An Interfaith Look at Prayer
by Stephen Longfellow Fiske
As a result of formulating my latest project, The Jerusalem Prayer Project, a music, film and multimedia venture creating an ongoing interactive global peacebuilding platform, “The Peace Portal”, I have written this essay on prayer. The Jerusalem Prayer Project is in development and is centered in Jerusalem focusing on Jerusalem as analogous for the peacebuilding challenges worldwide. The Jerusalem Prayer Project is a special affiliate of the Unity-and-Diversity World Council (UDC) a California 501c3 non-profit organization based in Los Angeles. More will be coming shortly on The Jerusalem Prayer Project. Stay posted.
Prayer is active communion with the Divine presence. It is a conversation and interaction with God; however one may perceive God to be, called by any name or no name. Our prayers are vehicles of connecting with that spiritual presence and mystery beyond name and form, yet is here in every breath and heartbeat, throughout all creation, and which calls us to deeper understandings, inspiration, faith and the upliftment of our lives. Our prayers begin as a feeling or longing in the heart, and become articulated and expressed through our verbal ability outwardly or inwardly. Although we may mostly think of prayer as a spoken communication, we can also hold prayer in the silence and stillness of the sacredness in our heart and soul.
Our prayers are a reaching out beyond ourselves to a source much greater than ourselves. That source has been called the various names and forms of God. If you don’t see or believe in a specific God by name or form, but believe there is goodness and kindness in the world, then pray to the goodness and kindness, or hold that goodness and kindness in your heart. If you believe there is a grand design in the natural order of things, then pray to that grand design, to nature. If you believe in justice, pray for justice. If you believe in love, then pray for more love in the world. To pray you don’t need to be religious, you don’t need to be eloquent, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. Prayer is a practice which offers an equal opportunity for anyone to partake and receive its blessings and benefits.
Many religions offer specific guidelines, rituals, cleansings, and texts to follow in preparation for prayer, and recitation of prayer. Muslims have an obligation to their faith to pray five times daily, at specific times and through specific formats. Buddhists may offer prayers 24/7on spinning prayer wheels. Some pray through use of a rosary or mala beads. Some prayers may follow liturgical formulations for sacred occasions or specific holy times or seasonal changes. Some prayers may be read and recited collectively, while others may be deeply private, personal and intimate. Some may choose to pray through fasting or other austerities. Some may choose to pray only in a house of worship. Some may choose to pray in private seclusion. Others may choose to pray in any place and at any time that the need or call for prayer may arise. Prayer may follow a formal ritual or be a spontaneous, personal outpouring to the universe, or to a God or saintly figure of choice.
Many of us may feel more comfortable to perceive God through a specific name and form. So we may pray through Jesus, or Allah, or Krishna or the Divine Mother, or Guru, or a mountain, or whatever divine name and form we feel the most called to. In our prayer, we may invoke that name or form and ask that presence to guide and protect us. We may pray through the constant repeating of holy names or readings. Or we may pray to the light, or through a teaching, or a more abstract symbol or sacred motif or design. We may conduct our prayer through speaking it out, writing it out, or singing it out through a song, chant or hymn, or through silent inward communion. It can be expressed through music, poetry, art, dance, acts of healing, kindness and compassion, being of service to others, through our chosen work, and through ordinary, every-day activities. However the prayer is expressed, it is best when it comes from the heart, with sincerity, honesty, and openness, not for material gain, but to be held in the blessed hands of the intangible touch of grace.
We live in a world where much emphasis is placed on scientific methodology and empirical proof. But prayer is not measured in material ways. Prayer is not quantifiable by scientific methodology. Prayer is an invisible force. Prayer reaches beyond the boundaries of our measurements, technologies, mind and senses. Prayer is a longing for a transcendent connectivity. It brings us to reach out beyond the physical plane and the turmoil of existence. In the realm of prayer we move beyond physical limits and the edges of thought, into the realm of the open heart, the open mind, the open soul, and we offer ourselves as a receptive vessel – open to receive spiritual guidance and blessings beyond our own perceptions.
