learned the reach of these shadows.
All I can do is walk with you,
both of us stumbling,
certain only that we will be sustained
by powers beyond our imagining—
by life and love, light and hope.

May the Spirit of Life lend its strength,
enfold and uplift us with warm embrace.
May the Spirit of Love tend wounded hearts,
that healing and tenderness may abide.
May the Spirit of Light show us the way—
one step at a time is enough.
And may the Spirit of Hope sow its seeds,
to open in the mysterious dark
and emerge as new life
in the spring that will surely come.

Susan Christerson Brown