Friday, September 25, 2009

Breath Prayers -- part two

Three times during this prayer practice you return to your breath prayer, and each time you repeat it five times. That's fifteen opportunities to repeat this short, two-phrase prayer. Thirty times a day if you do the practice twice. Two hundred and ten times a week if you do it every day. Ten thousand, nine hundred and fifty if you never miss a prayer time all year. That's a lot of opportunities for these words to work their way into your mind, your heart, your soul.

The breath prayer I've settled on for now, and which I'd like to "unpack" in this posting, is: Open my heart, dear Lord / that I may become the man you made me to be.

Open my heart - this reminds me of the words I use in the "entering-in" section of the practice: open my eyes, open my ears, open my hands, and open my heart. Plus, I think there are few situations in my life that can't be improved by my opening myself a little more than I am. I love the metaphor Sting uses in his song Fortress Around Your Heart (not to mention the song itself), in which he talks about his lover's heart as a city around which he helped build a fortress, complete with moat and mine-stewn fields around. I often feel like that's what my heart is like, so I can't hear often enough the words, "open my heart."

dear Lord -- I was raised within the Christian traditions (primarily Presbyterian and Methodist) and still have warm associations with that upbringing. The figure of Jesus, while certainly used and abused by many, was lovingly introduced to me by camp counselors and others, and it is not coincidental that my first book Teacher, Guide, Companion: rediscovering Jesus in a secular world attempts to make sense of a relationship with this figure within the context of a twenty-first century liberal religious life. This simple phrase, "dear Lord," puts me back in touch with this relationship. The word "Lord," in particular, reminds me that I don't want to be in charge here. (As the bumper sticker has it, "If God is your co-pilot, change seats.")

that I may become the man you made me to be -- there's a lot in this phrase, which I say on the out-breath. I acknowledge that I'm engaged in a process -- I'm talking about "becoming" something. And, in particular, I'm talking not about becoming something entirely new and different but, rather, something that's already encoded in me, that which I was meant to be. In this language I hear echoes of the 139th Psalm (my favorite) which talks about God knowing me fully before I was made in the womb. There's also a hint of that bumper sticker, "Lord, may I be half the person my dog thinks I am."

Open my heart, dear Lord / that I may become the man you made me to be. In this I hear the promise that I have within me the stuff I need to become the person I wish to be; that, in fact, I was made to be such a man. Standing in my way -- or, at least, the fundamental hurdle I need to overcome -- is the "fortress around my heart." And so, day in and day out; fifteen times in the morning and fifteen times at night; two hundred and ten times a week; ten thousand, nine hundred and fifty times a year I ask God -- using the metaphoric name "dear Lord," with all of the positive imagery that that conjures up for me -- to open my heart that I might become the man I was made to be.

And then I keep on praying with that as the foundation of my practice.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, September 23, 2009


In the religious tradition I serve few things would create such a firestorm as the suggestion that we ought to develop a regular practice of confession. For one thing, there are a great many self-described "recovering Catholics" in Unitarian Universalist pews and such a suggestion might be too much for them. (Especially anyone already struggling with trying to pray with beads in their newfound religious home!) Yet even for Protestants and even non-Christians who might not have quite the same "allergic" reaction, the idea that in the 21st century there is a serious suggestion that a regular dose of confession is, well, "good for the soul," would strike many as a decidely antiquated notion.

And yet that's just what I'm suggesting.

In fact, every religious tradition we human beings have ever created have incorporated some disciplined form of confession among their spiritual practices, at least when confession is fully understood. If all confession consists of is a legalistic listing of the bad things you've done -- according to someone else's criteria -- then it's a practice we'd all be well done of. If, on the other hand, it consists of a true and full appraisal of ourselves, it's something with which we could all use a little more.

In the various Twelve Step movements it's called a "fearless moral inventory," and the analogy used is that of a business which must inventory its stock to see what's in good shape, what's gone bad and needs to be replaced, and what's been used up and needs to be reordered. As it says in the so-called "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous, "A business which takes no regular inventory goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is and effort to discover the truth about the stock-in trade." ["Chapter 5: How it Works," from AA Big Book Online] In this case, the "stock-in trade" is everything that makes up your life.