However we pray, it is our intention that matters most. Our prayer must come from the heart and seek to be aligned with the good. The experience of God is love, and love is in the heart. Good and God are one and the same. All the various narratives of creation in multiple languages, cultures and religions, extoll this love and goodness in one form or another. In Genesis it says: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.. and brought forth the light.. and it was good. Good meaning that the job of creation was complete, and within that completion was the wholeness of everything, light and dark, man and woman, all living things, all the great and small, from the tiniest particle of matter through the immenseness of the infinite universe, that everything is interconnected and created to interplay in the process of life and the sustainability of existence. Every cell in our body, every organ, every breath and heartbeat, every element in nature, every season and tidal turn, is designed to be an essential thread in the grand tapestry of creation. Nothing is separate, nothing is outside. All is one, a unity encompassing a rich diversity. Within this oneness is God’s presence, God’s love, a goodness, a peace, a transcendent wholeness, a mystical union, that awaits our communion and responds to the longing of our prayers.
To truly experience prayer, it cannot be superficial, callous, motivated by selfishness, greed, lust, hate, anger or jealousy. A prayer is not a devise to advance a self interest agenda. To use prayer as a weapon of vengeance, retaliation, violence or war, is to impugn the very sanctity we seek to connect with, and is a grotesque travesty of the purpose of prayer – not prayer at all, but a visualization and perpetration of the lowest depths we can sink to. The tragedy of the human condition is our failure to know who we are. The intention and motivation of prayer must come from a place within us that seeks release from the ignorance, fear, failings, misunderstandings, misguidance and misdirection of our frailty, of the weaknesses and blindness of our human condition. Our truthfulness and humility can carry us deep into the healing heart of prayer, deep into the understanding of our true divine nature.
“Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.” Martin Luther King Jr.
Prayer is not about what we think we want, but really about what God wants for us. Our job is to pray and get out of the way. We can allow God then, as St. Francis so beautifully prayed, to “make me an instrument of thy peace.” Prayer will not provide the spiritual sustenance we seek in the arrogance or self-entitlement of the human ego.
Prayer is placing the individual soul in open receptivity of Divine guidance. In prayer, we admit and understand that our own efforts in handling life’s challenges are not enough; that we need the support and wisdom that comes from a source much greater than ourselves. In prayer, we allow ourselves to be humble, vulnerable and open to God’s presence, solace, guidance, strength and wisdom. In prayer, “we let go, and let God.”
Prayer involves a longing; a longing to be whole, to be healed, to make complete what is incomplete, to have justice where there is injustice, to see a clear path through confusion, fear and doubt, to make things right, and to be receptive of the greatest gift and blessing that life can offer – to be loved and to give love. Prayer is a longing to know who we are, a longing for connectivity to God, to be one with the source and wellspring of existence.
“If we pray, we will believe; If we believe, we will love; If we love, we will serve.”
Through prayer, we call forth that source and open our human heart, mind and soul in allowing that spiritual force to flow through us. When our prayer is heartfelt and sincere, accompanied by awe and respect before the magnitude and magnificence of creation, it is an appeal that the universe responds to, even if that response does not appear in an immediate and outwardly observable or tangible way. When we pray, we feel better for our expression, better that that expression has been released and received in the universe.
Human beings are expressive creatures and this need to speak our truth, admit our failings and weaknesses, stand in the righteous authenticity of our reality and ask for help, guidance and forgiveness, is an essential ingredient in the spiritual journey. Without asking, we may not receive the help we seek. Prayer brings us to that help. Prayer provides a moment of sincerity and purity of expression which connects the human condition to the divine presence. In prayer, through this sense of connectedness, we can feel purified, fortified, empowered and renewed, finding support in knowing that we are not alone.
Every prayer is a missive to the heart of the Divine.
Every prayer is a bridge to God.
Every prayer is an emptying of what we think we know, allowing in, Divine knowingness.
Every prayer is an intimate bonding with the force of faith.
Prayer brings solace and understanding. Prayer helps to invoke grace, mercy and forgiveness. Prayer builds a relationship with the Divine that establishes and fortifies the spiritual strength needed to move through the snares and toils of life. We cannot always explain or find a rationale for why disturbing things happen, why such suffering occurs in the world, but in prayer we can find a sense of consolation, reconciliation, rejuvenation and healing for much of life’s ills. Prayer brings us to be receptive of Divine blessings whereby we gain in compassion, forgiveness and gratitude. Prayer helps move us past our pain, to faith. Through faith we can find our way through any challenge that life brings us. Prayer provides a prescription and remedy from the Divine doctor.
