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In northern California, there is fog in the morning. Slowly, it clears. We know that the mountains, the trees, the sky are there, behind the fog, but we cannot see them with our eyes. Instead, we know them in our bodies; we know them for having seen them, felt them, watched the fog lift again and again...
This is prayer. This is deep, faithful listening, waiting for what is hidden to be revealed. Prayer is not words; prayer is what happens when you listen and wait, beneath the words, for the outline of heaven to emerge.
--From the Introduction Learning to Pray
Many who seek comfort and healing from prayer are unsure about how to pray. They feel awkward or uncomfortable, not knowing the “right” way to pray. What should prayer feel like, and what is it supposed to accomplish?
In this illuminating book, Wayne Muller offers simple yet profound guidance based on the Lord’s Prayer. It is the prayer most prayed in our culture--included in countless services, private devotions, and twelve-step meetings. Yet in its very familiarity we may underestimate its power to heal and transform our lives today. Now, in the same ecumenical spirit with which he approached the Sabbath, Muller gives us a fresh, new vision of this timeless prayer. “Every word, every phrase,” he says, “reveals some potent teaching about prayer.”
Starting with the word “our,” which reminds us that we never pray alone, and continuing phrase by phrase, Muller leads us into the heart of the prayer, to the assurance of a heaven available to us here and now. He explores how God responds to our needs and wants, how we can seek protection in a world full of danger and evil, and how we are called to forgiveness. He also gently confronts the difficulties that some people have experienced with the prayer. Each short section ends with a Prayer Practice to bring these simple teachings alive in our hearts and lives.
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Wayne Muller is an ordained minister and a therapist, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and the founder of Bread for the Journey, a nationwide organization serving families in need. He was also Spiritual Care Consultant at the Betty Ford Center. His previous books include Legacy of the Heart, a New York Times bestseller; How, Then, Shall We Live?; and Sabbath.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When we pray, we never pray alone.
Nowhere in the Lord's Prayer do we find the word I. Prayer is not a solitary practice; as prayer guides us inward, we are led into deep communion with everyone who has ever prayed. Beginning with the word Our, we cultivate a deep intention to pray on behalf of, and in the company of, the entire family of creation.
We belong to something larger than ourselves. Even in complete solitude, we remain part of a living community. When we pray--when we retreat to a still place of deep listening--even in our intimate seclusion, our prayers reverberate through the connective fabric of life.
When we pray, even as we lift up our own deep needs and yearnings, we also pray for grace, joy, and the alleviation of suffering for all beings. Prayer honors deep, unseen connections that place us in kinship with all beings. Throughout this prayer, we hear the echo of our collective yearning--our Father, our bread, our trespasses.
Sadly, our society seeks to deny the astonishing power of our deep interconnectedness by promoting a corrosive illusion of isolation and self-sufficiency. As we seemingly become more and more self-sufficient in our cars and on our computers, we are trapped by an insidious lie that we can somehow live apart from the subtle dance of interdependence. This is a terrible misunderstanding that does violence to the spirit, and promotes a feeling of being crushed by the weight of deep loneliness.
In truth, countless others accompany us each step of the way, and we do nothing without their assistance. Have we ever grown all our own food, built our own homes, woven the cloth for our own clothing? Every moment we live, we depend on the labor of countless farmers, teachers, doctors, carpenters, truck drivers, nurses, miners, parents, children, artists, loggers, steel workers, cattle, bees, worms, trees--numberless people and beings. When we proudly proclaim that we are "self-sufficient" we deny the nourishment and companionship offered us by the rich family to which we belong.
So when we pray for inner peace and healing, we also seek some benefit for all who are in need. But how can we pray for so many, when our own needs seem so immediate? Pulled by too many demands, committed to too many projects, we often feel overwhelmed by the needs of others, and seek in prayer to retreat, to remove ourselves from people, and take refuge in solitude. This is, for many of us, the attraction of prayer.
WHY DO WE PRAY?
I often feel called to pray when I am weary and depleted, when I feel as if the weight of the world were on my shoulders. As much as I resolve to offer my best, to do my work, raise my children, contribute to my community, and be a good friend and useful citizen of the planet, I can feel overwhelmed and discouraged that I have not done more.
But if I look carefully at myself in these moments, I find I have taken on these things as if they were my work alone. Whenever I take on more than I can honorably do, or try to do more than I can honestly handle, something inevitably goes wrong. Then I feel like a failure, disappointed I could not do everything right. In the end, I feel isolated and lonely. It is in times such as these that I find myself needing some solace, seeking comfort and sanctuary in prayer. "In isolation," the Buddha cautions, "lies the world's great misery."
I was newly graduated from Harvard Divinity School when I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, a group of Plains Indians invited me to take part in a sweat-lodge ceremony. Although I had spent three years studying the world's religions, I had never participated in such a ceremony, and I was more than a little nervous. The temperatures in a sweat lodge can get very high, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stand the heat. What if I needed to leave? My hosts were gentle and understanding, and assured me that I could leave when I wished.
