New Ways to Think About Prayer

Larry Dossey is a physician who attempted to study prayer scientifically. He challenged the way we have been taught to think about prayer and God. He said people think of sending prayers “up there,” as if God were a spiritual communications satellite, granting or denying requests at whim. He felt the studies seem to point, not to the arbitrary power of that kind of God, but to some inherent power in the human being, something that linked us together beyond the limits of space and time.

That also helps with a problem raised by Episcopal Bishop John Spong. He asked, “Should prayer work?” When his wife had cancer, thousands of people prayed for her, since he was a well known bishop. She did live longer than expected, but he began to be troubled by the implications of it being due to all the prayers. Would this mean that God cared more to relieve the suffering of those who were lucky enough to be well connected? Suppose there were a poor sanitation worker, whose wife wasn’t high profile, or well-connected. Wouldn’t it be a capricious God who would treat her differently, according to worldly standards of human importance? It didn’t fit the kind of God in which he wanted to believe.

Perhaps we can let go of that idea of a God granting or denying requests at whim. If prayer is a way of opening up a connection to the larger whole, then it means that our energies are tuning in to larger energies, and we can be influenced by those energies, and also influence the energy of that whole, in subtle and significant ways. Rupert Sheldrake put it in terms of scientific field theory. Prayer could be understood as an activation of our energy within a larger field of energy, similar to how magnets exert an influence within a magnetic field.

Now, that is all very intellectually stated—but the experience is felt more in the heart. So it helps to be able to imagine the larger Mystery in some tangible form. We just need to be aware of the kind of image we choose. A capricious granter or denier of favors may leave us feeling betrayed and hurt. But other images feel more true to a transforming power of kindness.

We may imagine the Mystery as a God full of unconditional love, or imagine the power of the bountiful Earth. We might envision Jesus who fed the crowds, or a vast River of Life, or a great web of connection. Images are the best way to focus and direct energy. Our minds might be hesitant about such images, or think of them as childish. But I find I can understand with my mind that these images are images–symbols, metaphors–and yet assent with my heart to engage in a relationship to the Mystery through them. What images help you to engage in prayer?

Prayer is a kind of paying attention, a doorway, a silence. A recognition of smallness and largeness. Prayer creates a relationship between our individual self and the universe. Or rather, prayer creates an awareness of that relationship which already exists. Prayer opens up our experience of divine power manifesting within us. Right in the midst of our utter helplessness, we discover a limitless energy beyond our own personal effort.

Sunset Crescent MJ DSC09460

The thoughts from Bishop Spong were from an article in IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences) #51 

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Miracles

One of the first things to be discarded by the early Unitarians, as reason was adopted as their guide, was their belief in miracles. They celebrated the wonder of the natural world, but decided that healing and prophecy and other supernatural events found in the Bible were imaginative stories from a more superstitious age. And it all makes sense: those events were not a part of their own lived experience.

However, there are many mysterious aspects of our human experience. More recently, even scientists have grown curious about healing, extra sensory perception, and other phenomena that seem to defy logical understanding. As the orderliness of Newtonian physics gave way to the strange chaotic properties of matter and energy encountered in Quantum physics, people began to wonder if spiritual mysteries had been cast aside too soon.

It has been difficult to use the scientific method to sort out the very subjective realm of spiritual experience. If some people can experience God, does that mean all people should be able to do so? Are there spiritual methods and practices that should consistently produce a spiritual experience? Buddhist and other forms of meditation have had an appeal for skeptical thinkers because meditation is a practice offered in the manner of an experiment. It is a method, not necessarily linked to particular beliefs, and anyone can try it out. But this is not to say that results are easy to measure.

I believe when we move beyond religious dogma that tells us we must believe certain miraculous things have happened in the past, we can move toward a thoughtful openness and curiosity about the inexplicable experiences of our own lives and the lives of those around us. Let me tell you a story from my life. It is actually a rather simple story, nothing big or dramatic. But it taught me something about miracles.

In the spring of 1986, I was living at the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp in upstate New York. At that time of year, there were only a few of us there, staying in an old farmhouse on land near the Seneca Army Depot. We were there to protest nuclear weapons, but this story is not about a prayer for world peace. At that time, my lover was living in western Massachusetts, and I missed her. I didn’t have a car, or much money. My prayer was a wish that I might find a way to go visit her.

The camp was a crossroads of sorts, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have visitors. Peace activists from all over would stop in for a day or a week. Not so many during the winter or spring, but still a few. In my prayer, I was conscious of my wish to see my love, and I remember imagining someone coming like a knight on a white horse to carry me to Massachusetts. Quite a small prayer.

The very next day someone drove into the driveway. The visitor was driving to Massachusetts in a white pickup truck. It would have been enough to get a ride, which I did. But the white pickup truck was an added ironic touch that still sends goose bumps up my arms. So whimsical and tender a response. 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Moving Toward East

I feel awe and wonder when I watch the sun come up in the morning and also when it goes down in the evening. Its beauty and grandeur can be breathtaking. It gives me even greater awe and wonder to realize that it is actually we on the earth who are moving, turning toward or away from our view of the sun. Science has taught us that. The earth spins on its axis once every twenty four hours, and this spinning creates our day and night. I may know all this intellectually, but I must use my imagination to experience it: see if you can, too. You can try this anytime, but it is most vivid at a sunrise or sunset.

Face the east just before sunrise.
Imagine yourself riding on the surface of the round earth sphere,
almost like riding in a car, looking out the front window.
We are speeding forward further and further until suddenly the sun comes into view. Feel yourself moving!

Later, just before sunset, face the west.
Again imagine yourself on the surface of this huge globe.
This time, like a child looking out the rear window of a car,
see that we are speeding away from everything until the sun slips from our sight.
We’re always moving toward the east!

It would make us dizzy to be aware of this motion all the time. But for a moment, we can be dizzy with the wonder of it all. Scientific knowledge can bring us to an awareness of reality beyond what we can see with our own eyes. Spirituality is when that awareness moves from the dry realm of intellect into the visceral experience of awe and wonder. The natural world is the original holy book, the original sacred text: the earliest forms of religion were responses to the mysteries of the earth and sky. As our ability to read this book of the universe grows, our spiritual practices are trying to catch up.

Dawn at Star IslandMargy and I traveled to Star Island, a conference center that is an island off the coast of New Hampshire. It is a rather small island—you can see the water from almost every place on it. It turned out that the windows in our tiny room faced the east. The next morning, through my open window, of course I heard a cardinal singing before sunrise. “Come outside!” it seemed to say, once again.

Right beyond the door of our room was a porch facing east, with rocking chairs on it. I could crawl out of bed wrapped in a blanket, and sit in a rocking chair to watch the sun rise over the ocean. That day, the clouds formed variegated patterns of pink and orange, blazing up through the whole eastern sky. The cardinals jumped from bush to bush close to where I was rocking in my chair.Rocking Chairs

Watching the beauty of the sunrise during the next several days, I was again thinking about how the sun generates its own energy, how all the stars do that. We on earth are more like children, we are utterly dependent on this light-being for all our needs. All of the energy human beings generate and use all over the earth relies on the sun as its ultimate source. The whole sphere of life on earth is a child of the sun. Yet the sun is so personal too. We can feel its touch on our faces—it is as personal as the vitamin D that it creates through our skin.

The poet Hafiz said,

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to earth,
You owe
Me.”
Look
What happens
With a love like that.
It lights the
Whole
Sky.

 Poem from The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master, translations by Daniel Ladinsky