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.”

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.

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?

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

Love Letter to Leonard Cohen

Dear Leonard,

If I may call you Leonard—I don’t want to presume. It’s hard to know how to address you, of whom I am in awe. But “Mr. Cohen” seems terribly distant for someone who has touched me deeply, though we’ve never met.

The part of me that navigates everyday life feels silly about this endeavor, as if what I wrote about you in Responding to Beauty should have been enough. But the self that finds this letter necessary is driving. I’ve lived well into my forties without writing a fan letter to anyone, but apparently it’s time.

Yesterday I sat behind the wheel on Chinoe Drive waiting for the light to turn. I was listening to your Live in London recording, as I’ve been doing for many days now. But in that moment, as you spoke the words to “If It Be Your Will” I felt a piece of the great puzzle slip into place, easily and exactly. When the tears came, I had to find some way to respond, though it’s hard to know what to say. A connection, with another person, with the divine, is a gift that goes beyond words.

The crowd in London enjoyed your turn of phrase in “The Tower of Song” about being born with this golden voice. I take pleasure in the laughter and the line, and in how they turn back on themselves. Because your voice is truly golden: black gold, like coal. It lies beneath mountains to the east of here worn smooth by the passing of eons; it’s brought forth at great risk to the miners who work those underground seams. A chunk of coal is beautiful—dark and shining—with edges that cut the skin, and dust that marks a blue tattoo when the wound is healed. It yields heat beyond most anything else that burns. Not unlike art, sometimes. Like yours.

Your voice rumbles up from deep within, where the soul lies longing to rise. Your songs walk the earth with an ear attuned to the whispers of angels. They draw me in, break me open, and give me a heart of flesh.

I can’t help but wish I’d known you years ago, but won’t complain because I’ve found you now. What better time exists, for anything at all?

I don’t expect these words to reach you, but nonetheless I will say I’m grateful for the gifts you share. And if some sense of my heartfelt thanks were caught by the breeze to carry a blessing for you, an echo of the blessing you have been for me, I would be glad.

Thank you for your beautiful work. May you be well.

Yours sincerely,

Susan Christerson Brown

What Good is the Contemplative to a World in Need?

Again and again, in my own mind and through interactions with others, questions arise about the value of a prayerful interior life—both for an individual and a faith community. In this world where people suffer without clean water or shelter, safety or justice, there is work to be done. The need for tangible, material help is clear; the value of what the contemplative has to offer is less apparent. Prayer stirs us to compassion and action, but is it more than a means to that end? Is spiritual practice important in caring for people in need?

I do know that my quality of life, as well as survival, is shaped not only by physical needs being met, but by relationships and environment. Life is fostered in finding meaning, and a sense of connection to the reality beyond mundane existence. All these elements are necessary not only to sustain life, but to allow the flourishing that permits me to have something to offer another person.

But none of us can focus on everything. We need doctors and nutritionists to share their knowledge of the body. We need scientists and knowledge workers to lend their expertise in solving problems. We need business leaders to provide products and services that make life better for their customers as well as jobs that bolster the lives of their employees.

We need teachers and counselors who understand how people learn and grow to help all of us live fuller, healthier lives. We need artists, poets, and visionaries to show us new possibilities. We need all kinds of people with open eyes and generous hearts to lend their strength in meeting the unmet needs that they encounter, and to help others become part of the effort.

In the midst of challenging lives, we also need the guidance of those who tend the soul. We need spiritual practices carried forward from ancient days and adapted to the times in which we live. We need prayers and meditations from writers who dwell closely with the spirit, and models of community from those who reside together with sacred intention.

I saw this recently in conversation with a generous but severely stressed friend. She is committed to raising her children responsibly, working for a non-profit organization she believes in, volunteering within her community of faith, and giving creative expression to her life through her writing. All of these are important, but her mountain of commitments had become an avalanche. Her ability to give with any sense of peace and purpose depended on reconnecting to the source of life.

Like my friend, we all need the strength that spiritual grounding offers. When everyday demands weigh us down, we need the sense of meaning and wider perspective that comes through a connection with the divine. Those more practiced at cultivating their spiritual life can help.

The contemplative aspect of life fosters all our endeavors. It nourishes the body of believers, feeding the spirit as we go forth to do our work. Spiritual practice is one of God’s callings. Sharing it is a way to love others. It yields gifts that soothe a hurting world, and teachings that are a blessing for all.

How are prayer and service related for you?

Susan Christerson Brown

How to Pray for Another

Praying for another person is a way of loving them. It holds them in the flow of divine energy when they may have difficulty seeking it for themselves. When a community prays for someone, it lends the strength of its collective faith at a time when an individual may grow weary.

Which all sounds good. But really, how do we do that?

If I want to pray for you, it helps to begin by trying to understand what you’re going through. It’s good to acknowledge how things really are for you, at least the best I can. Prayer is mysterious and powerful, but it is not magic. It cannot negate a crisis or remove the traces of a traumatic event. The struggle to create a life in the midst of challenges to body, mind, and spirit is real and ongoing, and that is where we have to start.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what another needs most. In some cases my own emotion surrounding their situation makes a specific prayer impossible to express. Other times I simply don’t know what is troubling them. One way to pray when words fail is to see the one for whom we’re praying held in a beautiful white light.

I envision the light enfolding and permeating their being, healing their wounds, buffering them from external shocks, and strengthening their ability to see beauty and meaning in their life. I imagine the easing of body, mind, and spirit through the healing warmth of the light. I think of the light as always there, the divine support given by grace to each of us.

This way of praying works whether we know someone well or only by sight. It has meaning whether we feel closeness or tension with the person we’re praying for. It is a prayer we can use to support our leaders and bolster the everyday people in our lives.

If you’re interested in the subject of praying for others, you might want to read the previous post:

What it Means to Say “You’re in My Prayers”

How do you go about praying for others?

What it Means to Say “You’re in My Prayers”

Sometimes life comes at a person I care about in ways that challenge anyone’s ability to cope. When my actions, or theirs, have no power to change those circumstances, all I can offer is presence and concern. And prayer.

But when I tell someone, “My thoughts and prayers are with you,” or “I’ll keep you in my prayers,” what does that really mean? And what does that person want when they ask me to remember them in my prayers?

We all have different hopes and expectations, as we have differing experiences of prayer. But I see at least seven things conveyed when I offer to pray for you:

1)      It acknowledges the crisis and pain in your life

2)      It says that I am concerned about you, I am with you in your suffering, and I won’t forget about you when we part

3)      It recognizes that our lives are subject to things we cannot control, and that we share that position of vulnerability

4)      It reminds us both that we have access to spiritual strength that helps see us through the difficulties that life brings

5)      It holds faith in the possibility of strength and healing, in some form, through means we cannot predict or understand

6)      It points to an interconnected web of life strong enough to contain suffering and still hold beauty, meaning, and love

7)      It promises that you are not alone

A promise to pray is itself a kind of prayer, but I don’t think the promise is fulfilled simply in making it. In my next post, I’ll talk about how we might pray for someone.

You might also be interested in a more recent post, “Positive Energy and Prayer.”