When difficult things happen to you, people sometimes tell you, “I’ll pray for you.” Some people would never say such a thing because the words sound religious, and such words would associate them with a perspective they abhor. Because of the divisive role religion has played historically and in the current political environment, prayer is not a part of many people’s vocabulary. But if, as Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, said during a recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett, “democracy is a place where you can make personal convictions public. You can make them public in politics, you can make them public in civil society, et cetera. Right? Diversity is not just the differences you like; diversity is the differences you don’t like,” then as democratic citizens, rather than cutting off those around us who we disagree with, perhaps we want to hear each other’s stories. Perhaps we should, instead, listen to the heart beneath the stories people tell in order to find the ground we hold in common so we can build communities where diversity’s value is a lived experience.
As Parker J. Palmer points out in his story on the Global Oneness Project site, “Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy,” our hearts are the place “we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human.” If we are going to heal our democracy, we must do it, Palmer describes, in our daily lives, the places where we live and work. Instead of being afraid of each other and our differences, Palmer suggests that we go ahead and speak, knowing our voices need to be heard, but when we speak to do so with humility, recognizing that we are we live in a particular context that affects our vision, a context and vision others may not share or have experienced. Because of this, Palmer suggests we recognize that our truth is partial, and acknowledge that it may not even be true. This is why we need “to listen with openness and respect, especially to “the other.”” With the windows and doors open, so to speak, so new air can flow through, I want to speak of prayer, to lean into it with humility, and notice what I can learn by reconnecting to this ancient practice.
St. Teresa of Avila called prayer “An intimate friendship, a frequent conversation held alone with the beloved.” While growing up, I said prayers my mother taught me. I recited them at the dinner table and before climbing into bed. My mother also prayed with me before heading to school each morning. As I grew older, however, I began conversations with God in my head as I walked to and from the bus stop, and as I climbed the hill behind where we lived. I walked through the dry grass there, to sit on granite boulders overlooking the valley beyond where I inhaled the earth and sky, experiencing a nonverbal communication with the natural world as the heat from the boulders I rested on seeped into my body, emitting comfort. I felt alive there, connected, and nurtured by the earth’s presence. In the silence of the heart, God speaks,” says Mother Teresa in her essay, “On Prayer.” “Listen in silence, because if your heart is full of other things you cannot hear the voice of God…We cannot find God in noise or agitation. Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence. “Prayer, isn’t so much about us talking or asking God for things, Mother Teresa explains. It’s mostly about listening. We listen so we understand ourselves, and who we are in connection to everything else. Wandering on the hills as a child prepared me for this way of knowing.
The poet Czeslaw Milosz, explores this idea of prayer as connectedness in his poem, “On Prayer.” Prayer takes us to a place where “the word is/ Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned./Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,/ Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh.” In prayer, Milosz tells the reader, time seems to stand still. This place of “is” Milosz refers to, suggests the awareness of being fully connected to the present moment, alive in our being, and aware of our connectedness with others. The Hindus have a wonderful metaphor describing all existence as interconnected net. Each intersection in the net is a diamond. Each diamond is a life form reflecting all the others. Prayer is the practice of listening that draws us into an awareness of this net, helping us to recognize how we’re part of each other.
Last summer, I went to dinner at a friend’s house where before the meal, the family recited a prayer together, asking for a blessing on the food. Hearing the prayer made me consider how prayer may not necessarily be the actual words said, but the heart’s intention behind the words, similar to how much of what is understood in spoken communication is not in what is said, but the words’ intonation. If the heart during prayer is open when the words are said, they change you. Jorie Graham suggests just this in her poem, “Prayer.” The poem describes a school of minnows as they turn and swirl, “re-infolding” upon themselves in the water until a current rising from below, changes their direction, carrying them somewhere new. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want in response to requests, Graham says. Instead, “What you get is to be changed.” You’re swimming along in your circling path, but prayer takes you out of your habitual pattern, and sets you off somewhere new.
At some point in life, we encounter serious difficulty. We come to the border of our ability to comprehend or cope with our circumstances. This is where we enter the territory of wordless prayer not of communion, but of yearning that arises from the deepest wells and holes in our selves where we reach out, yet have no words to articulate what’s in our hearts: we live the prayer of loss, grief, or pain. Vassar Miller in his poem, “Without Ceremony,” says, “Except ourselves, we have no other prayer.” We ourselves are prayer. Being is prayer, and in that state, similar to the prayer where we sense communion, we are fully alive, and one might say pure, in our trust and vulnerability because we are completely open—raw. When we bring ourselves to God in this state, we sense our longing so deeply, “Our needs are sores upon our nakedness,” to use Miller’s words. We know our weaknesses well, and we know we are naked, wounded, and in deep need. In this state, words aren’t necessarily needed. Our hearts cry out from within. “We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,/ A posture humbler far and more downcast;” writes Miller. Reading these poems about prayer affirms wordless desire, this intense thirst to touch life, to live fully.
The deep longing in Miller’s poem, the need that is like a sore–the feeling like one is falling on the heart, the yearning for wholeness: we all come to know this ache. While living in Muslim countries, I heard prayer calls throughout the day. They reminded me to take a moment for mental prayer, to offer gratitude, and were an opportunity to purposefully notice what it was I was doing. If I sat in that silent space more often, allowing myself to cross the velvet bridge Milosz writes of, rather than relentlessly pressing on to the next task or chore, I would be in deeper conversation and relationship with God, with those around me, and with my own being. As a result, I believe I also would be less afraid and understand better how to live and to love. Listening requires time and focus. We don’t see what we don’t turn our eyes to. We don’t hear what we don’t tune our ears to listen to. How else might I hear God’s voice but by creating a space for entering into the place of being?
Prayer is a way for us to step outside ourselves and to listen to what lies beyond our own boundaries of vision and understanding. Prayer is listening to the words under the words. This past spring while snorkeling, I found myself in the midst of a large school of banner fish calmly floating by. As I peered out into the infinite stretch of blue at the fish slipping through the sapphire sea below, above and beyond me in complete quietness but for the sound of my breath, beauty overwhelmed me. I was swimming inside a living prayer. If “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork,” as the psalmist says, then the natural world is a kind of ongoing prayer without words. Ocean, mountains, stone and sky are all a kind of living prayer. Writing poetry requires me to notice and listen to the world and my inner self. It allows me to go down on the knees of my heart and find what is there. Writing poetry, for me, is a kind of prayer.