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[Chalice]What is Prayer[Chalice]
And Do Unitarians Pray?

Presented February 28, 1999, by Carol Nichols

Lately, I have been intrigued by the idea of prayer. Perhaps, a terrible state of mind for a Unitarian to be in! But, I felt legitimized in my musings by a recent question from a younger person in our Congregation, who asked through his Dad(not so many weeks ago) if Unitarians pray. The act of praying seemed to be the one thing missing, according to this young man, from our services as opposed to those in the Churches of his friends and neighbors. The question did what it always does to us: it raised more questions than seemed healthy. It made me re-think what I had once called prayer and how I think about it today. It made me recall times, especially in the last few months and year, where I caught myself praying - yes, praying, despite what I thought myself to be. I have recently prayed for solutions: what to do with a very, cantankerous, intelligent and lovable son. I have prayed for sanity and clear action resulting from a need for clear judgment. I have quietly reached somewhere and prayed for the right things to say or not to say during one too many moments in the last few years. I have prayed for the Hollidays, the Starkeys, the Sperrys, the Brighams, Frieda, Joe, Nike, my students, my brother-in-law, my daughter, my spouse, for my ridiculously ill sister, for canker sores all over the planet. And once, I prayed very hard - through my hands - writing, painting a work of art while quietly thinking about Biz Stebbins and her small, but powerful strength. Mostly, I have prayed or maybe just looked for a stillness of the mind, an emptiness of self, like those lucky Buddhists who meditate upstairs in our tower room.

So what exactly have I been doing? The Encarta states that prayer in its narrowest sense is understood as spiritual communion for the sake of requesting something of a deity. What Joseph Campbell calls requests for most of humankind to help the functions of the lower three chakras. The chakras, you may recall, are eight levels from the groin up the spinal cord through the top of the head. They correspond to lowest physical desires and functions up through to the highest levels of spiritual enlightenment. Up the spine they are ordered, with the most basic and lowest of these being self survival, sustenance and self-procreation. So, at the most basic level, we pray: "Help me, protect me, feed me and save me from the malice and wickedness of the Devil". The world is full of suffering and sorrow: spare me or mine just this once, or twice. Or, at least, put off the inevitable just for a while. Somehow, whoever is being petitioned should also realize, damn it, that victim in trouble is too good, too young, too full of potential, too unfairly treated at the end of a long and giving life to deserve this or that. So, Ido as Campbell says, we all do. I long for release from the death, sickness, misfortunes of a real world. Occasionally, there is an attempt to look for strength to cope and adjust to whatever life is bringing to me or to others, including gross injustice or death. That's when I get beyond the first three Chakras of elimination, reproduction and digestion, and actually manage to react at the fourth level of the human heart -where compassion and love enter into our lives and how we relate to others. It is atthis higher level, that perhaps I might be looking for an inner ability on my part and the part others to find their own strength or to cope with what comes: perhaps, to simply accept the inevitable. Still, it is disquieting, that even atthis level, I get the feeling that I am addressing something or someone outside myself. Again, the questions come. Who or what would that be, if not yourself? Before getting knee-deep in that one, let us return to Encarta. The definition continues. In its broadest sense, prayer is any ritual form designed to bring one into closer relation to whatever one believes to be the ultimate. In its broadest sense, there is no petition here, just a kind of reality check. Now that definition might appeal to a Unitarian. When I read it, I felt it was properly vague, could fit many creeds, didn't require a personal deity, or better yet, did not choose to define any deity. Prayer is any ritual form designed to bring one into closer relation to whatever one believes to be the ultimate. But, look again: prayer is based not on reason, but on belief - whatever one believes to be the ultimate. Prayer, it seems, has a reference outside the self.

But let us not wrestle with prayer's reference right now. Begging is not the only reason for doing whatever it is we sometimes find ourselves doing.

And when we pray (or whatever it is we choose to call it), it isn't just to ask for help. Carl Sagan would strongly attest to the form of prayer used by some scientists - to a feeling of awe for that which escapes the scientific realm, that which we can never fully grasp, but we perceive just enough to leave us with our mouths hanging open. Is this also prayer? Teilhard de Chardin goes a little further. He attempts to wrap words around Sagan's awe. And Chardin can do this like an angel.

To adore.....that means to lose oneself in the unfathomable, to plunge into the inexhaustible, to find peace in the incorruptible, to be absorbed in defined immensity, to offer oneself to the fire and the transparency, to annihilate oneself in proportion as one becomes more deliberately conscious of oneself, and to give of one's deepest to that whose depth has no end.

