“Pray” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – December 5, 2010
Call to Worship – from Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence.
Reading – from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Sermon – “Pray” – Mark W. Harris
As a child I thought prayer worked. I mean “really worked” in a kind of calling up God arrangement, like the old dial up internet service, except my signal was always busy. That was definitely the notion of prayer I received in my conservative Congregational church. I once did a sermon on prayer and called it “Let’s Make a Deal,” after that old Monty Hall game show, where the contestants gazed glassy eyed on three huge, garage size doors at the end of the show. Would they be the big winner if they chose correctly as to what was behind door # 1, 2, or 3? Well, I thought God the answer man was behind the big door in the sky ready to heal my grandmother of her fatal disease, stop my parents from arguing, and give me the big Little League victory. As I became older I learned that the supernatural world was merely a natural one, and that the best outcomes in these cases came from good doctors and healthy diet, better listening and less drinking, and practice, practice, practice so I could be the best hitter to help my team to victory. I learned over time that prayer was something to be experienced in this world, and not outside of it. Prayer was not so much to change God’s mind, as it was to change us. Plus as a rebellious teenager I kept hearing Jim Morrison of the Doors rebuking the pretenders to the throne of God singing: “You cannot petition the Lord in prayer.”
In the song “The Soft Parade,” Morrison was recalling his “time back in seminary school” when he rejected that kind of prayer. But then he went on to say, “Can you give me sanctuary? I must find a place to hide.” These were references to his problems with the law, and his need to get away. Like Morrison, most of us would reject petitionary prayer that is a list of items we are asking God to heal, protect, or save us from. This rejection was typical of all liberals in the 20th century. There was no scientific evidence that God was going to rescue anybody. For fundamentalists though, prayer enabled the individual to leave the world and cope with the onslaughts of a Godless daily existence. While fundamentalists had to wait for miraculous interventions, liberals spoke of finding God in the world at any time or place, so that the entire world was a temple, and any spot an altar. One did not have to go away to a special place, but rather could communicate with the divine by tending your garden or taking a walk. There is no otherworldly spiritual realm for us because this world is our spiritual realm. What this meant, especially for liberals, was that prayer, should not be so much about changing the natural order, but rather about addressing moral and spiritual concerns. This is helpful to remember, because, if you were like me, then you thought of prayer as only about asking for things.
If that was the case, then you probably rejected prayer outright as pie in the sky ridiculous. Prayer in general has been a difficult, or even superfluous topic for most Unitarian Universalists. The old joke is that Unitarians pray to one God, at most. There is not only the problem of figuring out the purpose if you are not asking for a divine favor, but also just who it is exactly that you are directing these words to. One person who says God may pray “Our father” and see an all-powerful bearded father when they use the term. Another individual may reject that idea of God, but still say “spirit of life,” to mean some kind of divine essence. We each have our own understanding of divinity or even none at all. These disparate feelings we often have about the theological languages people use, and what it means, came up the other night in my history class at Andover Newton. One of my students was reminding us that in our tolerant efforts to try to speak to the different spiritual longings of all our members, we often get hung up on a litany of words. Thus the prayers begin: source of life, mysterious presence, holy power, gracious spirit, etc., etc. so that by the time we go through all the machinations that we feel will please the diverse gathering of theists, atheists, agnostics, Christians and Buddhists, she says, she just does not care any more. But I think it would be a mistake to say, forget it. First, the fundamentalists had it correct that the materialism of the world will swallow us and destroy the spirit. And second, I think most of us in our striving to be loving, compassionate people who want to make the world a better place, are truly praying in one way or another all the time.
One thing the catalog of terms we use to begin a prayer reflects is that all these different understandings of the divine reveal that we can never truly know who or what this ground of being is. When each of us tries to approach divinity it is highly personal. Yet prayer has always been understood this way. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he said, as I reiterated a few weeks ago in my sermon on privacy, go into your room, shut the door, and pray alone. “Pray,” as I indicated earlier is the second of a three part sermon series based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love. The Pray phase of her globetrotting is when she continues her journey of self-discovery, leaves gluttony behind in Italy, and tries to find God in an ashram in India through a devoted practice of meditation. It is a good thing that prayer is personal because the great criticism of this book is that Gilbert is a self-indulgent narcissist, who has seemingly endless resources to fund this around the world travel, even as she is in the midst of recovering from her divorce, which is the event that has precipitated this entire pilgrimage. Yet despite what some perceive as a fatal flaw, others, especially women, see the book
as a panacea for their dissatisfaction with life, or searching for affirmation, and adore it.
Just as with eating, Gilbert does provide insight into praying. She has a history of trying to converse with God. Early in the book a friend convinces her that it is ok to try petitionary prayer, and she does so with a letter to God wherein she seeks some resolution to her terrible marital conflict, feeling that the renewed health of two individuals on the planet will help the overall health of the globe, and be pleasing to God. Everyone under the sun signs on to her imaginary petition, including Bill and Hilary Clinton – speaking of marital conflict. This process of soliciting supporters among the living and dead lifts her anxiety, and lo and behold, her prayer is answered, when her ex signs the divorce agreement. On to Italy and then, India. Gilbert admits she is someone who has chased frantically after contentment for years, and realizes that this relentless pursuit only leaves her less and less satisfied with life. Her need to control everything means she can never drop the handle, and simply let things be. And so the first thing she teaches us about prayer is that we must tame our buzzing minds, so that we can truly hear what Annie Dillard calls the hum of the world, the sound of life.
