Writing Prayers

In light of this week’s tragic van attack in Toronto, writing a personal prayer may be a helpful source of comfort, as we deal with the painful legacy left by a hateful act of violence. Now is the time to seek to a better way of being.

UUA President Peter Morales says that “prayer can be a time… when you and I open our hearts, open our awareness. Prayer can be a time when we reaffirm our concern for other people. Prayer can be a time when we connect with what we hold sacred…”

In Soul to Soul, a UU small group ministry guide, prayer is a word that encompasses many different practices, all with the same goal of quieting the mind so that we connect to ourselves or to God. Written prayers are helpful in putting our thoughts in order, allowing us to reach some insight or understanding about our hopes or our pain. As we write out a prayer or speak one aloud we may reach the wisdom that lies within each of us.

This week consider writing out your own prayer about what you need right now in your life. Be honest, be open, write from the heart.

If you are unsure what you might write about, this prayer by UU minister Christine Robinson can be a starting point. If you aren’t comfortable praying to the Divine, then write a prayer for something. Write a prayer that you can say each day, perhaps a morning prayer which sets your intentions for how you want to be during the day. Or write a prayer each night, reaching out to sacred. Once you have written a prayer, say it out loud. Give yourself some time to sit with the prayer.

Psalm 17 (adapted) by Rev. Christine Robinson

Great Mother, hear my prayer,
the love, the longing in my heart.
Hold my life, be with me in the night,
melt me down to my essence.
Help me live in love and justice. Guide me –
teach me your love.
Shield me from those who would hurt me.
Help me to leave this world a better place
And see your face in it all.

Wow!

Writer Anne Lamott suggests that there are three essential prayers:  Help Thanks Wow.  She writes “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Centre towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time.”Wow” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanos.”

Being wonderstruck as prayer is a practice of being open to the world around you. It is a moment when your own self both fades away yet also makes a connection to the greater whole. Experiencing the “wowness” of the earth is experiencing a sense of belonging to this amazing mystery of life.

This week, practice being open to the Wow of living.

This is a hard thing to explain, but it requires being present and paying attention to what is going on all around you. Notice what is around you when you are walking and working your daily round. If something catches your eye, stop, take a deep breath, and look more closely. Every moment won’t be a wow, but life may surprise you.

Listening Heart

“There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

This week we will consider prayer as a way to listen deeply to our innermost voice, whether we hear that as our own voice, the wisdom of Gaia, or the voice of God. Prayer as listening is close to meditation, it is a way to centre ourselves, to clear our monkey minds of all the clutter and noise, and be present in the moment.

Listening prayer is about learning to sit and simply be.  Of course, your thoughts will go all over the place, but let them.  Repeating a short word or phrase, or focusing on your breath, can help you note your thoughts and let them go. Just notice and don’t focus on any particular thought. This isn’t easy to do, but it can be learned. UU Minister Erik Walker Wikstrom, author of Simply Pray, suggests this exercise:  set aside three minutes to send your gaze around your room without resting too long on any one thing. As you look around steadily note what you see – this is an armchair, this is a table, this is my child. Try to give equal weight to all you see, and keep your eyes moving. Listening prayer is like this, noting your thoughts, big and small, but not giving any of them too much attention.

At moments you will find that you can sit and not think and simply be. This is an on-going practice, so the experience will come and go.

Try a listening practice for a few minutes each day. Given how noisy our lives can be, find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed. Sit comfortably.  Find a word or phrase that works for you, it might be `peace` or `honour the light`, or use a focus on your breath to help clear your mind. It will take practice!

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you

This month we will explore the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer can be tricky for Unitarian Universalists, if you don’t have an experience of God/Goddess, then to whom are you praying? We’ll look at different ways to understand prayer – as gratitude, as listening – as we try this ancient practice.

Prayer is traditionally understood as a petition to God, a request for help from a deity. If you don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world, then what does praying to God mean? What does it mean for atheists and others who have a different sense of divinity?

For some, prayer is a way to relate to the greater whole, a way to connect to that which is beyond us. It is about being in relationship with the sacred, not whether the sacred will answer.  Poet Czeslaw Milosz in his poem On Prayer describes prayer as a bridge:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold…

I like this sense of prayer lifting us up. Some people who pray regularly feel a sense of lightness, of openness. We must each decide for ourselves whether prayer is a meaningful exercise, and to whom, if we wish, we might direct our prayers. There is no one answer. Many UUs who pray don’t think of their prayers as being directed towards a Being, but to the Universe, the Earth, or to all beings around them. Others use terms such as Spirit of Life to enlarge their understanding of God.

Through out this month, consider who or what you might be praying to, but try to take a few moments each day to pray. It may be the practice itself reveals the relationship. I won’t be offering written prayers to be recited, but encouraging you to take some time to think/feel/be each day, with your own words or even in silence.

Prayer as Gratitude

Gratitude as prayer is as simple as the words “thank you”.  Gratitude as a daily practice comes easily to Unitarian Universalists, it has even been argued that our theology is based on an ethic of gratitude.

For this week, our practice is to name our gratitude in prayer. Rather than writing down what we are grateful for, or posting it to facebook, take some time to sit with gratitude.