"Oh Lord, you have searched me and you know me," begins the 139th Psalm. Gnothi seauton, it said above the gateway to the Oracle of Delphi, "Know Thyself." Properly understood, the prayer of confession is truly about nothing more -- and nothing less -- than fully knowing yourself. Yet since you have just spent time in the Naming prayer paying attention to those things for which you are grateful, in the Knowing prayer you focus on those things you regret or for which you are sorry.

Here, too, there are many ways to do this. I sometimes let my mind begin to generate a list of each of the things for which I am sorry at that time -- most recent or most serious first. At other times one thing may be so strong (even if it is not "objectively" the most important or seemingly the most "serious") and I will dwell on that for the entirety of my time with this bead. At other times I just allow feelings of grief and regret to wash over me and, hopefully, flow out of me. (These feelings can build up and sometimes just need to be released -- thinking about them doesn't always do the trick; sometimes they just need to be poured out.)

Just as with the Naming prayer I have found that it can be difficult to stay with Knowing prayer without turning it into something else. I will think about how deeply I regret an interaction I had with someone, for instance, when I begin to think about the part the other person played in it. Anger and resentment -- sometimes even justifiable -- may begin to rise. I am learning to let those thoughts go, at least while I am praying this Knowing prayer because I am trying to learn discipline and, during the time of this prayer my focus is on knowing my own responsibility. (Staying "on my own side of the street," as Twelve Steppers often say.) Sometimes, too, I begin to think of things I can do to make ammends or reparations, ways I can turn the situation around. Even these thoughts I am trying to learn to set aside, if only for the duration of this prayer. The discipline is hard, but is part of the practice.

The purpose is Knowing prayer is not that I might have more ammunition to hurl at myself. Rather, it is that I might say of myself, as the Psalmist says of God, "I have searched me and known me." Because when I can truly say this, I can truly move forward.

In Gassho,


Monday, September 14, 2009

Breath Prayer -- part one

The five beads in between each of the medium-sized beads are for what I called in Simply Pray "breath prayers." These are two line prayers to be repeated one line on each in-breath, one on on each out-breath. I gave three examples in the book (p. 72):

Breathing in I develop calm and equanimity. /
Breathing out I find peace and joy.

Lord Jesus Christ / have mercy on me.

Great Mystery / I seek to know.

In my own practice I have since settled on the breath prayer: Open my heart, dear Lord / that I may become the man you made me to be.

In his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr. Thomas Keating writes about the practice of the "active prayer," a simple, short prayer of five to nine syllables that you repeat so regularly that it becomes part of the background of your life. He writes:

"The active prayer has to be repeated again and again at free moments in order to work it into the subconscious. The old tapes were build up through repeated acts. A new tape can be established in the same way. it may take a year to establish one's active prayer in the subconscious. it will then arise spontaneously. One may wake up saying it or it may accompany one's dreams." (p. 114 of the combined Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life edition of Keating's works.)

I was not familiar with Keating's "active prayer" when I wrote Simply Pray, yet this is certainly what I had in mind when I was writing about the breath prayer. The phrase that you repeat on each in-breath and out-breath with each of the five small beads between the major beads of this practice is intended to work its way into your conscious and unconscious mind, to become something that you "learn by heart," so that it is always with you.

Each of us has "voices" in our head. The "old tapes" Keating writes about are familiar to us all -- they tell us that we're not good enough, or that we're not smart enough, or we're too fat, or too unprepared, or too old, or too something or not enough something else. These "voices" run as background noise, ready to come into the foreground whenever there's a lull or when the stresses and strains of our lives make us particularly susceptible to their influence.

The ancient practice of rote, repetitive prayer -- so out of fashion today -- is really a corrective to this fundamental human condition. Shed of the particularities of the various theological overlays of the traditions the different practices have come from, each of the repetitive prayer practices function to put powerfully positive "tapes" in place, recording over (as it were) the negative tapes we seem to naturally favor for some reason. And because these tapes were "recorded" in the context of prayer, they carry with them the feeling tone of your prayer time -- when one of these phrases really plants itself in your subconscious it brings with it your whole prayer practice.

