When I was child growing up in the Presbyterian church, I was told that prayer is conversation with God. It isn’t begging for something; it isn’t rote repetition of words learned and repeated so often that they have lost all meaning. And surely telling God what God already knows is not prayer; nor is asking, or even directing, God to change the world prayer. Prayer is not idle or empty praise, and praise, unless it is a form of thanksgiving, is empty and idle and not prayer. All of this means that the vast majority of “prayers” one hears are not prayers at all. They are people talking to themselves. I’ve even heard prayers that are actually not very cleverly disguised sermons. None of this is prayer.
Prayer is honest, open, and free conversation with God. Even though I’m no longer a Christian, I still think this is true. A genuine prayer is a conversation with God. Anything else is at best boring and at worst a form of idolatry. I recently wrote a blog in which, among other things, I talked about conversation as a turning of one heart toward another. This means that prayer, true prayer, is the turning of the heart toward the heart of God. A tall order, that!
To pray you must open yourself so that you so you are able to enter into the presence of God and speak your truth, knowing that your truth is always only partial, never more than half-formed, just a dim glimpse of something far larger than you can understand. And prayer is also listening to the response, listening honestly, deeply, with humility, and with no preconceived expectations.
To pray is to be open to change, sometimes a small change and sometimes a profound change. That means prayer is terrifying and even dangerous—or at least it should be. It’s not that you can be injured, but you stand naked before God. Well, your soul is naked, open, and vulnerable. You need to be ready to be told that you must change your life. (And whose life can’t stand a little change from time to time?) It’s hard enough to be told by someone you love that you must change your life, but to be told by God that you must change your life is something else entirely.
What you hear in prayer is not something you can deny or pretend you didn’t hear, not when you are truly praying. You can choose to ignore God’s teaching; you can choose not to change your life, but you will know that it is a choice you have made. And you will walk away troubled and unable to forget.
In the final analysis, a conversation with God is, I think, really about just one thing: learning how to make God’s Presence more visible and manifest in our own living. In fact, I think this is what the religious life is actually about: becoming increasingly transparent to God’s Presence. This is the reason we are instructed to make of our lives a prayer. It also means that a lot of what passes for religion is not religion at all. If your religion teaches you anything other than how to make God’s Presence a beacon of unconditional love shining from your heart into the hearts of others, then it is a false religion. But that is another blog for another time.
I am sometimes asked whether I pray. Well, I certainly meditate on a regular basis. “Yes, but do you pray?” Given my understanding of prayer, I’m not sure of the difference. To meditate is to so still the mind, the heart, and the soul that one is open to what the Buddhists call the Buddha-nature. It is to forget the self so that one can address the Self.
The Buddha assured us that we are all already Buddhas. The task is not to become a Buddha but to awake to the Buddha we already are and then, being awake, to live our lives in wakefulness. Meditation is the tool par excellence to awaken. Seems to me this is close enough to Christian prayer as makes no difference. Or so I think.
My next blog will use this understanding of prayer to reflect on The Lord’s Prayer. As a teaser, let me observe in closing that I doubt Jesus ever intended us to repeat this prayer. But more about that next time.