Sunday, May 2, 2010

Article: Why Pray and What is Prayer

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Simply put, prayer is the act of making contact with the inner world of the spirit where God dwells. Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and all religious traditions depend on prayer for a sense of contact with the divine. But even beyond traditional faiths, beyond the New Age pluralistic panoply of ways to connect with God, in groups, or alone, ordinary people are just plain praying, and prayer is making a stir in the world.

It is fairly well known today that prayer has been shown to reduce stress, center a chaotic mind, aid creativity and even incur mental and physical health benefits. Dr. Andrew Weil, M. D., author of a half-dozen books on healing and the human body, writes in Spontaneous Healing that,”A considerable body of research data supports the beneficial effects of prayer on health.” Furthermore, Weil asserts, “It is reasonable to think that belief on the part of the patient is the crucial factor here; however, some research shows prayer to be effective even when sick people are unaware that they are the objects of prayer, suggesting that unknown mechanisms might also be at work.”

Teaching hospitals and health professionals nearly everywhere now include the healing capabilities of prayer as part of their arsenal to make patients well. Twelve step groups of every kind include the serenity
prayer. Many people are convinced, or at least interested and attracted to the idea of praying, and are seeking meditation gurus, classes on prayer and spiritual reading. We seem as a culture to understand the benefits, but are not quite sure how one should begin to pray.

Prayers we learned to recite and memorize as children as part of an organized religion feel hollow in many cases, and we wonder if there’s more. In effect, there is more, but it is mostly less. Less than memorized prayer or recited rituals, but more in getting us in contact with the divine part of the spirit world. That is, the best prayer comes from the human heart, out of a relationship of love and caring. Prayer is love talking and love listening. It is a conversation with that More which is beyond us, our Higher Power, our God.

The simplest way to pray, spiritual guides of every faith tell us, is simply to quiet ourselves, open our minds and listen. In all human communication listening seems to take short shrift. Most of us are good at talking, making our point, listing our agenda and conveying our thoughts. Very few of us are good listeners. In fact, there are so few good listeners in our society today, people pay good money—upwards of $80 per hour, to get someone to listen to them.

When we find a friend or family member who listens well to us, we compliment them: “You’re such a good listener.” “He’s a good listener,” we say of someone who has stilled himself to be there for us, open and waiting, empty and attentive. But when we’re in conversations, most of the time we should be listening we are readying our next point, ticking off our arguments, loading our retaliatory guns for the next volley—or, checking our watches.

So good listening may be the hardest part of praying—but it’s a vital part. The following suggestions may help.

Set aside a time and place to pray every day for a week as a trial run. The place may be at your bedside on your knees in the old-fashioned manner, or you may find a quiet corner away from the television set, where you can set a candle or other object on a table to focus your attention on as you begin. Many resist the idea of having a special time and place for prayer, and it’s true that spontaneous talking and listening to God throughout the day is a wonderful way to make our way to a more serene life.

But we have to start somewhere. Joseph Campbell agreed that “You must havea room or a certain hour of the day…where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be…At first you may find nothing’s happening…But if you have a sacred place and use it, take advantage of it, something will happen.”

Plan to spend ten minutes in your sacred place.

--Start by playing a quiet, wordless song on a tape player, or just quieting your mind by focussing on the candle or other object. Get comfortable. Breath deeply through the belly to settle yourself.

--Empty your mind and in your own words, tell God you are here, waiting for God’s word, listening, listening. If it helps you to start with a familiar prayer like The Lord’s Prayer, do so, then grow quiet.

--Sometimes when we’re very quiet we can hear our own heart beat. Here, in our heart, is the indwelling of the divine. Be still and listen. If you sense distractions coming upon you, gently put them on a back burner and try again to listen and be quiet.

--After some minutes have gone by, let your own thoughts and words tumble out of your heart and speak to God about yourself, your concerns, your hopes.

--End your time by thanking and praising God in your own words, or in some remembered prayer.

--After a few days or weeks of this practice, you may want to incorporate some reading from the Sacred Scriptures of your religious tradition, for example, the Bible in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

These simple ways of praying are helpful to most people. Others like to try meditation techniques that involve more specific breathing patterns and chants, or the Jesus Prayer, where one breathes in on the words, “Lord, Jesus Christ,” and exhaling on the words, “Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Others may discover that a walk in the outdoors creates a prayerful atmosphere for them, sot heir prayer becomes a prayer of creation, like the prayer of St. Francis, who found in the moon and stars and sun, in trees and grass and flowers and creatures, an impetus to praise God and gain sustenance for his daily life.

There are a thousand ways to grow in prayer, and just as many routes for each individual to grow in prayer. But there is only way to begin, and that is by praying.

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