Further Thoughts on Prayer

by Laura K. Secor

Hello my friends,

Today I’m going to explore what “prayer” means to me, for the second time.  It’s going to be a fairly circuitous journey.

I suspect by now many of you have tried at least a handful of yoga poses.  Chances are, you’ve heard the enthusiastic claims that yoga is more than mere exercise.  All over the country people are flocking to yoga teacher trainings, filled with a slightly confused urge to explore this mysterious “more.”  How is yoga more than exercise, what does it mean to walk the yogi’s path, to study the Yoga Sutras, to deepen the practice?

There is substantial variety in the content of yoga teacher trainings.  The one I’ve been immersed in since last September involves a pretty deep dive into the Hindu religion.  We have been invited to attend Puja ceremonies, we have chanted to Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles.  We have been asked to purify our bodies according to ancient Indian recipes and we have discussed extensively the moral precepts of the primary spiritual text, the Yoga Sutras.  We have tiptoed around the issues of eating meat, and cultural appropriation.  We talk about being respectful, and inclusive, but I notice that we are all women, and all white.  We are very sincere.

Because I love the physical practice of yoga, I have thrown myself into these borrowed spiritual practices for months now, chanting, practicing elaborate breath techniques, and even participating in rituals.  I really gave it a go.

Sometime in April I started wondering WHY I was doing these things.  I started discussing cultural appropriation with my friends.  I didn’t come to any clear conclusions.  I asked what it means to pray to a deity one doesn’t “believe in”.  Are mantras not prayer?  What is the intent behind all this speaking the name of God?  The deeper I looked inside myself, the more my inner Atheist came into focus.

The Atheist Prays by Rev. Barbara Pescan

I am praying again
and how does one pray
when unsure if anything hears?
In the world I know as reliable and finite
when time and matter cycle back and forth
and I understand the answers to so many puzzles
there are moments when knowing is nothing
and I
this accumulation of systems, histories
repetitions falls from me—
how does one who is sure there is nothing
dark gathered around my eyes
sit in this room cluttered with my certainties
my one unanswered question
holding myself perfectly still to listen
fixing my gaze
just here

This lovely, delicate poem comes closer to my own state of spiritual wondering than all the borrowed rituals.  Have I arrived home?  Well, not quite. The embrace of pure atheism can feel distinctly cold and impersonal.  It was like a breath of fresh air to claim again my choice not to worship the supernatural.  I felt content with the natural world, for a while.  And yet, not quite content.  To look at the world of the ten thousand things and say, this is it?  This feels solid and reassuring at first, and then a tentative questioning arises.  When I examine my atheism from all sides, it loses coherence, it feels two-dimensional, incomplete.

Do you also wonder what the “more” is, if it isn’t worship?  Can there be such a thing as prayer without worship?

All too often, we pace the geometries of our walled gardens by Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh 

All too often, we pace the geometries of our walled gardens, believing we are traversing the whole of creation. With spirits of discovery, let us uncover the mysteries nested in our routines, with the eagerness of children, let us seek out the secrets unfolding in our peripheral vision. Let us behold each fellow creature with reverence; let us greet each day with praise and thanksgiving. For life is a gift of incomprehensible magnitude; our lives are voyages with unknowable destinations. Along the way, let us meet, kiss, challenge, and support one another, let us fashion a network of mutuality and extend it into the larger world. In these ways, we forge lives of goodness and beauty; in these ways, we know the life of prayer.

I don’t know that Reverend Millspaugh has the only answer, but he certainly has a very good answer.  I don’t know if – after sitting with it a few months – I will still agree that the web of human connection is the prayer I need.  I will let you know in September…

Enjoy a wonderful summer!