What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Prayer

December 19, 2013 § 7 Comments

The gift of prayer. 

In my last post about family devotional life, I mentioned prayer, but deferred discussion because it is too big a subject to add to an already long post. And it’s bigger than “family” as a category. As I said then, I believe that a good discussion of prayer will take us to the heart of our religious life.

In his introduction to George Fox’s Journal, William Penn wrote that, as many and as great were Fox’s gifts,

“above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt, or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.”

Today, the gift of prayer—the ability to sweep others in the meeting up into the Presence with the intensity and integrity of our prayer—is almost totally lost among us. At least that’s true of the liberal meetings with which I am acquainted. And I wonder about our programmed meetings. You at least do pray vocally in meeting. But do you program your prayer the way you program everything else? Can programmed prayer dissolve the invisible sheath that holds us away from the presence of G*d? Are those who do feel the spontaneous, spirit-led call to prayer free in that moment to sink to their knees and take the meeting with them?

To whom do we pray? 

Prayer as it is traditionally practiced assumes a Being that is listening, that cares, that answers. That was the assumption behind the practice of prayer in my church and in my family when I was a kid.

However, I suspect that many Friends in the liberal tradition, anyway, just couldn’t with integrity teach their children to pray to a traditionally defined supreme being kind of god. Many of us just do not believe in such a god or have any experience of him (sic). So to whom would we pray?

And if you’re not praying to some entity that could hear your prayer and maybe answer it (or cherish it, if the prayer is not supplicatory), what do you do? I think a lot of us have just stopped praying in the face of this dilemma.

Instead, we “hold in the Light”. That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it seems a bit weak. It feels weak to me because it has nothing to do with relationship—it is very abstract. On the other hand, simply addressing a divine being in the traditional way also seems a bit weak. Both do something to align the soul inwardly toward something we’re saying is divine. But both are too often just a vague exercise of the imagination—a form without power.

In my experience, prayer is effective in direct proportion to how focused it is, both in the mind and in the heart. The 19th century Indian master Ramakrishna used to hold his disciples underwater in the Ganges until they were about to drown. Then he would haul them up and say, “As badly as you wanted air just then, that’s how badly you need to want God.”

Well, that’s a bit extreme. But you get the idea.

This gets to the heart of the issue for Liberal Friends: just who—or what—is God for us? What is worship if there is no supreme being, or at least, no distinct identifiable spiritual entity capable of relationship with us? What is prayer without some one to address, rather than some thing—or nothing at all?

My own prayer journey.

My own journey in this area is quite heterodox; but maybe not so uncommon, in its broad strokes.

As I said in my last post, my mother prayed with my brother and me at bedtime when we were little. I wish I remember when she stopped doing that. I do remember that she would ask us to remember to pray during what I guess was a kind of transition stage when we got a little older and she wasn’t doing it with us. The prayer was a stock family favorite that actually made me somewhat nervous: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lord my soul to take.” You can guess the part that caused some anxiety. Also, of course, our family prayed together before every meal, also a stock family favorite: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”

My parents took for granted a traditional theistic God to whom you could pray quite naturally and they believed that he (sic) was paying attention, not just to our prayers, but to everything we did. However, when I went to college during the height of the ‘60s, a bunch of factors combined to undo this simple faith for me. I replaced prayer with meditation, for which I learned several methods, and with other practices that worked better for me than conventional prayer. I still practice them.

And then I reconnected with theism in a new way in a mystical experience in the mid-1980s and I recovered prayer as direct address to an identifiable Spirit (just not the traditional Christian God; I choose to call this being an angel, but that just begs the question of what I mean by “angel”, and that’s a discussion for another time). More recently I find myself praying sometimes to Christ, to what I think of as the Christ-spirit (but that, of course, begs the question of what do I mean by “Christ-spirit”).

The real breakthrough came only last year, in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of New York Yearly Meeting during its Summer Sessions. I finally found the address—the “to whom” that I might pray:
    Our Father who art in Heaven,
    our Mother who art in Earth,
    our Holy Spirit who art in all things living
        and in each one of us,
    we thank you for your transcendental revelations, and
    for your abundant beauty and providence, and
    for your abiding presence and
        the truth that you have awakened within us.
    We ask that you guide our steps and
        illuminate our minds,
    that you sustain and heal our bodies, and
    that you bring our hearts into lasting loving kindness.
    We pray this in the spirit of honest yearning,
    in the confidence of your revealing, and
    with the humble commitment to be faithful to your call.
        Amen.

So my own prayer life keeps evolving.

Recovering the gift of prayer.