And so, the next time the old tapes begin to play, this new tape may begin to play as well, or you may make the conscious decision to start playing it. Replace "I'm not good enough," with "Open my heart, dear Lord, that I may become the man you made me to be" or "Great Mystery, I seek to know." It's really amazing what happens.

In Gassho,


Friday, September 11, 2009

When Faced With Evil

I'm taking a break from the series I've been writing exploring the prayer bead practice I originally described in my book Simply Pray because today is September 11th, the eighth anniversary of the devastating terrorist attacks of 2001.

I've been thinking lately about how unified we were as a nation in the days, weeks, and months after that terrible day, and how fractiously fragmented we are today. In recent weeks we've seen an uproar generated by the President of the United States intending to talk with our nation's school children about the importance of staying in school and working hard. (To be fair, there was a similar brouhaha when a Republican President did the same thing.) Have we become so cynical that we cannot trust our President -- any President of whatever party -- to do what we hope he (or, perhaps sometimes soon, she) would do in an address like that? What, in fact, both Presidents Bush and Obama did?

And then the other night, during his address to Congress, President Obama was responded to by a Representative calling out "you lie" as if a joint session of Congress were a town hall meeting. Where is decorum? Where is the respect for the office? Where have gone our manners?

These musings have made this September 11th anniversary feel especially poignant and, so, I have decided to post here the sermon I delivered at the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth (Maine) that following Sunday.

“For there to be peace in the world . . . there must be peace in the heart.”

Opening Words: Our opening words are taken from the Holy Qu’ran, al-Hujurat 49:13:
“O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other not that ye may despise each other.”


“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have cast my lot with those who, age after age,
perversely, with no extraordinary
power reconstitute the world.”
—Adrienne Rich
* * *
This past July, during the Question & Answer service, someone asked, “How do you reconcile Universal Salvation with Timothy McVeigh?” This question came to the fore again this week—how do we reconcile our Unitarian Universalist optimism, our belief in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” our theological presumption that “ no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should,” how do we reconcile these things with the events that took place in New York City and Washington DC and rural Pennsylvania last Tuesday? How do we make sense of the tragedy that’s unfolded and is unfolding still? Upwards of 5,000 people are missing and presumed dead, countless others are wounded in body and spirit; innocent men, women, and children—whose only crime was being on the wrong plane at the wrong time—were used as weapons. It has long been a tactic of terrorists to pack their bombs with bits of glass, broken screws, rusty nails in order to increase the devastation; these terrorists packed their bombs with people. What are we to do when faced with such evil?

To prepare for this morning I looked in the back of our hymnal, where the readings and hymns are organized by theme, but there is no listing for “Tragedy;” there is no listing for “Evil.” It seems that our hymnal is void of resources to which we can turn for support in a time like this. Or is it? The reading we just heard—those beautifully evocative words from Adrienne Rich—is #463. And that haunting song with which we began our service and the one we’ll sing in a moment are both there too. I will to come back to these responses, but first I want to dwell a bit longer with the questions.

We Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about evil very much. Maybe that’s because our Universalist ancestors believed so strongly in the doctrine of Universal Salvation—that all souls would be reunited with an ultimately loving God and that none are destined for an eternity in hell. If you take away hell, perhaps, the idea of “evil” doesn’t make quite so much sense because there’s nowhere to “put” it. Or maybe it’s because our Unitarian ancestors were so convinced of humanity’s ability to climb onward and upward, to rise above our basest instincts. (An old joke has it that Universalists believed God is too loving to damn humanity and that Unitarians believed humanity is too good to be damned.) Perhaps it’s that our Unitarian Universalist rationalism has been so infused with the psychological mythologies of our day that turn “demons” into “conditions,” that “evil” has become “maladjustment” and “bad choices.”

By whatever route, it seems that our religious tradition has largely lost the language to deal with something like what happened this week: because someone decided that the United States was the Enemy and that there are no innocents here, because someone decided that their own lives—and the lives of all those people on the planes and in and around those buildings—were expendable, the Pentagon lies in rubble, the Twin Towers are no more, and a planeload of heroes lie dead in a Pennsylvania field.

How are we to make sense of that?

