The Practice of Praying

by Rev. Sharon Mooney

Prayerfulness. Praying. Prayer.

Rev. Sharon MooneyI am wrestling with the practice of praying particularly with my clients, but even within myself. When I explore the idea with my fellow chaplains we often talk about how prayer is presence, how chatting or playing cards can be prayer with mindfulness, with intention, how God is always present, we need only be aware of that to bring the Divine “into the room”. And it all sounds so enlightened and interfaith and inclusive.

But, my experience is there is some kind of indescribable power, some mojo, some something that happens inexplicably when people recite and/or spiritually participate in the recitation of “prayers”. The dictionary says that prayer is a formula or sequence of words appointed for or used in communicating with the Divine.

Karl Marx said “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. I’m thinking he had no idea how close he was to spiritual truth. If “opium is anything that soothes the mind or emotions” as the dictionary says, then I think I’m on the right path. Are we not trying to soothe the mind, the body and the spirit, so that the person can make their connection with their Divine? Are we not trying to turn down the noise and distractions of pain and fear, so we can hear God’s voice? I think that’s why people want to talk with me. They think I know that mojo and can share it with them.

Shamans, who so many of us respect and admire as great spiritual leaders, do not play cards or talk about the blue of the sky when he is praying with or for someone. He uses a formula or sequence of words and movements that create the sacred space for engaging with the Divine. She uses these formulas because they have proven over centuries to somehow create that sacred space that we seek in “prayer”. We don’t know how it happens, which is why we identify shamans, priests, ministers, chaplains to help us find it. Only the description of what the Divine is distinguishes one tradition from another. I believe I first have to resolve my own wrestling match before I can find my authentic practice of praying with my clients.

Artwork by Rev. Donna Belt

Over the centuries, prayer has become an art form like the scores of symphonic music, like great operas: The Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office, Tibetan Prayers for the Dead, the Hindu Vedas, Speaking in Tongues, Sacred Mantras, Sufi embodied prayer and on. I can remember being in the chapel in my boarding school. That simple, arched, sacred space of shining colors of light through ancient stained glass windows, deeply worn wooden pews and novitiate stalls, definitely made it one of God’s anterooms. Just entering that space was direct contact with the Divine. I was young, a teen, and it was a rarified experience as we proclaimed wonderful Latin prayers and Gregorian Chants in harmonic parts.

Now, in my daily practice of life, what has my prayer become? What sings my heart? What directly connects me to the Divine? I continue to ask.

Turning my face to the rising sun’s horizon most mornings, this rolls through my thoughts: “Thank you for this day!” Then, more thoughtfully I often say:

I offer this day into Your safe keeping
My plans into Your providence
My actions into Your stillness
My words into Your silence

If I am lucky to remember to stop, to still my whole self and look into the landscape, I hear God’s voice greet me back in the space between the trees. I recognize my God’s voice in my actual physical awareness of dimension, of 3-D’ness in the world, the emptiness between each and every thing. It takes my breath away. It is that space between, that emptiness that speaks more clearly to me than even the dance of the trees themselves.

Again, if I am lucky and respond to the Pavlovian clue of being in my car, I remember that I am yet at another intersect of starting my day and I remember my Taoist prayer:

I am returning to my Source
Like the flowing streams to ocean
Heaven is my Father, Earth is my Mother
All beings are my brothers and sisters
All things are my companions.
In this gentle, peaceful journey
I am becoming one with all things
Entrusting myself into the nurturing and transforming
Care of the Cosmos,
I listen to the sound of Love in Silence.
I am returning home, in peace.

By then, I feel that I have prayed. I feel that I’m intimate with my God.

A spiritual director once told me it was dangerous to judge connection to God through the feeling mode, but what a mistake he makes! When we are in love, we know we are, we talk and share with our loved one, and we get to feel that indescribable participation of our body in the intimacy of love. Our heart pounds, our breath increases, we tingle, we long, we feel love. I believe when we are in love with the Divine, all of us, each part: mind, body and spirit get to have the experience, and so I feel that I have been intimate with God this day.

But it doesn’t last long, I must check for traffic in both directions, I must check the time to assess if I will punctual, I must mind my driving. That focused, intimate, conscious conversation with my God is so fleeting, so illusive, like a ghost that dissolves under focusing eye.

So, how do we “live in prayer”? How do we achieve that practice of conscious connection with God? My only answer has been my hourly chime that reminds me, God’s here, are you? When it plays the hour, when I’m lucky enough to notice it (although it is almost always within hearing distance), I stop my mind, say thank you for reminding me that folding these clothes, or listening again to someone’s complaints, or waiting for someone to take their sweet time, or having to go back because I forgot something, these daily things are my prayers.

Or, I say, thank you for having eyes to see those clouds. These are not old, sacred words, but they are still my prayers. If God is here, is me, is you, we are and all is, then God’s got to know I’m turning my attention to the Divine, recognizing, hearing, seeing, loving the Divine in that tiny millisecond that cannot be measured, but that I can feel with the skip of my heart.

Maybe prayer is all of that and more that I have yet to find. Those prayerful words I utter, those formulated series of words, that sometimes feel rote, are my way in; they do do something I cannot quite figure out to prick my heart’s, mind’s and body’s awareness of God for that tiny beat. Maybe all this “praying” is just my way of reminding my self of what I tell others: “All you have to do is turn your mind just to the side and God is there, always. It is not God who forgets we are in love, it is only us.”