Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Prayer

Prayer is the heart of the spiritual path. When you ponder why this universe exists, you might speculate that the Creator needs beings who can pray, that in prayer a necessary exchange of energies and will flows between the created and the Creator. Prayer engenders a dialogue between an individual or a group and the Divine, ultimately transforming into a monologue of God (through us) praying to God. The quality of this dialogue ranges enormously from the perfunctory blessing over food to the utter surrender of the saint in mystical union. Four factors determine the power of our prayer: the degrees of our faith, humility, awareness, and intention.

Without faith we would never pray or practice at all. For many of us, faith begins in childhood as a set of beliefs learned from our family and community. As we grow older our spiritual beliefs may be based either in the intellect or in the emotions. Intellectual belief constitutes a reasoned orientation toward the Divine, while emotional belief springs from a heartfelt orientation. But our beliefs typically do not rise to the level of spurring us on to transformative spiritual practice. There comes a time, however, when we are drawn beyond ordinary belief to discover a quiet confidence in the Divine and a silent but insistent yearning to fill our spiritual need. That yearning can grow into a flame that lights our way and draws us ever closer to the sacred. Proximity adds fuel to that flame. So does realization of our distance from the Divine, our separation from what matters so deeply. More and more, our disparate, competing drives align themselves toward the higher. What was once a cacophony of urges and desires unifies into a vibrant, living faith. Then we cross the chasm. The fortunate few attain to the all-consuming faith that emerges from direct and ongoing contact with Divinity. But if you look for the source of faith, you cannot see it. Neither thought nor emotion, faith springs from deep within the will.

Humility, the one essential quality for entering the sacred, arises naturally through sincere prayer and also enables it. But by the time we reach adolescence, nearly all of us see ourselves as the center of the universe; we live at the opposite pole from true humility. Eventually the hard knocks of life show us our actual position as only one of many, and the path toward humility begins. The pure-hearted among us possess enough feeling for people and for all of life to be naturally humble, naturally harmless. The rest of us instinctively gravitate toward that unassuming person, out of respect and trust. Our road toward humility accelerates with an element of fear and trembling before our dim but growing intuition of the Greatness behind the universe. Thus, we begin wishing for self-abnegation, self-noughting before the Divine. Understanding that utter humility is a precondition for contact with the higher worlds, we examine our own self-centeredness and search for ways to let go of our egoism. Finally, in moments of true emptiness, we drop our separateness from the Divine, with none of our self left to be afraid for, humility momentarily perfected. The truly humble person remains all too rare, but a treasure for us all.

Our level of awareness during the time of prayer can range from the dimmest automatism to the brightest love. At the low end we stay distant, praying in a habitual, superficial manner, in rote ritual, perhaps lost in thoughts unrelated to the prayer, adding nothing to the sacred economy. Slightly more awareness brings contact with our thoughts, emotions, body, and surroundings, imbuing the ritual with feeling. Still our prayer remains largely self-centered. Another notch of awareness and the stillness of consciousness itself unfolds before us, opening the field to a more universal prayer. We pray from the whole of ourselves and with full awareness of the significance of prayer. We pray not only as ourselves, but also as one unit of the whole of humanity. Moving further into the depths of awareness, we approach what lies veiled behind the stillness: the realm of the Divine. Then we pray, touched by the Divine Spirit before Whom we stand in awe and love, and to Whom we address our prayers.

The quality of petitionary prayer depends on the intention it embodies. We might ask for satisfaction of some personal vanity or other desire. Deeper and we ask for fulfillment of a real personal need, such as restoration of health in times of illness. A higher form of petitionary prayer regards the needs of others, such as health for the other person, or peace on Earth.

A central factor in petitionary prayer is the awareness that there is SomeOne to Whom we pray. We do not pray simply to hear ourselves in an echo chamber or to an amorphous idea of the higher. We address ourselves to that Divine One. That stance changes the quality of our petition, for it confronts us with our conscience.

Beyond petitionary prayer, we pray without a specific or personal result in mind: praying to glorify the Most High, praying to pave our path toward God, praying for help on our path, praying for guidance in our service of Life, praying as an act of service to the sacred, returning our love and intelligence, our energy and will, ourselves to God. Our prayer becomes a true act of reverent worship as we pour out our love, awe, respect, and gratitude for Divine largesse in creating this universe and endowing us with freedom.

Contemplative prayer begins at the level of conscious prayer, in which we empty, open, and surrender ourselves to a connection with the higher worlds. We reach inward, outward, beyond space and time, beyond consciousness itself. We reach with the whole of ourselves, with body, heart, and mind, with all of our attention and intention, and perhaps with words calling out to God. Utterly given over to the act of communing with the Divine, we open ourselves to become a two-way channel that sends our hope, gratitude, and love upstream, while enabling an influx of higher energy to descend into us. We welcome this higher energy into the whole of our body. With our attention and intention, we allow that energy to blend with our sensitive energy, refining the latter and helping build our lower soul, our inner body.

At a still deeper level, once in contact with the creative energy of the Sacred Light, we raise it up in offering to the Divine. Repeating this act, we enter a direct and intimate service to God. Only afterward do we open ourselves as a channel to receive the high energy of the Sacred Light into our soul, into our body, and into this world.

Ultimately, we turn toward the threefold Divine Unity, the Force that creates, sustains, and loves this universe. This Ocean of Will, this Mountain of Purpose stands at the center of all. To the extent that our own individual will is purified of self-centered egoism, we can see this Ocean of Divine Will, our ancient home, in the deepest recesses of our soul, be touched by that Sacred Source, and become a vehicle for It. Our own will comes to us as a gift from that Ocean of Will. Our highest fulfillment comes in reconnection and service to That.

The differences in these levels of prayer derive from the purity and strength of our intention and from where it is centered: from my false center, to my actual personal center, to the center that I share with others, to that vibrant core that I share with All. In the end we pray as God. The unifying and purifying action of prayer on our will gradually builds our higher soul, our body of will.

All of this applies both to individual and communal prayer. While all prayer springs from individual acts, praying in community may wonderfully enhance the efficacy of prayer. The key factor is the degree to which the participants share the same intention and pray in unison. Disorganized communal prayer, where people merely mill about and chat inside a house of worship, has little real value. The deeper the shared intention and the more unified the awareness, words, and actions, the more powerful the communal worship.

Finally, we arrive at prayer that we attempt to extend throughout the day, in which we aim to pray without ceasing. Inwardly, our heart dwells with God; outwardly we offer our actions for the greater good. We find this, for example, in the Christian desert fathers of the Philokalia, in the Sufi tradition, in Hindu yoga, and in Kabbalah. An inner repetition of words of prayer can form scaffolding from which we seek to continuously reach toward the Unconditioned. This very high aim of prayer without ceasing constitutes a worthy life’s work.

As for the details of how to pray, a good place to start is our religion, the religion of our parents and ancestors. Because of our lifelong exposure and relative comfort with it, our native religion may offer us the most direct line toward depth in prayer. We may discover an essential connection with that religion, with its rituals and liturgy, with its people, with its approach to the Divine. From that religion we learn its outer forms of prayer and adapt them into our daily practice. And to those outer forms we bring our inner work, our faith, humility, awareness, and intention, the depth of our being and the constant simplicity of our devotion.

At whatever level we pray, we find a corresponding efficacy of prayer. Even if we cannot pray like a saint, we still bring the measure of warmth and devotion that we can muster. We need no intermediary; our relationship with the Divine is direct. The important thing is to regularly set aside time for that partnership with the Higher, to honestly open our heart and let God do the rest.

See Also: Stages of Prayer


        

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