They took all day to prepare the fire and arrange the lodge in the manner prescribed by tradition. Willow branches were cut, shaped, and tied to frame the lodge, blankets covered the frame, a fire pit was dug and large rocks were gathered to be placed in the raging fire for several hours. When the time came to begin the ceremony, we all gathered around the lodge. It was winter, it was night, and it was snowing.
The one who tended the fire told me that as I entered the lodge, I must say aloud the words mitakuye oyasin--"to all my relations." When Native Americans say "all my relations," they do not mean only grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, although they do include these blood relatives. They also mean to encompass all our relations in the family of creation, the two-legged, the four-legged, the birds and fish and plants and even the trees who gave their lives to make this fire that heats these rocks that make the steam in the sweat lodge.
During this ceremony I learned that "all my relations" was a rich and magnificent acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of all life. We each took turns to speak as we went around the circle, four times in all, offering prayers in each of the four rounds to the four directions, for the earth, for those in need, for the animals on this land, for Father Sky and Mother Earth and all her creatures. In the intimate circle of the lodge, smoking the pipe of peace as a blessing for each prayer, I felt the palpable sacredness of that interconnection in ways I had never felt before. I also felt a creeping humility overcome any sense I may have had that my divinity degree was the culmination of my spiritual training. Clearly another spiritual adventure was just beginning.
Many indigenous peoples, when they begin prayer or worship, invoke the presence of their ancestors, honoring all those who have come before, confessing from the start that we cannot possibly do this work of living and loving, building and feeding, growing and healing, all by ourselves. We seek the wisdom and nourishing company of all who have gone before, and pray for the healing of all who will come after.
In the same spirit, the traditional Buddhist Metta, a prayer of loving kindness, is offered for the alleviation of suffering of all sentient beings.
May all beings be healed.
May all beings be at peace.
May all beings be free from suffering.
PRAYING FOR OUR FAMILY
When I lead retreats, I begin by asking those present to think of someone dear to them. I ask them to recall a particular person whose loving kindness startled them awake, whose gift inspired them to be strong or faithful, who offered bread when they were hungry, water when they were parched with thirst.
"I want to bring my grandfather into the circle," explains a young pediatrician. "He was always kind to me, never harsh. Whenever I walk into the room of a child in my care, I remember his gentle manner, and I feel him there with me."
A woman speaks up. "I would like to invite my aunt," she says. "I had pneumonia when I was a little girl, and I remember my aunt sitting by my bed for hours, just sitting there, singing to me, holding my hand. She could not heal my sickness, but her presence made me feel strong and safe. I would like to feel her by my side again." She is quiet, a tear slowly spills onto her cheek.
A parent recalls when his daughter was about six. He had been working hard, late hours, coming home depleted and troubled by the weight of working and raising a family. "One night I collapsed in a chair, and could barely speak. I was bone tired. My daughter climbed up on my lap, and stroked my head, and said, 'I love you, Daddy.' I can never forget the touch of her fingers in my hair, those few simple words. She changed my mood in an instant, I felt grateful and at peace." He paused, and added, "I would like to bring my daughter into the circle."
And so it goes, people inviting teachers, lovers, friends who held or loved them into the circle. Healing, like communion, is shared, sacred bread passed around life's altar from hand to hand, generation to generation. When we pray, we invite all these into the quiet sanctuary of "our" prayer.
The gift of prayer holds a hidden paradox; when we pray alone, centered and still, we begin to feel less lonely. We taste the quiet companionship of God, and recall deep connections that nourish and sustain us.
I belong to a circle of people who meet a few times each year to exchange stories from our journeys, to share our challenges and blessings. One year, Hafsat, a young member of our group, was absent. She had been detained in her home country in Africa. No one knew when, or if, she would be allowed to leave. The previous government had killed her mother, and her father had died a political prisoner. We did not know what would happen to her, and we were afraid.
It was the night of her twenty-fifth birthday. She had always been a light in our circle, and in her sudden absence we ached from the missing of her company. While some of us were doing what little we could through connections at the State Department, we were essentially powerless, troubled and uncertain, not knowing what to do or say. For the most part, we could only wait.
Late in the evening, on the way to our respective rooms, several of us found ourselves spontaneously forming a circle, on a path under the stars. As we held one another, we prayed aloud for her safe return. Amshatar, one of our circle, taught us an old African song that Hafsat's mother sang to her when she was small. It had always made Hafsat feel at peace in her mother's love.
And so, in a circle on a path in the Michigan woods, a small group of devoted friends prayed and sang a song that we knew, somehow, was the right song:
is not a good thing.
is certainly not
a good thing.
please do not make me
On the night of her twenty-fifth bi...
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