One response is to name the act and the persons who committed it “evil” and, so, separate ourselves from them. Hopefully we won’t take the step of expanding this demonization, you and I are not likely to start saying that all Muslims—or all Afghanis—are at fault and should pay for this. We’re not likely to generalize in that way—although I’ve already heard some of us speak words which come disturbingly close—but even if we’re specific in our demonization, targeting only the particular people who are, in fact, responsible, we are still, I believe, making a mistake.
For if they are evil and we are not, if that’s how we see things, then we are committing the same kind of error which led to this tragedy. That’s the problem of evil. Not so much that it exists—in that it’s really just a fact of life, or a force of nature. The problem of evil, as I see it, is that we are so readily tempted to imagine that it’s out there, separated from us over here; that it belongs to them and not us. And that, I believe, is ultimately the root and the design of evil—to make us categorize the world into us and them rather than recognizing our common kinship.

Stay with me here for a moment. The core of our Unitarian Universalist faith—and the core of all the religious faiths that I know of—points to the truth that we are part of a family that includes all of creation. You, and I, and caterpillars, and stars, and even anti-American terrorists are, in truth, part of one family, children of one divine reality. We call it “the interdependent web of existence.” Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “an inescapable network of mutuality.” Theists call it “the family of God.” Whatever we call it, and we do have lots of names, the truth remains that our faith teaches that what is real is our connectedness.

So I believe that a working definition of “evil” could be “whatever distracts us from our essential relatedness.” In other words, whatever convinces you that I am not your brother; whatever gets me to think of you as anything less than my kin—that thing is evil. So even this distinction of “good” and “evil” can be seen as one of evil’s most pernicious tools, for it tempts us to think of the evil and the good as separate from one another.

The eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once wrote,

“The individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, in the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion. Both are elements within his nature, and both are bound to come to light in him, should he wish—as he ought—to live without self-deception or self-delusion.”
In his book Peace Is Every Step, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and poet, writes about receiving a letter about a twelve-year-old girl, a refugee, whose boat was attacked by sea pirates. The pirates raped the girl, and she threw herself into the ocean and drowned. He writes, “When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. . . . [And if] you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that.” From out of his deep meditation, Nhat Hanh wrote a poem, “Call Me By My True Names”

“. . . I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
. . .
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.”
This is the religious response to evil, not setting it apart and intensifying the illusion of separation but recognizing, as Jung said, both how much good we, ourselves, can do and what crimes we, ourselves, are capable of; recognizing that both are part of each of us, that both are found in me. As Jesus said, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”

Oh, it is easy to get angry at them, whether them is those who are responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, or those who are responsible for the bloodshed and the anguish in Israel and Palestine, in Northern Ireland, in Serbia. They do such horrible, such horrendous things and we want retribution, we want revenge, we want someone to pay. Which is just what they said before the stones were hurled, and the bombs set off, and the planes hijacked. This cannot be our response to evil, because this is just what evil wants.

Today I say to you, with all the conviction in my soul, that we must take the harder route—opening our hearts rather than closing them, looking with compassion not only on those who are suffering because of the carnage of Tuesday but also on those who caused the suffering. This is how “Universal Salvation” and “Timothy McVeigh” are reconciled because, in truth, such reconciliation is our only hope. It is not easy, but unless we respond to violence with peace, to hatred with love, to fear with faith, the cycle will only continue. Gandhi is remembered as having said, “‘an eye for an eye’ will leave the whole world blind.” “An eye for an eye” will leave the whole world blind.

Far from having nothing to say about evil, our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the face of evil is the face of alienation, of separation, of us and them. And our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the only response to a tragedy such as this is to look through the eyes of what is best within ourselves, opening the door of compassion and remembering our place in our common family.

In the days, weeks, months and years ahead, our resolve will be tested. As much as I wish I were wrong, Tuesday’s tragedies will not be the last blows struck against us. We will be tempted to enter into a battle we cannot win, for the battle itself is the enemy. But there is another choice. We can say “no” to death, and “yes” to life over and over and over again, no matter how hard it becomes. We can refuse to let go of our faith in the essential goodness of humanity, even in the light of how horrendously evil our acts can be; we can refuse to settle for the simplistic solution of “an eye for an eye,” even when it’s our own eye that has been shattered; we can refuse to replace the love in our hearts with hate, even when we ourselves suffer indescribable anguish. As I wrote in my column in yesterday’s paper, when faced with evil the only response we can make is that we will continue to Live and will continue to Love. Let this be what our children hear. Let this be what our neighbors hear. Let this be what our world hears.


