PRAYER

February 3, 2011 Comments Off

Prayer
Joseph Naft

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 of emotion
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 hearing 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, our selves 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. We allow God to enter us, to be us. 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.

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 to 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.

 

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