Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
In this time of insecurity and social upheaval,
When we are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short space of time,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
At this one time.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) (words by Benjamin Downing (adapted)
Friends, draw close (in your hearts).
Listen together. Pray together.
Share the mysteries which never die, and the
silences that never cease. And as we share
and celebrate and worship, one in all, and all in each,
may we feel and know that we are being understood better
than we know and understand ourselves.
May we give to the winds our fears.
May we give to the world our faith.
May we give to Life our thanks and our service,
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this difficult time,
Keeping in touch however we can,
And helping each other,
However we may.
We hold in our hearts all those
Whose lives have been touched,
In whatever way,
By painful events, in their lives,
And in the wider world,
Of which we are all a part.
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Then a Priestess said, Speak to us of Prayer.
And he answered, saying:
You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.
For what is prayer but the expansion of yourself into the living ether?
And if it is for your comfort to pour out your darkness into space, it is also for your delight to pour forth the dawning of your heart.
And if you cannot but weep when your soul summons you to prayer, she should spur you again and yet again, though weeping, until you shall come laughing.
When you pray, you rise to meet in the air those who are praying at that very hour, and whom save in prayer you may not meet.
Therefore let your visit to that temple invisible be for naught but ecstasy and sweet communion.
For if you should enter the temple for no other purpose than asking, you shall not receive;
And if you should enter into it to humble yourself, you shall not be lifted;
Or even if you should enter into it to beg for the good of others, you shall not be heard.
It is enough that you enter the temple invisible.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust.
Reading Does prayer work? by Jim Corrigall, from With Heart and Mind 2
A struggle I’ve had since moving towards faith over the past few years has been with prayer. I began by praying for Divine help when facing tricky situations, like taking my first service. And it seemed to work. Everyone told me afterwards how well I had done, and I basked in self-satisfaction! But I became aware of a pattern, finding that difficult problems seemed less intractable after prayer.
I eventually realised that my prayers were very self-centred… so I began praying for others, beginning with close family and friends. And I sensed a subtle change, as if the good thoughts I sent out influenced the dynamic between us.
So does prayer work?
I can’t be certain, and I don’t believe in a Divinity with a magic wand. Perhaps prayer is simply a dialogue with oneself? If so, it is a conversation with the deepest part of oneself, the part that links us to the rest of humanity, that part of ourselves we call conscience.
The writer John O’Donohue catches a truth when he says in Anam Cara: when you send out love ‘from the bountifulness of your own love, it reaches other people.’ He calls this ‘the deepest power of prayer,’ and he goes on to invoke Dante’s notion that the secret rhythm of the universe is the rhythm of love.
I believe that following a daily pattern of prayer puts me in touch with this ‘secret rhythm of the universe’. Why not try it for yourself?
Prayer Unanswered prayer from Carnival of Lamps by Cliff Reed
O God, who doesn’t seem to answer prayer,
who leaves the hungry to starve, the poor to die,
the oppressed to suffer, and the wars to rage,
why don’t you answer prayer, if you’re there at all?
But maybe that’s the wrong question.
Rather, why don’t we, humanity, answer prayer?
Why do we leave the hungry to starve
when there is food enough to feed them
and the means to grow more?
Why do we leave the poor to die
when there are resources enough
to heal the sick, clothe the naked, and
shelter the houseless?
Why do we leave the oppressed to suffer
for want of liberation, and wars to rage,
when we could stop them if the will for peace
ruled our counsels?
O God who can only answer prayer
with human hands, human courage,
and human caring, stir us to the love
that feeds the hungry and heals the sick,
strikes down oppression, frees the slaves…
You are the will for peace with justice.
You are the love that reaches out to us
from others in our need.
God of our inmost hearts,
who calls us to seek you there,
may we find you and become
your loving presence in this suffering world.
May it be so, Amen
Reading Contemplative Prayer by Peter J. Roberts, from With Heart and Mind
Very often our experience of prayer may be that of sitting quietly with others whilst a worship-leader speaks or reads out his or her form of prayer. That form may include some element of petitionary prayer, if not on behalf of our needs, then for the needs of others; asking some outside power to act as we think to be right. Or it may agnostically avoid the presumption of any real deity and instead consist of a series of aspirations concerning ourselves and our world.
Sitting, listening, perhaps agreeing with the words spoken or, just as likely, having reservations about their form or content, our ‘prayer’ becomes limited to that of an exercise in critical comprehension between ourselves and the worship-leader. It becomes a closed circuit of human thought and intention.
In contemplative prayer, although forms of words may be used as an aid to quietening the mind, it is essentially an opportunity to close down our mechanical faculties, even our awareness of others being present. Instead, we relax ourselves both physically and mentally; we let go things that would otherwise preoccupy us. In such a way we can empty ourselves to make some room for the spirit to move within us and inform us of what we really need to know.
Other than very consciously waiting, listening and sensing, we do not make any call, invoke any presence or otherwise seek to get in the way. In Soto Zen Buddhism there is the requirement of ‘just sitting’. In contemplative prayer, we need to ‘just listen’.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Peter J. Roberts)
We have come together in a time of reflection.
So we relax our bodies and our breathing.
Breathe easily, slowly, deeply, and ride the sensation of simply breathing.
We are here and now, letting go of the thoughts that we let pre-occupy us so much.
Thinking not of what happened earlier, or of what might happen later,
be here, now, in body, mind and spirit – nowhere else.