Closing Words: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” —Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
In Gassho,

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Having centered ourselves, and taken the time to enter this time of prayer we now arrive at the first of the four medium-sized beads and the first of the four primary types of prayer: Naming.

In Simply Pray I described this as a combination of the types of prayers generally called Invocation, Praise, and Thanksgiving -- saying that this bead was for naming the sacred and holy in whatever way(s) made most sense to you. Since then, however, I have come to focus nearly exclusively on the practice of thanksgiving.

With this bead I engage a prayer of gratitude. Sometimes I make an explicit list of every single thing I can think of for which I am grateful at that moment. I'll often begin with my wife and kids, and then move on to my extended family, and then my friends, my job, various experiences I've had, etc., taking each one in turn, calling it to mind as vividly as possible and trying to feel my true gratitude for it.

Here's something I've learned since I wrote about this practice back in 2004, it can be hard to remain grateful. When thinking about my wife or my kids, for instance, I may begin to think about something that they've said or done recently about which I am particularly not grateful right now. Or when thinking about my job, there may be something going on that's causing me anxiety. I've come to appreciate that a part of the discipline of this practice is that while I'm here at this Naming bead my focus is to remain on the things for which I am grateful. If my mind starts to wander, I am to return it to the "attitude of gratitude" which is the tone of this bead. Sometimes, then, I'll even include in my list people or things about which I am not feeling especially grateful for at the moment but for which I know I am grateful -- this prayer can help me reconnect to this deeper reality.

Sometimes I don't have a "list." In much the same way the Course in Miracles material includes several exercises in which you let your attention simply land wherever it lands with no attachment or judgement, sometimes I use this bead as a way to cultivate a more grateful heart. While fingering the bead I simply allow my eyes to wander and to land on whatever they land on -- the sky, a tree, the person next to me, the ground, my own hand, the chair -- and wherever my attention lands I say to myself "I am grateful for . . ." Or I'll do the same thing with my thoughts and feelings, allowing whatever thoughts come to rise up on their own and be greeted only by a non-attached "I am grateful for . . ." (It's important not to get caught up in then thinking about these things -- just notice the thought or feeling, say "thank you" for it, and then let it go.)

You can also, if you prefer, just use this bead as a time to "feel grateful" with no object to which you direct your gratitude. Can you remember a time when you felt particularly thankful? Get back in touch with that feeling. Recall it as fully and completely as you can. This is actually an ancient prayer practice, recollecting one's spiritual experience as a form of spiritual experience, so recreating in your imagination -- or your memory -- a feeling of gratitude that you once had is a way of getting in touch with your gratitude now.

The Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that we are all like television sets with hundreds of channels. When we're feeling sad to say, "I am sad," is like a TV set saying, "I am channel 5." The truth is that the sad channel is simply what's on at the moment, but all of the other channels are also there -- including the gratitude channel. This bead, this prayer, is a way of setting the gratitude channel as a favorite, preset channel on your remote so that you can return to it more easily when you want to or need to throughout your day.

And I always say how grateful I am for this prayer bead practice.

In Gassho,


Friday, September 04, 2009

Entering in: fourth bead

Open my heart, that I might live and love more fully and deeply in you -- you who created me, you who redeem me, you who sustain me. Amen.

This is the last of the four beads between the largest -- the centering -- bead and the first of the four medium sized beads which are the cornerstones, as it were, of this prayer bead practice. As I engage with this practice myself, I use each of these beads as another step in preparation for the prayer time to come and, so, I ask that my eyes, my ears, and my hands be opened not just in my life in general but more specifically in this upcoming time of prayer. And now, as I am on the verge of engaging the first of the primary prayer practices, I ask that my heart may be opened "that I might live and love more fully and deeply in you."