This is a large task for someone raised in our noisy culture. You may have seen those commercials on television for the Dyson vacuum cleaners. They are the ones where the totally self-possessed Englishman informs us that he has built a better product. Well it turns out that the Dyson vacs that are made for the American market are louder than the European and Asian models because the people in their R and D department feel Americans associate power and productivity with noise, and we will not trust a quiet machine. But it is not only the noise of the vacuums of the world that makes our minds buzz, it is also the over stimulation we receive from information sources. As someone who loves information this is a special challenge to me. One of the ways I think deeply and reflectively about things is to read. These passages become devotionals as the pathway to contemplation of life’s deeper meaning. Whereas once we could read and thoughtfully reflect on books, now we must become managers of endless electronic information that is often bad or useless, and so we make quick decisions about things rather than building upon study. We are not going to get rid of this information revolution, and so what each of us must do is carve out space where we can have time to reflect and contemplate information and thoughts about life’s most important questions and decisions.
For Gilbert, the quieting of the mind led her to meditate on and with God. There is a kind of cleansing ourselves of distractions in order to meditate in this way. If the letting go of the noise of the world is one part of meditation, then not being tied to results is the other. This of course is part of the problem with petitions and prayer; we are looking for tangible results. Meditation helps us relax. It helps with anxiety. It helps us get in touch with larger life forces that surge within us. For some it may even help them touch the divine. But is it prayer? For some the hard work and discipline and regular meditating may help them personally to get in touch with God or let go of their own anger or pain. When we breathe with the universe we may feel its strength caress us and holds and even empower us. I believe this helps us with gaining a sense of humility. One thing I am not convinced of with Gilbert is that while she says she gives up the world to find God, it still feels very results driven to me. She seems to say, I am going to do this, and then look at me, I am one of those who see God clearly. The problem is I don’t see much of a distinction between her and God. She seems smugly self-satisfied like what our Transcendentalist ancestors were accused of, when they were called ego-theists. Instead of what she gets out of it, what I would like to see more clearly is that she is truly giving up something of herself. I find that meditation helps with certain kinds of prayer, instead of reflecting on what I have accomplished or wishing for more, quiet reflection gives pause to offer blessings to the universe for the life we have received. We make an offer of gratitude to the creation that we have been given this one small moment in the infinity of time to be here, to enjoy this creation as a living breathing soul. We are at once humbled by our existence, but grateful to be part of a larger existence. We feel in our deepest soul that famous prayer by Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ it will suffice.”
As a minister and as person seeking meaning, I have often prayed. This has included prayerful thoughts for the healing and the strength of others. It has included meditation where I have tried to clear my mind to reduce anger and stress, and it has included public prayer where I try to hold up the power the community provides in affirming its members, and in lending a healing message and a helpful hand to a hurting world. Yet the kind of praying I do the most of is akin to what Gilbert does when she is working out her divorce. She seeks God in her devotion to prayer, and while I believe in a connective power of love that is in us and in the universe, it is not God that I seek; it is answers to the perplexing problems of life. Therefore more often than not, prayer is not favors or deals with God, but neither is it feeling a oneness with the universe, although I do feel that, by the crash of the ocean’s waves or by looking into another’s eyes. Most of my praying is done with eyes open, and with heart in deep reflection. It begins with questions such as: What do I need to focus on in my life right now? What do I most need to do? Am I paying attention to those I love and who most love me? How are they? What is preventing me from being more loving, a better listener, more compassionate? I suppose the more orthodox prayer would say, God, please help me with these concerns – help me see clearly, give me direction, what should I do? But I feel more like I am talking to myself. And I know I am not God. In seminary I learned God was a woman anyway.
I am happy for Elizabeth Gilbert that she found God through meditation, but I believe prayer is much more interactive than that. I do need to quiet the mind. I do need to let ego and results go and then focus on the most holy inward feeling. But for me God and the world are one, and so my prayer must be this conversation with self or conscience or universe on how are things going, and what can I do to make those things better. I pray all the time, and while usually the change in me is hardly noticeable, it is the most difficult reflecting I do. There is a Universalist affirmation of faith that is similar in many ways to the affirmation we say every Sunday, which is Unitarian in origin. This Universalist affirmation begins – Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” Service is our prayer. This was brought hone to me the other night in history class when I was teaching about the origins of the humanist movement. One of its great leaders John Dietrich believed that humanism was carrying out a central message of Christianity in a new way. It was not the story of Jesus’ life. Nor was it a story of his resurrection. It was his central message that the kingdom of God is coming. For Dietrich this kingdom was a holy commonwealth of humanity, and it was not God who would bring it about, but people. But the message was clear. What am I going to do to make the world a better place? Traditional prayer can make us oblivious to the world. Even in Gilbert’s case, she may find God, but how does that help anyone but herself? It is hard not to get swallowed by the world – the material is seductive and overwhelming. That is why we need prayer – to give us strength and courage to make our vision manifest in the world. Prayer invites us to action. W. H. Auden said, “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself.” Focusing completely on something other than me: a landscape, a child, a people, a movement, we find the courage and the will for action. I must do this. I will go there. Gilbert talks about ritualized habits in the reading with her story about tying the cat to a pole. Our liberal cat preventing us from realizing our prayers is often too much talk about prayer, when we could be walking the walk, and living the focus of our prayers.
Many UUs have found meditation recently as a meaningful discipline. I think that is a good thing. But it should also be a discipline that leads us not deeper into ego gratification, but more into world healing. The advent season is upon. In our culture it can be loud and pressurized, but it can also be a time of quiet reflection. Even a time of prayer that leads us to action to bring about a better world for all. It is a time for waiting. What is waiting to be born in you? Pray on that. The world is ready to hear your prayer as soon as we are ready to act upon it.
Closing Words – from Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blue. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.