With relaxed breathing, consciously let all else fall away, and open
ourselves to this time of peace and quiet in the silence.
Let the silence enter in, and the spirit of holy peace and wisdom will move throughout, to heal, to enlighten, to strengthen us.
With every fresh intake of breath, let the spirit enter in to enrich us,
physically and mentally.
With every exhalation of breath, let some more of our present tiredness and negativity be dispersed.
Blessed be that divine presence which gives us life in a beautiful world and a wondrous universe.
May our brief lives be such as to add to that beauty and wonder,
Thereby glorifying the Divine Unity that creates, sustains and transforms all beings eternally.
So may it be, Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address On Prayer
I believe it is a natural human instinct to pray, especially in what the Prophet calls “your distress and in your need.” I read somewhere that the number of people praying has rocketed during this time of the coronavirus and lockdown. And I also believe that prayer can make a difference – maybe not that prayers are answered (although I believe they sometimes are) – but that they make a difference to the person doing the praying. There is a Unitarian Universalist wayside pulpit which reads, “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people, and people change things.” Yes.
So I find myself in disagreement with the Prophet, when he says, “Therefore let your visit to that temple invisible be for naught but ecstasy and sweet communion. For if you should enter the temple for no other purpose than asking, you shall not receive; And if you should enter into it to humble yourself, you shall not be lifted; Or even if you should enter into it to beg for the good of others, you shall not be heard. It is enough that you enter the temple invisible.”
Poppycock! In Chapter 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” One of my favourite writers, Anne Lamott, has written a gorgeous book called Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers. In it, she explains what prayer is, in words that really ‘speak to my condition’, as the Quakers say. She writes,
“I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that’s there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.
Prayer is … communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension, but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital Ls. …
Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy – all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away, and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly.
Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray). Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.”
I believe that prayer is all the above. But there is also room for what the Prophet calls “naught but ecstasy and sweet communion”, and what Peter Roberts refers to as “contemplative prayer”. Some of us may prefer the description “deep meditation”, but it requires the same discipline, the same mind-set. Peter Roberts describes it this way: “we relax ourselves both physically and mentally; we let go things that would otherwise preoccupy us. In such a way we can empty ourselves to make some room for the spirit to move within us and inform us of what we really need to know. Other than very consciously waiting, listening and sensing, we do not make any call, invoke any presence or otherwise seek to get in the way.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it really isn’t… or at least, that is what I have found. When I was training to be a spiritual director, we were introduced to a wide variety of spiritual practices, and one of these was centring prayer, which is the same as contemplative prayer. I have started innumerable times, but not managed to stick to for more than a couple of weeks, before the excuses started. In a way, it is the simplest spiritual practice of all, as it consists of sitting in silence, waiting on God. Just that. Just sitting. Just. Sitting. I really struggle with it, because I find it so hard to still my mind. Here’s how you do it:
“1. Choose a sacred word or short phrase as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
- When engaged with your thoughts (including bodily sensations, feelings, images and reflections) return, ever-so-gently, to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.”
The leaflet I have explains that it is a “way of cultivating a deeper relationship with God … a way to quiet the mind while maintaining its alertness … resting in God beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.”
Or at least, that is the theory. Like I say, I find it almost impossible to “quiet the mind while maintaining its alertness.” So I stopped beating myself up and decided to pray in a different way. At my very first Summer School, in 2009, one of the spiritual practices we were introduced to was the use of prayer beads. I have used mine ever since, in a prayer practice that works for me. You start with an opening prayer at the Centring Bead, do four breath prayers, then there are four larger beads, interspersed with smaller beads for more breath prayers. I use the Naming bead to give thanks for my blessings of the last 24 hours, the Knowing bead to acknowledge where I have fallen short, what might have gone better, the Listening bead for a time of silence, and the Loving bead to pray for others. Then there are four more breath prayer beads, after which I am back at the Centring bead, which I use to pray for the day ahead. It works for me.
I have heard many Unitarians say that they struggle with the concept of prayer, as Jim Corrigall said in our second reading. And I was one of them, until I found a form of praying that suited my mind and heart. There is no wrong way to pray. There is No Wrong Way to Pray. If you take anything away from this service, take that: There is no wrong way to pray.
Abbot John Chapman once wrote, “Pray as you can; don’t try to pray as you can’t.” I found it incredibly liberating to read that. Some of us pray best on our knees or sitting on a meditation bench; some of us pray best sitting quietly in a chair; some of us pray best when we are outside, communing with Nature. I have a lovely little book at home called Pray your way: your personality and God by Bruce Duncan, Director of Sarum College in Salisbury. At the end of the introduction, he wrote, “In the pilgrimage of prayer, God tends to move us along by going with, and not against, the grain of our individual personality type. The more you know yourself, the more you will be free to recognise God’s continual initiatives and respond to them by praying your way through life – that is, making your whole life prayer, and learning to do that as you can, and not as you can’t.”
Each time we stop, and feel awe and wonder about what is before us, what is happening to us, that is prayer. Each time we long with our whole hearts for something to happen (or not to happen), that is prayer. Each time we are filled with gratitude for something good in our lives, that is prayer. And each time we are triggered by the words of another to change how we live in the world, that is prayer in action.
So pray as you can, not as you can’t. And never feel guilty or inadequate if the ways of prayer used by others don’t work for you.
Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley