What is prayer? I like this definition from the internet 'Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God' (Dr. Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of all desire). John O’Donohue calls prayer ‘A bridge between longing and belonging’.
I have thought a lot about beauty recently and now I have moved on to prayer. In many ways they are connected. Each is an expression of something desirable, something put right, something aesthetically pleasing. Each welcomes the desire to improve one's emotional balance. Each draws upon the soul to look outward into the world seek change.
It is early on a late September morning and the sun has yet to break over the houses at the end of the garden. The sky is gradually brightening - an expanse of blue with a few high wisps of salmon pink clouds in the distance. It should be a bright day and I plan to go and spend a couple of hours just sitting on a local hilltop. A sort of mini retreat, and I will see what happens. I have no expectations. Being in Nature requires the suspension of expectation. I just need to let it ‘be’, for I cannot make anything happen. I am there to just let go and find a place from in which I can receive. I am not too sure whether I can really learn from Nature as such, but I feel I can definitely receive from a place that accepts my presence.Notes made amongst the trees:
Prayer can possibly be said to begin with the placement of the self in the universe. The first thing that happens is that you acknowledge yourself. It is you that forms the starting point, you are the centre of what will follow. You are the initiator.
Can prayer happen without your presence? Can Nature pray in your absence? Imagine an empty cornfield. Where or when does prayer happen? I started to think that an empty field cannot pray but once I stand in that field then prayer will happen. It needs me to be the initiator and the focus or does it? My intention for the prayer is what matters. How does that prayer leave me and how does it affect the recipient of the prayer? How does what I am thinking about in that field touch something else? Can it? Will it? What are the factors that decide if, how and when a prayer will work?
What are the boundaries between my imagination and prayer? I could easily pray that a teleportation device would suddenly appear and by pressing a button I could be instantly transported back to my homeland. This is unlikely to happen and is this just wishful imagination? So does prayer then have to be something that could, in reality happen? I could pray for Alice in Wonderland to appear with a wonderful tea party accompanied by lots of English speaking animals. Well, this could happen, but not in the form that I imagine it. I could come up here one summer with my daughter with a few of her cuddly toys for a picnic. But then is there here just a wishful imagining of something that is based around a collection of varied subconscious thoughts that I have picked up over the past few weeks?
Prayer must be an idea about something that will manifest itself in someway though how it does so may not be quite as we expect it to. If there is a perceived answer to prayer then is it not just our consciousness taking note of something that may have actually occurred anyway? Is it just random whether prayer works or not? Is it just an over positive, intense emotional moment that affects us psychologically and alters mental processes in ways that could be construed as being attributed to a ‘spiritual’ moment.
Prayer is about me having particular thoughts and directing them at something. How can my thoughts influence something - say, internally for healing or externally to people or situations? And what about a group of people praying?
There is a hope that by praying there is a supernatural element that can change the ways the universe is. We pray because we want to change things around us that are unjust, unwell, painful etc. We have an emotional attachment to wanting to better our lives.
Back to the illustration of the field, I am in Nature, if I believe that Spirit is around me then I am not alone and I am part of a bigger picture and somehow I connect with that. I was born in to it and it sustains me. I cannot survive independently of nature.
Prayer is being in touch with beauty.
I've cycled to one of my regular haunts a wooded hill top where sycamore birch and ash form an open, spacious area. The tall slender trunks reach upwards to the high enveloping canopy. As a progression from the earlier thought of praying in an open field, I wondered how I would feel being in amongst the trees. I have enjoyed the freedom that is presented by open fields and hilltops before. Sometimes the liberated feel of the body away from any physical restriction is the right place to be in. Now I am exploring this patch of trees and wondering the following: does prayer exist here when there is no human present?Here are some thoughts from Nimue Brown’s book (see Beauty and Prayer: Part 1)
If I and nature are imbued with the same spirit then although I have a conscious mind and can entertain the concept of prayer, could not the trees around me also, in some way, be part of Nature's way of prayer - their presence being part of the eternal evolution of life on this planet.