Prayer by its nature is a request for change. In a way, it is subversive because it reflects a desire to uproot and correct what is not working, what needs help, is not healthy or right, and make it whole. This may involve a questioning of an existing status quo. It may be about a personal struggle one is having where an answer is not clear, where the confusion seeks to be straightened out. Prayer can lead us to a new vision, a fresh vitality, a more elevated and broad based outcome. We may pray for the soothing or healing of another, or pray for the relief of troubling events or danger. And we may seek clarity and understanding for our own blindness, confusion, or mishandling of a situation. We may pray for guidance in preparation for a difficult decision. Prayer may involve a confessing of where we have done wrong, or have been hurtful, thoughtless or cruel to someone, or have gone astray, in order to set ourselves in the right direction.
Prayer can be a call for mercy and forgiveness of the victims or the perpetrator(s) of an injustice. It can be a plea for a healthy recovery and rehabilitation from illness, injury, or recovery from addiction and traumatic stress. It can be a request for forgiveness of ourselves. This call for forgiveness may release a psychological and emotional hold that may encumber and inhibit a healthy progression of one’s life. It may help heal and dissolve blame, hate, enmity, jealousy, shame and fear. Through prayer we acknowledge and admit our own transgressions, confusion, and mistakes, seek clarity and forgiveness and ask for divine solace and empowerment. In this way, prayer can be a vehicle of turning over the soil, starting a new way, and finding reconciliation and renewal. We can make our lives an every-day prayerful journey.
We can make our prayers a call for peace and understanding in the world. We may pray for the end of violence and destruction, the end of war, and a new time of harmony and prosperity for all people and all of creation. We may pray for the end of all suffering, that no one goes without, that no one is hungry, homeless, degraded, oppressed or enslaved. We may pray for the awakening and enlightenment of the human species; that we may put aside our hatred and fears, our blindness and inhumanity. Through our prayers we may find that deep in the core of every prayer of every prophet of every religion, of every soul throughout the lineage of humankind – there is a common heart – the heart of hearts – that place of absolute knowingness of our oneness and togetherness as a human family, as Divine Children, of brothers and sisters sharing the resources and abundance of the Earth through God’s grace. Our prayers can lead us in becoming caretakers and stewards of that which we have been blessed, serving each other in the building of a sustainable culture of peace.
“You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer.” Thich Nhat Hahn.
These prayers for peace are most needed now in this time of fast moving global change, as we face numerous existential challenges and threats to our future. Our prayers can help build a collective consciousness that embraces a new paradigm, where the old form no longer serves our evolving needs. Our collective prayers can overcome walls of hate and the boundaries of entrenched divisiveness, and become a powerful force for creating the paradigm shift for peace – more powerful than bombs, militarism, global warming, and disastrous policies built around the old addictive patterns of enmity, exploitation, conquest and fear that have permeated our history and dominate the current paradigm.
“Prayer is the key of the morning, and the bolt of the evening…properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action”. Mahatma Gandhi
In prayer we do not fight, retaliate, seek revenge, hate, kill or destroy.
In prayer we cannot dominate, demand, abuse, oppress, rape, plunder or exploit.
Through prayer we can reconnect with our Divine Self, the I Am.
Through prayer, we learn humbleness, to accept what we cannot control and allow spirit to handle what troubles us. In this way, prayer brings us to surrender.
Through prayer we can let go of our burden, release it to God and let God show us the way.
Through prayer, we can feel a solace and understanding that the rational mind alone cannot grasp.
Through prayer, we surrender our grip on reactivity, misunderstandings, fear, mistakes, shame, inadequacy and ignorance, and place it in God’s hands. God then empowers us to do ourselves what is the most wise, loving, and beneficial way to handle the challenges life brings us.
Through prayer comes healing.
Through prayer we can open the doors of possibility that we thought closed in impossibility.
Through prayer we can reach beyond our perceived limitations to the Divine expanse of the unlimited.
Through prayer we find Divine Love.
Through prayer comes cleansing and purification.
Through prayer comes miracles.
Through prayer we find an immeasurably powerful and positive force for healing, for good, and for peace in the world.