There are many different types of prayer. Many people think of prayer as “asking God to give us things”. Most people rightly dismiss this sort of prayer as irrational and unspiritual. It’s well known that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. As one of our congregation once pointed out, many people in the First World War prayed for their loved ones to come back unharmed, but many young men were killed, and I am sure their families prayed just as hard for them to come back as the families of those who returned safely. The First World War (and subsequent genocides such as the Holocaust) ended many people’s faith in a personal God. This lack of a personal God obviously affects what we mean by prayer. When there is no person that we are talking to, prayer becomes a communing with the All.
At Summer School in Great Hucklow, I attended a workshop about prayer with Vernon Marshall, a Unitarian minister. He identified many different types of prayer: adoration, devotion, prayer of approach, invocation (asking the Divine to be present), bidding prayer, confession and penitence, words of reassurance, thanksgiving, intercession (asking for help for someone else), petition (asking for help for yourself), healing prayer, expressing aspiration, and reflection. There are also specific types of prayer for different bits of the service – blessing the elements of communion, for instance, or giving the closing blessing.
Prayer can also be simple and traditional. When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus gave them a simplified version of the traditional Hebrew Kaddish prayer, which today we know as the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of Jesus. This prayer contains hidden depths: it expresses many deep desires of the human heart – to be forgiven, to be loved, to be understood and to be nourished; and it expresses something about the nature of the Divine.
Informal and personal prayer is also valid; we tend to use written prayers in chapel, rather than extemporizing, but that is the nature of liturgical worship. There’s nothing wrong with informal prayer in private.
There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer). These are the ones I am developing in my personal spiritual practice, because I want to live in my whole body and not just in my head.
But what is prayer for? I don’t think it is really for God’s benefit (though She probably likes to be taken notice of). I think it is for our benefit. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul.
In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,
“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”
To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what prayer should be like.
Charles Williams, a Christian mystic who was also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, believed that God is in everything and everything is in God, and that we are all part of each other. If this is true, then it has profound consequences for prayer, because when you pray, you are connecting with the entire cosmos and all beings within it, and so the healing of your own soul is also the healing of all other souls.
Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life, and she said that she didn’t talk to God, she just listened. The interviewer asked her what God did, and she replied “He just listens too.” Silent prayer and contemplation is probably the most powerful form of communication with the Divine, because we spend so much time focused on words that we lose touch with the more instinctual side of our nature.
Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with the Divine. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.
In Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism, there are four worlds or stages of creation, and when we pray, we ascend through these worlds to come closer to God; they also correspond to psychological states. The closest world to the Divine Source is Emanation (Proximity in Hebrew); the next is Creation, then Formation, then Action. The soul in prayer ascends through the worlds of action (the body), formation (the ego), creation (the soul) and emanation (the Divine presence).
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, there is a tradition called Hesychasm. Hagia Hesychia or Holy Silence is an aspect of Christ, and Hesychasm is the practice of silent prayer. In some ways it is similar to Quaker practice (which is interesting when you consider that there is no historical connection between them). Holy Silence is traditionally represented as female, and there is a lovely icon of her by William Hart McNicholls.
Staretz Silouan, a monk of Mt Athos, recommended praying for everyone you know and just holding them in your awareness and love. Similarly, a Buddhist meditation of Metta Bhavana (loving kindness) invites you to love yourself, then your partner, then your community, then someone you dislike, then the whole world.
Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose the word “Love”, or “Peace” or “Joy” to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word. We tried this earlier.
Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth); yet another example is the Muslim style of prayer, which was also used by many Christians in the Middle East (indeed in some places, Christians and Muslims used to pray side by side). Similarly, Taizé prayer is an ecstatic form of prayer involving the whole body.
So prayer can begin with words, and end with silent contemplation. There are many different kinds of prayer, using words, gestures, dance, and silence. All are beneficial to the spiritual practitioner, and to those around them, as they cultivate peace.
The other day a Catholic friend posted on his blog that Christian mysticism is more interested in the practice of compassion than in achieving rarefied spiritual states. This is probably true of all the world’s great mystical traditions; but I commented that the two approaches go hand in hand – you cannot practice compassion unless you are also at peace with yourself; and you cannot be at peace with yourself unless you practice compassion. You cannot separate the inner work from the outer work, because your inner state and the outer world are intimately connected. As D T Suzuki once said, “Our ego is just a swinging door between our outer and inner world.” And, I would add, it is prayer that opens the door between the two worlds.