There is also praise: the "Te Deum Laudamus" which inspired Mozart and others of musical genius for so many years. There are votives of thanksgiving, penitence and reparation. And very deeply centered there is a consoling and centering function, which Thomas Merton says arises out of a sublime quietude. And after the need for consolation is passed, the kind of prayer of which he speaks reaches its most sublime form. He sees this type of prayer an important function of silent, contemplative orders, who have an obligation for the rest of us to contemplate - to have a non discursive form of prayer, where concepts and thoughts are viewed as distractions. Where the silence allows us to find something, which the noise and distraction of everyday life has all but obliterated.

This deeper interior prayer comes to us of its own accord, that is, by the secret moving of the Spirit of God, at all times and in all places, whether we be praying or not. It can come at work, in the middle of our daily business, at a meal, on a silent road, or in a busy thoroughfare. However, such prayer draws us naturally to interior and even exterior solitude. It does not depend on exterior conditions, but it has effected such an interior isolation and solitariness in our own souls that we naturally tend to seek silence and solitude for our bodies as well as for our souls. And it is good for the soul to be in solitude for a great part of the time...Pure prayer only takes possession of our hearts for good when we no longer desire any special light or grace or consolation for ourselves, and pray without any thought of our own satisfaction. Purest prayer is something on which it is impossible to reflect until after it is over. It belongs to another order of things.

This is not strictly meditation, because Merton has a reference point toward which this action is directed. He has his God. For other persons who practice Zen Meditation or other forms in Buddhism, the reference is perhaps ......nothing. And this is how Alan Watts, the great Western Buddhist scholar, describes Thomas Merton's ultimate form of prayer for the Buddhist practitioner: Perhaps I can express this Buddhist fascination for the mystery of nothingness in another way. If we get rid of all wishful thinking and dubious metaphysical speculations, we can hardly doubt that- at a time not too distant -each one of us will simply cease to be. It won't be like going into darkness forever, for there will be neither darkness, nor time, nor sense of futility, nor anyone to feel anything about it. Try as best you can to imagine for each individual it will be as if it had never happened at all; and even that is saying too much, because there won't be anyone for whom it never happened. Make this prospect as real as possible; the one total certainty. you will be as if you had never existed, which was, however, the way you were before you did exist. We begin from nothing and end in nothing. You can say that again. Think it over and over, trying to conceive the fact of coming to never having existed. After a while you will begin to feel rather weird, as if this very apparent something that you are is at the same time nothing at all. Indeed, you seem to be rather firmly and certainly grounded in nothingness, much as your sight seems to emerge from that total blankness behind your eyes. The weird feeling goes with the fact that you are being introduced to anew common sense, a new logic, in which you are beginning to realize the identity of void and form. All of a sudden it will strike you that this nothingness is the most potent, magical, basic and reliable thing you ever thought of, and that the reason you can't form the slightest idea of it is that it's yourself. But not the self you thought you were.

So like Merton, so unlike Merton. Both men are trying to tell us that prayer(with its personal God as a reference, a la Merton) or meditation (with its deep enlightenment of nothingness - a la Alan Watts) - pure prayer or meditation is found in quietude, in silence, in nothing. It is a union most intimate between ourselves and whatever we believe (and they would argue perceive) to be ultimate.

Leave it to Abraham Heschel, that exquisite rabbi and scholar, to explain far better this function of prayer. Prayer is inspired by (you fill in the blank) from the depths of our own nothingness. Says Heschel:

We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend...(Replace God with void if you choose to).Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy. For when we betake ourselves to the extreme opposite of the ego, we can behold a situation from the aspect of God.

So, does this help any so far? What is prayer and do Unitarians pray? Prayer is a process of addressing something, which may or may not be outside of ourselves. For what purpose? Better make that purposes. Praise, awe, petition, relief, inspiration, adoration, thanksgiving, seeking reconciliation, or for the attempt to console, renew, strengthen, reach out, or try to understand that which continually escapes us. For all of the above, I really seem to like the pure kind of prayer, which I just tried to explain through Herschel, Merton and Watts. Grounding one's soul in some reality, which makes you realize your own finite existence and yet, links you to the greater whole of which you are a part - now, that just seems to give me the perspective, detachment, and honesty one might need to face life and death. Besides, it really appeals to the intellectual, pride of a Unitarian, who would relish the genius and complexity of such scholars. But prayer and how at least I find myself praying doesn't always rise to such standards in my life. Sometimes, I find myself acting like the football team at half time in the superbowl, whose members bow their heads and patiently wait as a prayer is said for their victory, first by a priest, then by a minister, then a rabbi, and then a shaman, next, a Tibetan monk, then, a Dogon holy man from West Africa, a devout Muslim and you name it. We respond to life at all levels, and I am sure that even the best of us, even the most rational, secular Unitarians among us, have at some time or other, tried to cover all bases - just in case.