If ritual helps you move into a more spiritual mode, light a candle before beginning, and end by extinguishing the light.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. What made you thankful today?  What should have made you thankful, but you were too busy to notice? What was difficult but ended with something positive? Sit with your gratitude until you feel you have acknowledged everything you are thankful for.

You might be directing your gratitude towards God (thank you God), or to the people or creatures or land itself (thank you first robin of spring), or you may be letting your gratitude out into the world without a particular direction (I’m grateful for sunshine). Experiment and see what feels right.

End with a final thank you, or an Amen, or So Say I, or another word or phrase that feels right to you.

Try to do this practice daily for the next week.

Creatures of Air

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”   Henry David Thoreau

This week we consider the element of air through the beautiful songs of birds. Air is the home place for many creatures – birds and insects and bats.  I have heard that the Haudenosaunee people say that songbirds sing about the place they live in, if we pay attention, we can learn their knowledge. Learning the language of birds is a life long process, it requires time and patience to be outside and to hear, identify and understand bird calls. Birds have several different types of call, and songs vary by time of day, weather and change of season.

Bird Observation

If you live in an area with birds, plan to spend 10 minutes outside listening to birdsong. Find a sheltered place where you will be undisturbed. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and listen for the birds. Do you recognize any species by their song? How would you describe their songs – are they alarm calls or mating calls or something else? Can you locate them and identify them by sight? Watch how they fly and follow the air currents. Let your mind wander over any questions without trying too hard to find the answers. If you don’t know the name of the bird, simply make one up. Don’t worry about figuring anything out, just listen to the birdsong, breathe and wonder.

You may wish to check a bird identification book after the observation time, but don’t bring it outside with you. Simply sit with your wonderings.

For those of you with limited access to the outdoors, this video offers a variety of North American birdsong.

 

The Flame Within

There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.  Rumi

In Unitarian Universalism our chalice light symbolizes the spark of life within all beings. The light within each of us doesn’t always burn steadily. At times we might feel our light burning strong and steadily, at other times it might be fiercely ablaze, at others a dim glow. Today’s practice is intended to provide insight into the state of the flame within. Do we need to nourish our spirit with more self care? Do we need to channel some of our energy out into the world in more productive ways? This practice involves drawing and can be done with children.

The Flame Within

tools:  chalice with candle, paper, pencil or black pen, red, yellow, orange crayons and markers

Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably and draw easily.

Light the chalice with the words “I honour the light within me.”

Sit and watch the flame for a few moments. Find your pulse on your neck or your wrist. Feel its beat.

Let go of your pulse. Close your eyes. What does the flame within you look like? What does it feel like?

On the paper, draw your inner light. Don’t over think, choose your colours quickly and draw with loose strokes. The drawing is just for you.  Is your light bright and bold? Is it soft and steady? Close your eyes or focus on the chalice light again if you feel stuck in drawing. (For those who are truly reluctant to draw, you could also write out your response, quickly with the first words that come to mind).

When your drawing feels complete, sit back and close your eyes. Focus on the fire within. Open your eyes. Does your drawing reflect your sense of your inner flame? Describe it to yourself. If you feel your flame needs tending in some aspect, what might you do to feed the fire?

Sit a moment more in silence.  Blow out the chalice flame with the words “I honour the light within me.”

The Energy Around Us

The element of fire surrounds us in the form of energy use.  Sunlight is the greatest grace our solar system offers us, sustaining all life on earth. Sunlight is a gift of endless abundance, with the plant life of earth converting that energy into forms we can use (Starhawk, p.99).  As endlessly inventive humans, we continue the conversion by creating electricity, powering our lives in ways unimaginable a century ago.

This week we will use sensory awareness (as in September for the element of water) as a spiritual practice. Sensory awareness or “reverential contemplation” is a Unitarian Universalist way to access our first and sixth sources. Through deep breathing, grounding the self, and paying attention, we can increase our connection to the world around us, reminding us we are part of a “great conversation” among all life on earth. It is intended to help develop observational skills and awareness of place. We will focus on the physical energy active around us, the lights and power we use all day.  This practice will focus on indoor electrical use, but could also focus on the natural energy outdoors (in warmer weather!).

Physical Energy Observation

Choose one room in your house, preferably one you spend a fair amount of time in.

Breathe deeply. Feel your feet firmly, yet loosely, planted on the ground. Let your worries and stresses sink down into your feet and into the ground. Breathe deeply.  Stay with this until you feel centred.

With your eyes closed, what does the room feel like? Do any images come to mind? How would you describe the space? What can you smell?  What do you hear?  How do you feel?

Open your eyes. Look around and notice everything in the room that uses electricity. The overhead light. The lamps. The television. The computer. The kettle. The radio. The blender. The radiator.

Now turn each energy user off one by one, starting with the smaller users. Pause after each one. Close your eyes. See if you notice any difference in sound, light, the feel of the room.

Turn off everything you can and stand in the room. How does it feel now? How do you feel?

Turn each energy user back on. Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Shake out your arms and legs. Open your eyes.

Take a minute to reflect on the experience.

This exercise is adapted from Starhawk’s The Earth Path.