In a place like this is am surrounded by objects of nature. Trees, grass, moss, fungi, nettles etc. Each is present as a thing of natural beauty and creation. When an empty field is transformed into such a tangible expression of creation, this is where life exists in proliferation. It is in our nature to fall in love with the trees and see them as a thing of beauty and as a multi-faceted resource. It is here, amongst the trees that I think the concept of prayer can be heightened.
In churches prayer is often expressed in groups of people. Here I am surrounded by other living non-persons, but could they not actually form the same function? Together with the trees I could pray. I could uses their symbolism and presence to help me form my prayers.
'Essentially it is about entering a mystery, not getting a result.' John Pritchard, How to Pray, SPCK 2002.
'Prayer is, in essence, an attempt to start a conversation with something.’
'Much of the prayer work suggested by religious leaders, regardless of tradition, has nothing to do with petition. Prayer is more about entering into a relationship with the divine, being open to the voice of the spirit; open to direction and inspiration. Prayer is an invitation to the numinous to enter your life.'
'The important thing ... is being open to, and aware of, something beyond us. We break down the privacy of the world inside pour skulls, a little. Something else is then able to get in ... The actual existence of things beyond us. We might then learn to empathise with that which is not us, and start to care about it.'
'Everything we do brings us in contact with other living beings ... Everything we do automatically engages us with other manifestations of spirit. Everything is about such relationship and it all brings scope for meaningful exchange. If everything we do becomes prayer, then we should be listening to what is around us, with the intention to walk more lightly, cause less harm, use less, and live more harmoniously.'
What to pray for? Nimue sees much petition prayer as inappropriate because of the way it excuses the prayer from taking responsibility for their actions; it can be just an ego boost and a desire for a quick-fix, much like the modern consumerist culture we live in expects of us. We should pray more respectfully for:
Gratitude: our existence and expanding out to every part of our lives. That which hurts and challenges us can also help us to grow... these are the things that shape us. Look for what seems especially good, beautiful or precious... Seeing the good, responding to it, praising, appreciating and supporting, all help to make life that bit better for ourselves and others.
Strength and gratitude: although with petition prayer, if the solutions are given to us then we do not learn or grow, this can be useful. Asking for strength to endure, and the means to do the necessary work, is not about getting off lightly. It is about developing a quality of self.
Inspiration: as with the above, this is not a petition to get out of something. Inspiration solves problems, but does not take them away. Inspiration reduces insurmountable obstacles to hills we can feasibly climb. Inspiration allows us to look properly at the rock and the hard place, and respond by growing some wings.
Relationship: a way of seeking connection. We can pray to reach out, from a desire to experience, understand, learn and be changed by what we encounter.
Healing: prayers that seek to find a good way through. May be more effective than those that assume we know what the best method or outcome should actually be. Sometimes the most useful thing to do is to seek insight, not solutions.
There is a concept in Druidry of the idea of Awen which I like. I feel I can more easily identify with it as a Holy Spirit concept because it talks in a language that I identify with more easily. It is less paternalistic and personified (I am not a people person as such so this is more comfortable in my mind) and more in tune with a sense of creativity, inspiration, mystery and beauty. Here are a few random definitions from the internet:
‘Awen is the wisdom, truth and most of all the inspiration, Awen is Nature, the universal power behind life, yet it is never born and shall never die. Awen is a force or energy forged from an indivisible source that is the power behind the physical and non-physical or spirit forms Existence, and distinction between the natural and the super-natural becomes meaningless, as both are the personification of Awen Every link which is a part of nature, be it a man, animal, plant or elemental force, each holds its own little piece and together make up the whole chain which is Awen. Awen is the spirit of Druidy itself, it is knowing, sensing and feeling it in your essence and true being, it is the freedom to accept ones nature.(http://www.freewebs.com/nexusdruids/awen.htm)’
‘Loosely translated from Welsh, it means flowing spirit, or flowing inspiration. We know that it is a flowing spirit, a kind of life essence, a source of spiritual strength, prophetic insight and poetic inspiration.’
‘It is an awareness, not just on a physical and mental level but on a soul deep level – an awareness of the entirety of existence, of life itself. It is seeing the threads that connect us all. It is the deep well of inspiration that we drink from, to nurture our souls and our world and to give back in joy, in reverence, in wild abandon and in solemn ceremony.’