What Is Prayer?

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – June 20, 2010

Sometimes there are moments of grace in your life that you don’t forget. Moments when you interact with the universe in a way that you can’t explain but that you feel like you received what you need in an inexplicable way.

One of these moments for me was during the time of my first husband’s cancer treatments. Scott had been undergoing a bone marrow transplant which is a serious treatment involving such heavy doses of chemotherapy that all your white blood cells are essentially dead. Then blood containing healthy white blood cells is re-introduced into your body. But during the time of the chemotherapy treatments, a patient is so susceptible to infection that they are placed in an isolation unit.

Scott received this treatment at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati and I traveled down there each day to visit. But one day on the way down, I suspected that I felt a tiny bit of a sore throat. I knew that if I had any infection at all, I couldn’t visit even with a mask. So, I stopped at the Riverfront Park and decided to spend some time walking to really see if my sore throat was a reality. After walking for a while, I stopped at a park bench and sat basking in the warmth of a spring sun. Sitting in that sun, I felt like I was praying. My prayer was simply feeling the sun soaking through my body bringing nourishment and wellness to every pore. I kept feeling my body almost reaching up and pulling down more strength and energy. And I kept affirming to myself that I was well, that I was healthy. I sat there for, I don’t know how long, It might have been 30 minutes, it might have been an hour. But all of a sudden, I knew that I was well, that my body was fine and contained no harmful germs and that I could visit with Scott. I felt such gratitude. Even when my life was in crisis with Scott’s illness, the gratitude I felt for being well enough to visit was overwhelming. It brought tears to my eyes. Not only did I feel that the universe had brought me wellness, but I also felt that I was not alone. I felt confident that I had the inner strength to go through this and that I was not alone.

Prayer is a difficult concept for many UUs. For many of us having grown up in Christian or Judaic backgrounds, the idea of prayer takes the shape of asking for something from a higher being outside of ourselves. This is a problem for many not only because we may not believe in a powerful deity that is in control of the world, but also maybe because it seems like magic. How can you make something in the world change just by wishing it so? And should you have such a selfish wish? Why should your prayer be answered and not someone else’s? All these thoughts occur to some of us when we think of the idea of “prayer”.

My concept of prayer changed when I became a Buddhist many years ago. At first when I was taught the verbal meditation that we practiced, I was first taught to pray for whatever I wanted. Having been taught prayer as a petitionary exercise from my Christian background, I prayed with similar requests but with the Buddhist form . I chanted for things in my life to change. I asked for jobs, for raises, for relationships to change. And at first, nothing happened. Of course, nothing happened because I was asking for something in the outside world to change to please me. I did not believe in a omnipotent God at that point, and the Buddhism I was being taught also did not describe such a power. Instead, the philosophy taught that I was responsible for my own happiness and that I was a part of the wholeness of the universe. In that wholeness, I and others created the universe. We were the creators of our own life. That part was a concept that didn’t seem to jive with the idea of chanting for whatever you wanted.

After a few months of chanting for what I wanted and seeing no real change, I went for guidance with a leader in the organization. When I described what I was praying for, the leader asked me how did I think my prayer would change the situation. I admitted I had no idea. Then the leader explained to me that I whatever I prayed for, I had to become in my life. That when I prayed, if I saw the change in my life, if I embodied the change in my life, then I would see change. It wouldn’t necessarily happen the way I expected, but I would see change.

In fact, as I began to change my prayer, I did see change. I had been praying to change my husband. Make him more understanding of me, make him more sensitive to my needs. That wasn’t working. But when my prayer became a prayer for our happiness together, that’s when I began to picture in my mind a good marriage, I began to change how I saw my role in my marriage. It became clearer that it was change in me that would change the marriage. As I saw hope for the marriage, I began to put my energy into changing myself. And that made everything change.

Author Gregg Braden describes a time in his life when he spent several years living in the desert of Santa Fe. He had come there on a sacred quest away from his normal life. He explored the ideas of native people about “vision quests” – a time spent away from one’s mundane existence, living close to the land, and exploring one’s purpose in life. Gregg had been involved in such a quest when he met David, a native American who offered to share with him an experience of praying for rain during a long dry spell.

They went out into the desert and David stopped and reached up to the sky and then leaned down to the earth. He performed a brief ceremony where he drew a medicine wheel in the dirt, stepped into the circle and said some words. After a time of silence, he looked at Gregg and said, “Our work is finished here.” Gregg didn’t understand since there was obviously no rain that followed, until David explained.

He said that when he said his prayer that he imagined the great medicine of rain around him. He felt raindrops and the feeling of wet mud oozing up. He put his whole imagination into feeling the reality of rain and deep gratitude for its gifts. David explained that we must first understand the feelings of what we are asking for. We plant the seeds for whatever it is by feeling it in our life and giving thanks for it. We create the reality of our prayer by seeing it in our lives and then it is planted in our very being. We live it by our intentions, by our living prayer. (The Isaiah Effect, Gregg Braden. p. 161-168.)

Instead of seeing prayer as asking for something, we embody the desire into our lives. For instance, when we pray for peace, we don’t ask for something outside of ourselves to bring peace, instead we dedicate ourselves to peace by everything we do. We imagine that peace exists in our very bodies, in our words, in our acts. Then we feel gratitude for this peace existing in us and in others. We become the creators of peace. Our prayers come true simply because we begin to embody them.

Unitarian Universalist Erik Wikstrom in his book Simply Pray says that prayer is both about opening ourselves to the universe as well as bringing more love into ourselves. He says “Loving prayer is about opening our hearts and minds to the needs of others and of the world in which we live. Our understanding and compassion increase. Our capacity for love expands. Our attitude improves. Our ability to work for healing – in ourselves, in our relationships, in our social structure, is immeasurably strengthened.”

Yesterday, Bill and I went sailing. It was a perfect day for it. The wind was just catching the sails just the right amount to keep us moving. It made me think of sailing as a prayer. When you aim the boat just right, the sails catch the wind and carry you where you want to go. But when you head the boat right into the wind, something that’s called “being at irons” – you don’t go anywhere because you aren’t maximizing the nature of the wind. Being open in prayer to what the universe can bring us, is like opening our lives to the universe. It’s flowing with the nature of the universe.

If you see meditation as floating on an inner tube in the water, just allowing the current to take you where it will, completely accepting what comes, prayer is more like being in a sailboat, where you direct how the wind is going to carry you. You open the sails in the right way to carry you where you want to go, but you have to accept if the wind decides to do something else. Like nothing. Often when you’re sailing, you are just sitting, waiting for something to happen. Often prayer feels like that as well.

I love the book that Leslie read this morning about a grandfather telling his grandson about how he saw prayer. How he saw prayers in the way the trees stretch out to the sun, the way the rocks prayed in stillness, the flowers prayed blowing in the wind, and the birds prayed by the way they sang. The book said, “Each living thing gives its life to the beauty of all life, and that gift is a prayer.”

Prayer is many different things to different people. A still, calm peacefulness of mind as we drink in the “what is” of the life that surrounds us. A song sung in worship and appreciation of the beauty of life. An intention about how we want to change our lives and how we embody that change. A petition to the universe for more loving and more understanding.

All these things can be prayer. When we live our lives intentionally, with mindfulness, we begin to see that everything that we do is a prayer of some sort. Each word, each act, each interaction can all be prayers if we can see them that way. In fact, everything is holy now.