When I was a lad, certainly before I was a teenager but old enough to walk on my own, I did just that. I walked. I walked a lot. Around the streets of Kenora, in the winter over a winter bridge to Coney Island, a summer place for swimming, but a quiet place in the winter. I would walk along the waterfront. Sometimes a friend would walk with me, but often I would walk alone. And I think I prayed—sort of—when I walked… kind of a moving prayer.
I would have these odd feelings when I walked, flashes of insight that I had no idea what they meant or where they came from. I would look up at the night sky and have this sense of being part of something vast and big—I was small and insignificant, and yet feeling an important part of it all. I didn’t know what to do with these thoughts and feelings. I remember at some point I worked up the courage to ask my father, United Church minister, about prayer. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember not being any clearer.
If you Google “prayer,” you’ll get millions of responses. You’ll get all kinds of definitions. Some are helpful definitions and make one think; others are unhelpful and can make one feel angry or confused.
I believe that one of the things that defines a person of faith—any faith—is prayer. When I was younger and not long in ministry, I would tentatively ask people at a hospital bedside if they’d like me to pray. Even those who I knew to be atheist or agnostic would say yes. Even family members I didn’t know would say yes. Prayer is an intimate act and I think of it as an important thing we do. Today, also, I offer to pray with folks as a matter of course; I’m no longer so shy about it.
As people here today, we pray; it may be that we only pray on Sundays while at church. But we pray. Together in worship, we pray a short prayer at the beginning, offering praise to God and thanks. We give thanks again for the gifts that we give through our offering and for the general gift of contributing to the welfare of the world. We pray gratitude again usually in our prayers of the people, but mostly those prayers are for situations and people in the world.
In my estimation, the most common prayer we offer is gratitude; some of us say thanks before meals and many go through a gratitude list at the end of the day. Gratitude to a Higher Power, to God, to the Divine Spark, to the Cosmic Presence, to the Divine Light, to Abba God, to the Spirit is shared across faith traditions and even by people who would claim no faith tradition.
The second most popular prayer is likely praying for others; we pray for peace in a certain situation. We pray for loved ones who are going through a difficult time. We name people and situations for which we have a concern. And then there are other forms of prayer: praise, meditation or contemplation, offering a blessing, the laying on of hands for healing to mention a few other popular forms of prayer.
Many people have tried to figure out what goes on in prayer. And notice that Jesus didn’t say what prayer was. Certainly, prayer has been defined by Church leaders over the millennia, but there’s a mystery to prayer that is perhaps best left a mystery.
I remember reading in the United ChurchObserver (now called Broadview Magazine) an article by Michael Coren—he’s also a frequent commentator on CBC. He was quite a vocal conservative who had a change of heart and became an Anglican. I remember the article and then I heard him repeat the same idea on CBC TV while talking about a tragedy; Coren said that we often say, when we don’t know what to say, “Our hearts and prayers are with you.” He criticized that as empty rhetoric and meaningless. For me, on the contrary, if it is heartfelt and one will actually pray, I find it quite moving. It can be a hackneyed political phrase like a politician blessing a country, but I think it’s a different matter altogether when we say this to one another with intention and heart.
Heart and prayer, I believe gets at the spirit of the matter. Luke rightly links the Holy Spirit and prayer in his story about Jesus and prayer. In prayer, I believe that something mystical takes place. I often go back to Paul’s teaching in Romans, “The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words when we don’t know what to pray.” The intention of prayer is what’s important. And somehow, the Spirit takes that intention—our words or unformed thoughts—deep into God’s being. And as I’ve said many times before, if compassion in Hebrew is related to our guts—our deepest insides—for women, this is the womb as reflected in the literal meaning of compassion in Hebrew, then prayer is about entering into God’s deepest innermost part and having that for which we pray birthed into the world anew. The Spirit is sent out into the world and new life is birthed.
And when I talk about prayer, I also like to differentiate between cure and healing. Healing has to do with our overall health and well-being. Cure is much more specific about having a specific problem or issue removed. We may want that, certainly, but it doesn’t always happen. Whereas, there is always the possibility of healing and wholeness.
Our heart to God’s heart is what prayer is all about, or our deepest parts into God’s deepest parts and new life birthed into the world again. Is there a way to describe this scientifically? Many have tried, but I don’t think we can capture a scientific reason for prayer, nor do I think it necessary.
One form of prayer that is highly underrated is quiet meditation or contemplation. Sitting quietly with the intention of being open to God and allowing the deepest parts of our beings to communicate with God is kind of what meditation is about. Our egos get out of the way and the deepest parts of who we are commune with the Divine and something life-giving happens; healing happens in some way and at some level that we don’t intellectually grasp.
That’s prayer, at least for me. And I know that when I pray, it opens me to new possibilities. It humbles me and empties me and is part and parcel of a new beginning. As we pray, we begin again and that for which we pray or those for whom we pray are drawn into our circle of love and heart and something life-giving happens.
My heart and prayers are with you! Amen.