Another way to say this might be that I want to live my life more fully conscious of the presence of God, live my life more fully grounded in the awareness of the reality of the divine. One of my favorite spiritual books is Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century lay brother who developed the spiritual practice of living each moment aware of God's presence so that whether he was chanting the psalms in the chapel, in prayer on his knees in his cell, or in the kitchen cutting carrots made no difference to him. I want that kind of life -- aware, always, of being surrounded and suffused by the sacred and holy reality of life. (I would say, of course, that I am surrounded and suffused whether I am aware of it or not, just as I am immersed in the air whether I acknowledge it or not. Yet I want to know about it and appreciate it!)

So, open my heart -- because my eyes, and ears, and hands have already been opened -- so that my living and my loving might be more fully and deeply grounded in this reality. And then I describe this reality in, admittedly, extremely trinitarian terms. Yet rather than, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," I use the terms "creator," "redeemer," and, "sustainer." Let me unpack these:

You who created me -- in the Christian Gospel of John (1:3) it says, "Through [God] all things were made; without [God] nothing was made that has been made." That sounds about right to me since, as I understand it, one way of defining God is as the creative force of the universe.

You who redeem me -- I know that this is traditional language with very specific meaning within the Christian tradition, and the familiarity of it is part of what appeals to me, yet I think of it too as meaning that through my growing relationship with the sacred my life is redeemed from a life which I would otherwise find less meaningful and devoid of that "spark." Being in this relationship redeems my life from an existential loneliness in which I have spent far too much time.

You who sustain me -- And if God is "the ground of being," the "Spirit of Life," than God is that which sustains all things. Just as nothing is created without the creative force being involved, so nothing exists without sustaining power. Is this a tautology? Of course. Does that make it any less true?

So -- Open my heart, that I might live and love more fully and deeply in you -- you who created me, you who redeem me, you who sustain me. Amen.

And this brings us to the end of our preparation. Of course, it isn't like the preparation isn't, itself, a part of the processess; it's not as if we have not been praying up until this point. It's all been prayer. Yet now, with the next bead -- the first of the medium-sized beads and the first of the four primary prayer types -- our prayer journey begins in earnest.

'till Friday.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Entering In: Third Bead

So far we've taken two "steps" from our Centering Bead toward the first of our four major prayer beads; we've taken two steps in the four-step process of entering into our prayer. As I noted in the first post on this topic you can do this in any way that makes sense for you. I've composed a prayer that is all about "opening," and thus far I've talked about opening my eyes and opening my ears. When I engage my prayer bead practice, the third bead's prayer is:

Open my hands, that I might let go of controling things and grasping after false security.

This is considerably different than the prayer I wrote about in Simply Pray. As I said it then, the prayer was, "Open my hands, that I might freely give whatever is mine to share." (p. 68) These things change over time. I have no idea exactly when or how the one prayer changed into the other. All I know is that now, where I am in my life with the concerns before me and issues I am wrestling with, the new phrase is the one that makes the most sense to me.

It is important, as with any disciplined practice, that you stick with the words and forms you choose for long enough that they can have the time needed to work their way into you, psyche and soul. Yet it is equally important that you hold onto them with a light enough touch that they can change as you do. Note that the Christian's so-called "Lord's Prayer" -- also called the "Our Father" -- actually exists in two fairly different forms. It is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (6:9-13) and the Gospel of Luke (11:2-4). Now, this is not as radical a change as occured in my prayer, yet it just goes to show that even the most well-known words change over time. (And not just "debts" and "trespasses.")

So I'm now concerned with the need to let go of control. One of my favorite bits of wisdom comes from the Rev. Barbara Merrit's contribution on adversity as a spiritual practice in Everyday Spiritual Practice. She writes, "Whether or not we believe in God, we must recognize that we ourselves are not God." I've written elsewhere that even during times when I did not believe in any kind of Higher Power I seemed to be living my life as if I were at least applying for the job. I want that to stop. I need that to stop if I'm going to have any chance of finding peace and balance in my life and I really want both. So each day I announce my attention, I ask the help of the universe -- of the Spirit of Life, of God, of the Living God, of the "really Real," of the Life in life -- to help me "open my hands, that I might let go of controling things."

