The Spirit and Practice of Prayer Rev. Cricket Potter Follen Community Church February 26, 2012

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The Spirit and Practice of Prayer

Rev. Cricket Potter

Follen Community Church

February 26, 2012

Our reading for this morning is a poem entitled On Prayer” by Czeslaw Milosz. I imagine Milosz addressing any one of us in our doubts as we ask how or why he prays. What I appreciate is the place of hope, communion, and enlarged perspective he brings us to with his sense of prayer.

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,

Above landscapes the color of ripe gold

Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.

That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal

Where everything is just the opposite and the word is

Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.

Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,

Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh

And knows that if there is no other shore

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

Winter is a time when we ministers love to delve into sermon topics of a more reflective nature.

We’re past the holidays, Easter is still months away, and the cold weather tends to lead us inward.

As seems to happen increasingly in our co-ministry, when Tricia and I sat down a few weeks ago to plan for last Sunday and this Sunday, we both came up with similar ideas that complemented one another as a two-part series.

Tricia wanted to explore the topic of stillness, and I wanted to explore the topic of prayer.

I joked that better her than me to talk about stillness since that is not one of my strong suits!

But perhaps, in my own struggle with stillness is a sermon for a future date.

Entering into Prayer

It’s a word and a concept that leaves many of us Unitarian Universalists struggling.

We often come from other religions where we had to pray specific prayers in a prescribed way.

That type of prayer holds little meaning for us now.

So, some of us just avoid prayer altogether so as not to even go near that path.
Perhaps, we don’t pray because we don’t believe in God and wonder who we would pray to anyway.

Or, we figure that we’re just too busy and that we find our sustenance elsewhere.

And truth be told, even if we wanted to pray, we wouldn’t know what to say anyways.
I think of the standard joke about Unitarian Universalists and how we start our prayers: “To whom it may concern.”

I also think of a cartoon I once saw in the Boston Globe depicting a man in his pajamas, kneeling at his bedside to pray.

From above comes the question, “Yes?”

And the man responds a bit startled,

“Oh, you’re there! I was hoping I could just leave a message.”
We can laugh about our quirkiness with prayer when all is well in our lives.

Yet, how the longing aches and how the question of whom we pray to weights heavy when life takes a painful turn and we suddenly, desperately want to pray.

The reasons I shared for our avoiding prayer were just a few of my own reasons at a time when I moved away from prayer.

It was that longing for something deeper and truly sustaining that eventually brought me back.

So, I offer this time as an invitation to each and every one of you.

Wherever you are on the spectrum - of finding comfort and strength in prayer on the one hand or experiencing befuddlement about how to even begin a prayer on the other - this time is about exploring the possibilities of prayer.

My hope is that you can find some nourishment for your soul this morning and that, if prayer has been something you have avoided for whatever reason, you might feel encouraged to befriend it as something that can be a meaningful part of your life no matter how full your life may already be.

So, the next twenty minutes or so will include some reflections on prayer and some time to engage in prayer together.

I will introduce those times of prayer with this chime that I will ring to lead us into prayer.
Let’s first consider the spirit of prayer and how we approach prayer.

The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that,

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

We cannot pray when our brains are full of chatter and our bodies are fidgeting.

Last week, Tricia invited everyone into times of stillness.

As she said, through stillness, we can come to a place of deeper awareness.

Prayer begins with – and then expands - awareness.

It starts when we slow down enough to listen and open ourselves to what is both within us and around us.

While we don’t necessarily need to be still to pray – more on that part later - it helps to limit the distractions and bring our attention to the present moment.

There is the still small voice within that waits to be heard.

What needs to be acknowledged within you right now?

Is it joy, sadness, hope, fear, a sense of belonging or a deep loneliness, a sense of anticipation about something ahead, or a heavy sense of loss from something that has happened?

Prayer is not about the right words but about our honesty – our offering up who we truly are in that moment.

Prayer that sustains us can only start from that place - where we each are - in heart and soul and body.

So, let’s start there together.

Take a minute now to settle into your seats and into yourself.

Find a centered and straight posture that is comfortable for you, and I invite you to place your hands palm up as if to be receiving and open.

Take deep slow breaths that come from deep down in your diaphragm, not up in your chest.

In Hebrew the word for breath is also the word for spirit: ruah.

Breath and spirit - let them both fill you up.

Close your eyes if that is most comfortable for you or simply rest your gaze down in front of you.

If your mind is racing around, then try counting your breaths – slow breaths.

See if you can give yourself to this time of openness to what comes up from within or what comes to you from elsewhere.
Listen, feel, notice.

Be accepting of whatever comes.

Let us now share in a few minutes of silence.

Chime and time of silence……

What Is Prayer?
After entering into the spirit, what is prayer?

My long-time mentor Rev. Gary Smith from First Parish in Concord, says that prayer can come in four basic forms – “please, thank you, oops, and ahhh.”

In other words, prayer can include a petition or need; it can offer up gratitude; it can include confession; it can also give voice to our praise and awe.
I see all this about connecting with what is deepest in our hearts as well as opening our heart to others and the world around us.

