“Thoughts and prayers” – it’s become a meme; words which have suffered from ‘semantic satiation’ (as reported by CNN). That is, a phrase repeated so often as to lose any significance.
But I have some thoughts about prayers.
I believe it is justifiable to view the ‘thoughts and prayers’ incantation in a cynical way, when the sentiment is simply a substitute for action. However, when we gloss over the power of communal prayer, I think we lose a vital medium for change.
It is documented that we humans have come together in prayer for over five thousand years. At its root, prayer is a quest for connection to the ineffable, an act of supplication. All faiths practice a form of this connection – no one religion ‘owns’ prayer. People pray as individuals or in groups. Whether it is the ‘two or more gathered in my name’, the minyan of ten, or formal call to worship, communal prayer strikes a cosmic chord. Deepak Chopra calls prayer ‘applied consciousness’.
While prayer itself may not immediately change outcomes, it does change us. We—being changed – can affect outcomes. An author I admire, C.S. Lewis, has said: “I pray because I can’t help myself. … I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
Action is a necessary concomitant of prayer. To offer thoughts and prayers without commitment to deeds is ineffectual – it’s only half the process. This is not just my opinion: Pope Francis has said that prayer without action is useless. However, my favorite quote is from Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo:
“This isn’t a time for prayers, and study and inaction, it’s a time for prayers, action and the asking of God’s forgiveness for our inaction (especially the elected officials that ran to the cameras today, acted in a solemn manner, called for prayers, and will once again do absolutely nothing).”
Think about a prayer vigil asking supplication and forgiveness for our inaction to effect change to quell violence. Think about the power a citizen group – with many points of view and diversity of faith – can accomplish by gathering for communal prayer about our inaction in living out our ideals in a way that helps our shared community. Would our elected officials join or disown such activity?
What if every citizen meeting started by reciting something like the following:
I pray that harmony may prevail in my community. Help me to be an instrument of peace. Help us in this community to come together to resolve the issues that affect us all. Help us cooperate in overcoming violence, health issues and prejudice. May we each bring our experiences and our expertise to the table and work out solutions together. Help us to listen well, to empathize, and resolve the best path for our community. Amen.
Some may say this would violate the separation of church and state, because the word ‘pray’ is included, yet there is no mention of a deity – and of course, ‘amen’ simply means “so be it”. In the spirit of discussion, would you see this as just a naïve wish or essential pledge to any meaningful change?
What follows is reported to be the Dalai Lama’s favorite prayer – attributed to Shantideva:
“May all beings everywhere
Plagued by sufferings of body and mind
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
By virtue of my merits.
May no living creature suffer,
Commit evil, or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighed down by depression.
May the blind see forms
And the deaf hear sounds,
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.
May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food;
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.
May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May the forlorn find hope,
Constant happiness, and prosperity.
May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests;
May all medicines be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit.
May all who are sick and ill
Quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world,
May they never occur again.
May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power,
And may people think of benefiting each other.
For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then may I too remain
To dispel the miseries of the world.”
Once again, Wal presents us with a well thought out and carefully articulated discourse on a timely issue. Even more, he offers up a suggestion and asks each of us to consider what might happen if we, collectively, took it seriously.
I am moved by this question and Wal’s insightful views. Would I see this, as he puts it, “… as a naïve wish or essential pledge to meaningful change?” I suggest that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. For me, naïve wishes, in the minds of action-oriented thinkers, become essential pledges to meaning change. Yes, if we are caught up in the meme of “thoughts and prayers” and generally feel hopeless about how things are, this suggestion could become just another “naïve wish.” But what if we bring ourselves to these things with hope and enthusiasm about what could be? Even if it begins as another innocent and as yet unsophisticated idea, could it not spiral into an unexpected but highly effective action? Absolutely, I say!
Wal plants this seed for all of us to witness. We can pass by it and notice it’s beauty and smile or shake our heads and see it’s futility, we can stop and hold it in our hand for a while and consider it’s potential, or we can pick it up, feel it’s possibilities and decide to adopt it, plant it and nurture it.
Why not advance Wal’s question from query to an outright challenge? What if we accept the premise that simply feeling badly and once again thinking about and praying for the victims of violence is no longer enough and worse, is eroding my capacity for honest empathy? What would happen if each of us took the recitation* Wal assembled and brought it to the organizations to which we belong and asked them to consider using it to begin each gathering? Or, what if you brought it as a working construct to be modified and adapted so that it engendered more ownership? Can you feel the energy that could bring?
“I Go to Seek a Great Perhaps”
Francois Rabelais * I pray that harmony may prevail in my community. Help me to be an instrument of peace. Help us in this community to come together to resolve the issues that affect us all. Help us cooperate in overcoming violence, health issues and prejudice. May we each bring our experiences and our expertise to the table and work out solutions together. Help us to listen well, to empathize, and resolve the best path for our community. Amen.
Time to Put on My Old Man Pants
I believe in the power of prayer; I must believe in it because I do it all the time. Sometimes I pray out loud, sometimes I pray silently. As a kid growing up Catholic, I knew all of the usual prayers by heart…. The Our Father, Hail Mary, Act of Contrition, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep…To this day, when I begin to pray I go through the entire litany of memorized prayers before I get to the real substance of what I am praying about, just out of habit! I remember as a kid when my parents were arguing loudly, I used prayer as a way of blocking out their anger and the length of my praying was in direct correlation to the length of the argument and saved me from hearing what was being said. I used prayer as a way of drowning out anything I didn’t want to hear. As I aged, I often would pray as a way of allaying my fears. The physical act of praying blocked out my fear and apprehension and allowed the time to pass with as little worry and anxiety as possible. It still works for me. The saying of the prayer in my mind distracts me, barricades outside noise, and allows the time to pass by without having to replay the reality that initiated the prayer in the first place. It doesn’t bring me the peace and comfort I would see on my Aunt’s face when she would say her rosary but i was always envious of how successfully that worked for her.
I came to realize that my mind is never quiet. Maybe if I practiced yoga I would be able to shut it down for periods of time but honestly there is never a moment when I am not talking to myself in my head. I don’t hear my voice in my head but I perceive every word as clearly as if I were speaking it out loud. I also came to realize that more often than not those head conversations present themselves as prayers, asking for help or hoping for a solution to some kind of problem. Sometimes I am not even aware I am doing it but my mind is never silent. I have incredible internal conversations when I am driving, or eating alone, or anywhere and in any activity where directed thinking is not required. Sometimes I may be asking for help, imagining a dream I would love to see come true, sometimes a hope that I could win the next argument with someone. But it always includes a wish, a hope, a different outcome, all of which I perceive as prayer.
There are times when my prayers are less than questioning and more out right angry. Can there be an angry prayer? If there is an “All Mighty,” omniscient being why are innocent children dying in schools, why are there tornadoes and earthquakes to add to our suffering? Why are there bad people shooting up schools snd malls and churches. Why can’t the omniscient one prevent this pain and evil. At those times my thoughts get quite agitated and angry and yes, even challenging! What does the Almighty one get from our pain and suffering. And if nothing, why not stop it. Teach us how to live harmoniously and get along, after all the Almighty Omniscient one has the power to stop it and the knowledge that it is going to happen. Those thoughts usually enter my head after a school shooting, having been a grade school teacher for 35 years!
I believe that prayer benefits the pray-er more than the object of the prayer because it can drive that individual to action. And action is often what is needed to answer prayer. I guess it is time for me to put on my old man pants with the suspenders and step up to the plate. Who knows, if enough of us take action, change might just occur! I sure hope so!