Have I known pure prayer? Maybe, maybe a handful of times. In 1995, during an intensely physical workout at midnight - somewhere on an Atlantic Ocean beach, I stood, as John Brigham says, "beneath the stars to watch the night...stood in silence....when words were lost." Looking up I saw the constellation, Draco, the Dragon, brilliant and more clearly than I had ever imagined it could be. And in the Dragon's head, I suddenly remembered a starchart sent from Geneva, Switzerland. It identified one star, too small to see within the head named by a friend in honor of my mother. You can do that, you know. Her name sake, my physical and spiritual experience - all fused for me in a cosmos infinitely distant from finite me. My mother, a devout Italian Catholic whose rosary beads have gotten her through many a close call and have offered her consolation beyond imagination, says we all prayer, everyone. She calls it reaching out beyond self. Or, she says itis when you dig down deeply into yourself to extract resources you didn't believe you had. And thinking such of others is in itself another kind of prayer, according to this slightly pagan, Italian Catholic. The rosary beads, an aid to prayer very similar to an Islamic rug or a Tibetan prayer wheel or a Buddhist chime, shares a holy significance in my mother's mind, just as an Italian horn or the little gold hump back man she gave me years ago. Are such images beneath some, when prayer is discussed or considered? Ritual and repetition, litany, chant, sacred places, votive candles, plaster images, pictures, icons - they are all part and parcel of prayer, contemplation and meditation. Could it be that they force us to remove ourselves from the logical , the reasonable, the cogent - because prayer is not necessarily found or supported purely by the reasoning mind? Is that why Unitarians (especially those grounded in the reasoned humanism of the 19th Century) find prayer so difficult to accept, let alone discuss? Maybe it isn't the reference to God which plagues us, but rather exposing ourselves to something we cannot completely reason with.

Maya Angelou, the American writer, poet and actress, has had a life that took her to hell and back too many times. But, her experience with prayer illustrates a power in the process, of which I have not spoken. Maybe hers is an example of another valid use and purpose of prayer. Her prayers, or more correctly those of her grandmother, created a reality for her. Listen to her story:

One of my earliest memories of Mamma, of my grandmother, is a glimpse of a tall cinnamon-colored woman with a deep, soft voice, standing thousands of feet up in the air on nothing visible. That incredible vision was a result of what my imagination would do each time Mamma drew herself up to her full six feet, clasped her hands behind her back, looked up into a distant sky and said, "I will step out on the word of God"The depression, which was difficult for everyone, especially so for a single black woman in the South tending her crippled son and two grandchildren, caused her to make the statement of faith often. She would look up as if she would will herself into the heavens, and tell her family in particular and the world in general. "I will step out on the word of God. I will step out on the word of God". Immediately I could see her flung into space, moons at her feet and stars at her head, comets swirling around her. Naturally, since Mamma stood out on the word of God, and Mamma was over six feet tall, it wasn't difficult for me to have faith in her prayer. I grew up knowing that the word of God had power.

Whether there was truth and protection in what was pronounced, Maya believed there was, and for her, such belief gave her a real strength to make her life a purposeful and full one. Even the most cynical and reasonable of us here in this Congregation, might consider such power possibly valid. In truth, I haven't ever heard any of us refuse the thoughts and prayers of friends when offered. I like to think we leave ourselves room for such gifts, not so much out of politeness, as out of a real appreciation for at least what others believe prayers are worth.

Do we pray? Yes, no and maybe. Being Unitarians, I do believe we should be more open to such things than most people. Perhaps, our approach is muted, quiet, distinctly personal and hardly as mundanely utilitarian as some praying has become. If I were to define praying for us as succinctly as possible, I would have to return to Joseph Campbell. I leave you with his prayer, if you can call it that -his urging to try that which will center you and help you live your brief life with a spark of the Divine.

The separateness apparent in the world is secondary.
Beyond that world of opposites is an unseen, but experienced ,unity and identity in us all.
Today, the planet is the only proper "in group".
You must return with the bliss and integrate it.
The return is seeing the radiance everywhere.

Sri Ramakrishna said:

"Do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a man whose hair in on fire seeks the pond."
"If you want the whole thing, the gods give it to you, but you must be ready for it."

A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation:

"As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm.
Jump. It is not as wide as you think."

© 1999, Carol Nichols

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Nichols, Carol. 1999. What is Prayer And Do Unitarians Pray?, (accessed September 19, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
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