In this way, we give voice to the stirrings of our heart and more.

One of our great UU ministers Rev. Jack Mendelsohn once wrote:

Prayer is an effort to reach deep and to reach out and to become what we would like to be, and need to be, and ought to be. Proper prayer is not a petition to escape realities. It is an effort to face up to realities, to understand them, to deal with them…to grow…in courage, strength, and in faith.”

I love that description because it portrays prayer as something deeply grounded in life and in our efforts to live life well and fully.

In other words, prayer is not something esoteric or ethereal meant only for monks and mystics.

It’s essential stuff meant for us everyday folks in our everyday, demanding lives.
Through prayer, we are strengthened.

We find clarity.

We discover new possibilities.
Poet and author Kathleen Norris puts it this way:

Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.”

That’s definitely a shift from the idea of prayer as a request list to God:

“Please give me this or do that for me.”

The question that looms large for us Unitarian Universalists though is:

“Who or what do we pray to?”

That is a question we each need to answer honestly for ourselves.

What is that “something larger” that you believe in that upholds or connects us all?

Is it love, community, reason, truth, or the Spirit of Life?
We can begin our prayers invoking God, the Spirit of Love and Life, the Wisdom of the Universe, or simply by reaching out to all of humanity.

What matters is that it has meaning for you.

Taking what I have just shared as some possibilities for prayer, I invite you into a time of silent prayer.

I invite you to be open to: who or what your heart calls you to pray to, the “please, thank you, oops, or ahhh” that stirs within you this morning, or the nascent growth that is waiting in the recesses of your soul for your attention and intention.

Let us now enter into a time of silent prayer.

Chime and time of silence………..

Being Prayerful
Finally, I want to spend a few minutes considering prayerfulness.

One of my favorite writers, the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast notes that prayer often happens, ironically, without any prayers.

What he means is that there is a big difference between saying a prayer and being prayerful.

He explains:

Suppose, for example, you are reciting Psalms. If all goes well, this may be a truly prayerful experience. But all doesn’t go well. While reciting Psalms, you might experience nothing but a struggle against distractions. Half an hour later, you are watering your African violets. Now suddenly, the prayerfulness that never came during the prayers overwhelms you. You come alive from within. Your heart expands and embraces those velvet leaves, those blossoms looking up at you…. And in a rush of gratefulness, your heart celebrates this belonging together. As long as this lasts, everything has meaning, everything makes sense. You are communicating with your full self, with all there is, with God. Which was the real prayer, the Psalms or the watering of your African violets?
Your heart expands, you come alive.

You are overwhelmed with gratitude.

You feel a deeps sense of connection and belonging to everything that is life, and everything has meaning.

That is being prayerful.

It is about giving your attention to whatever it is that helps you feel most connected to yourself and to others – whatever it is that helps you feel most alive.
At times that might involve silence and stillness.

However, it could also include tending to your garden, walking in the woods and immersing yourself in the beauty and mystery of nature, connecting with your body through yoga, being creative in some way, reading or cuddling with your children, cooking a special meal for yourself or your friends or family, helping someone who needs you, tending to the loving care of this planet our home.

I imagine that there are as many answers as there are human experiences of joy, love, gratitude, and mystery.
What matters is the intention we bring to that time.

Are we fully present and mindful?

Are we receiving all the gifts of that moment?

Do we feel life moving more vividly in us as we open up to the possibilities?

For our last time of silence, I invite you to consider where prayerfulness is, or can be, most vivid for you.

What is your equivalent of lovingly and patiently watering the violets?

Chime and time of silence………
Final Thoughts on Prayer
Thank you for engaging in this exploration of prayer with me.

My hope is that you felt something meaningful that you want to explore further in your own way.

I have come to realize over the years just how much I need prayer.

And I say this as someone who rejected it for a long time.

What I have found, though, is that prayer brings me back to myself and to what is most important and good in life.

Through prayer, I come to a place of honesty, vulnerability, humility, connection, acceptance, compassion, love, and gratitude.

And just so you know, my prayer often is not traditional prayer, as in sitting still and in silence.

I often find peace and connection in moving my body in some rhythmic, repetitive way.

One of my daily forms of prayer is walking with my dogs.

I bask in their joy for the walk as I receive the gift of another day, rain or shine.

Another form of prayer is cooking - when I have the time to do it thoughtfully.

The smells and textures, the careful slicing and stirring, all awaken my senses.

Plus, the anticipation of sharing a meal that I have lovingly prepared brings me a deep sense of connection and gratitude.
And finally, I do sit quietly and pray to the Spirit of All Life.

I ask what I need to be open to that day and whom I can hold in loving thought.

I pray with all of you, lifting up our shared hopes and humanity.
There are no wrong words and there is no wrong way of praying as long as it comes from your heart, opens your heart, and brings your heart closer to others.
I close where I began with the words of poet Czeslaw Milosz:

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard

Above landscapes the color of ripe gold…..

Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,

Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh

And knows that if there is no other shore

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
Blessed be.


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