And that not only applies to my life "out there" but this time of prayer as well -- I want to try to make sure that I'm not trying to be in control of what happens here but am, instead, open to its unfolding on its own. Even that's not easy! Yet again, as I mentioned in the last post, my teachers at Shalem encouraged us to think of prayer as something that God was already doing in us -- our job is to get out of the way, to quiet the internal noise and stop trying to direct the flow of things enough so that we can become aware of and attuned to the prayer God is praying in us. Not easy for us results-oriented, action-focused, product-driven American personality types.

The other thing I try to remind myself of here is that much of what I seek after as security is actually a false security: the approval of others, the material things, the momentary feelings of success. None of these things lasts, and so none of these things provides the kind true security that can provide real peace of mind and heart. And so I seek to stop grasping after those things, to "open my hands," and instead to pursue only those things that lead to real security.
And finding those things, one might say, is what the rest of this prayer stuff is all about.
In Gassho,
PS -- because of the holiday on Monday, I'll post again on Tuesday. 'Till then . . .

Entering In: second bead

Open my ears, that I might hear your voice in whatever form it takes -- especially those I might rather not hear.

Continuing the process of "entering in" to the time of prayer I ask that my ears might be open. The e. e. cummings poem I referred to yesterday -- "i thank You God for most this amazing" -- ends with the lines: "(now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened)." This is what I think of when I pray "open my eyes" and "open my ears."

And it isn't quite right to say that I am asking that my eyes and ears be opened as there really isn't a someone of whom I am asking this. (At least not in the sense those words are usually used.) This "God" to whom I am praying is not exatly Other but not exactly Self, either -- I'm not really talking to another person but I'm not really just talking to myself. So I'm asking for my eyes and ears to be opened and I'm stating my intention that my eyes and ears be opened; there's a merging of active and passive voice here that makes little linguistic sense but makes perfect mystical sense. (Remember Augustine's si comprihendis non es deus -- "if you understand it, it's not God.")

So the second of the "entering beads" -- as I do the practice -- is an invitation to open my ears to the "voice" of the sacred "in whatever form it takes." Remember the television show Joan or Arcardia in which Amber Tamblyn played a teenager who kept seeing God in different forms -- a teenage boy, a little girl, an elderly woman, a security guard, a homeless man . . . God kept showing up in different forms in part because God had no one form of his/her own. Likewise, metaphorically speaking, God has no single voice and, so, all things are potentially the voice of God.

A person is at the end of her or his rope, in the depths of despair. He sits on a little hill, the sun baking down on him, feeling that his soul is as dried out and parched as the ground on which he sits. "I can't go on," he cries, and just then a little breeze kicks in and his spirit feels just the littlest bit revived. Who is to say that that breeze wasn't the voice of God answering his prayer of despair? The twitter of birds, the laughter of children, the tears of a loved one, the anger of friends . . . each of these could be a much needed message, a "voice" as it were telling us what we most need to hear. (If, that is, the ears of our ears are open to hear it. How often is Jesus remembered as saying, "Those who have ears, let them hear."?)

I remember leading a books study when the book Everyday Spiritual Practice came out. At one point one of the members was having something of a crisis of faith -- he was struggling with a newly (re)discovered sense that maybe there was some kind of Higher Power in some kind of control of the universe, an idea he'd long ago abandoned. Driving home from the group one night he found his thoughts tumbling around and around one central question, "Who is in control of the universe?" To take his mind off this existential wrestling he turned on his radio and started surfing through the dial. From the first station he landed on, the first clear sounds were the words, unmistakable, "I am in charge!" (It turns out he'd landed on a Christian station.) He had to pull off to the side of the road to compose himself. Was this a message? A coincidence? (Some say that a coincidence is God's way or remaining anonymous.)

With this bead I remind myself that I have a lot to learn and that there are opportunities to learn -- teachers -- literally all around me. The folks at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, with whom I studied spiritual guidance, say that prayer is not so much about us talking to God as it is about us learning to become quiet enough to listen to what God has to say. "Open my ears that I may hear your voice in whatever form it takes."

One more thing, though. I'm not always going to like what I hear. This is one of the dangers in much modern spirituality -- the "take what you want and leave the rest" mentality that is so prevalant today while in some ways a really good thing is also potentially a prescription for a shallow spiritual life. There are some hard truths that I must face too, if I am going to grow, and each day, with this bead, I remind myself to be open to them as well.

'till Friday.

In Gassho,