From this sometimes intense and unexpected path, I have learned the following: Prayer life evolves. All you have to do is start where you are and practice. And there are ways to focus one’s spiritual attention that are deeply satisfying other than the traditional simple address to a spiritual being. On the other hand (in my experience), “spiritual beings” do exist, Christ included, and spiritual life conducted in the context of relationship with such a being is even more satisfying.

I was going to say here that you can’t just make it up, but upon reflection, I’m not sure that’s true. What I mean is that I believe it can be enough to just start with whatever you can do, practice it, and see where it goes. The sustained inward alignment works like meditation works. At a certain point, a standing wave gets established in your consciousness and you move to a new level; something deeper starts happening. Eventually, you can feel called into prayer, maybe even into relationship.

A multitude of forms await those who seek a vital prayer life, and the key is just to start, however lame it feels, and see what happens.

Finally, as I’ve said in other contexts, I think consciousness is the key. Whatever you do, doing it from a centered consciousness makes it better. It’s not necessary, of course not. But it is better—deeper, more consistent, more rewarding, more fulfilling. So learning a deepening technique and combining it with prayer really helps.

We don’t know whether George Fox used some “technique” or whether Jesus did, to find their center, to find the Presence that dwells there. We like to romanticize such prophetic figures and think of them as utterly self-taught, but that is rarely true. Jesus had John the Baptist; was there some schooling in the spirit done? (Of course, traditional theology holds that Jesus was himself already God, so he was always in the Presence; he was in fact the Presence itself. Yet he still prayed to his Father. A topic for another post.)

However, both men possessed a charism of great depth. Clearly they both lived in the Life in some powerful, natural way. I’m not in their league. I use deepening techniques because they work for me.

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§ 7 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Prayer

  • I didn’t grow up Quaker, but from what I’ve learned, most evangelical friends and quite a few of the programmed FUM meetings would have had a similar experience to my own. Programmed prayer can be quite powerful, in an evangelical context. Because the only thing programmed usually is the time. But what is prayed for comes form the heart, and often times the person praying is asking the Spirit to speak in and through them, and trying to follow its lead on what should be said.

    This isn’t the same for more liturgical faiths like Anglicans or Catholics.
    But Pentecostals, Wesleyans, Adventists, Baptists, have all experienced the presence of God moving and working in power in their prayer. Also, we had times of unprogrammed worship. Especially young people were exposed to “popcorn prayers” which is literally an unprogrammed worship period that would last as long as it needed to last, where people sat in silence until moved to pray for someone or something. These weren’t daily or weekly practices, but they did occur frequently enough to be noticed.

  • Agni Ashwin says:

    I”m not sure if Ramakrishna *literally* held a disciple’s head underwater, but he certainly would use that image to explain how much intensity is required in order to realize God.

  • I don’t think I can put into words how much I needed this post. Thank you!

  • […] Instead, we “hold in the Light”. That’s bet­ter than noth­ing, I sup­pose, but it seems a bit weak. It feels weak to me because it has noth­ing to do with relationship—it is very abstract.… Read arti­cle […]

  • Mary says:

    I love your prayer.
    I am nourished by your posts on this blog and I salute your openness and commitment to sharing.
    I am an English Quaker in a small and very “liberal”/atheist Meeting, and your posts help me to stay connected with Quaker community. Thank you: your ministry ripples outwards.

  • treegestalt says:

    I can recommend most of Anthony Bloom’s _Beginning to Pray_, despite disagreeing now & then as to what kind of relationship to God we’re intended to eventually grow into.

    While the object of public prayer includes ‘sweeping others up’ in that activity, its intended purpose must be consistent with its surface form: to voice our feelings to an intended addressee with the power and inclination to fulfill what we might happen to ask in the course of them, provided that doing so wouldn’t be Making a Big Mistake. (But it of course fulfills another purpose: putting wishes and feelings out there where we can wonder if they’re such a good idea, or with a formal prayer, whether we do (or want to) feel that way.

    That is, while God can introduce Godself and deepen the acquaintance with time, to pray honestly implies some tentative feeling of “To Whom It May Concern, wish You were here — and hope You aren’t as silly as some of the people I’ve heard talking about You…”

    I like your description of what you mean by “Christ-Spirit” aka ‘God’ but personally feel more inclined to statements like “Hey You,” [You know whom I’m talking to!] considering that It’s already been there, whether or not I realized it, including moments that would be embarrassing with another human watching. While us + God can hardly be an equal relationship, it seems designed to include our actual uncharismatic selves as overlapping participants, maybe what Julian of Norwich meant abt God’s ‘courtesy’ in letting us take part in God’s intended good.

    “Thy Kingdom come” looks like a good start, & the rest of that prayer clarifies the meaning of that… Another sometimes-good practice is occasionally making yet another try at rendering that prayer into modern English….

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