By Ellen Sims
As a new congregation coming together from different church backgrounds, we sometimes use churchy words that can mean different things to different ones of us. Prayer is one word we speak each and every week. Prayer is something we do together each and every week. On third Sundays like today we have a whole service dedicated to prayer. But our prayer service is very different from the Wed. night “prayer meetings” I remember from my Southern Baptist childhood. Maybe prayer has changed for you over the years, too.
For me, prayer is now more about being than doing, more about listening than talking. As Richard Rohr says, “To pray is to live consciously inside of God. That’s all. . . . It is the still point of the turning world and creates a different kind of human being whose center is outside of himself or herself. [This kind of prayer produces] people who are really free because they are free from themselves.” (Radical Grace, July-September 2002). How I need to be freer from myself: my self-imposed need for other people to do what I think they need to do, my self-induced guilt or hyper-responsibility or anxiety. How I need to—excuse the cliché—let go and let God.
For me, prayer is mainly a practice of paying attention to God, of cultivating compassion that unites me with others and with the unifying Source of love, of trusting something beyond myself.
For me, prayer is about God changing me, not me changing God. Prayer, in other words, is not a means of manipulating God. My assumption is that God IS love, that God already intends good for me and for all of creation. God already is compassionate. So I don’t need to convince God to be good to me and other creatures. I simply have to rest in that love. Where there is love and goodness and wholeness and life—there is God.
That doesn’t mean I don’t pray very specifically for a friend who is sick and a neighbor who needs a job. I do so for their benefit and mine—the act of prayer affecting the pray-er as much as the pray-ee. But I don’t pretend to know all the ways our seemingly separate lives are interconnected in the web of creation. I don’t pretend to understand how the power of love is manifested in this world. I think Love’s power is stronger than we realize.
Unfortunately, I have seen people stuck in an unhealthy model of prayer that makes them feel responsible for their own illnesses and misfortunes. To believe that if you just pray hard enough or think positively enough, you will be healed is to trap you in a belief that God might not want to heal you or that it’s really all up to you. Such a conclusion also equates healing with being cured (which is too narrow a meaning for healing). And it blames the victim. It says people who are not cured have not prayed enough, have not had faith enough. I’ve seen people in crisis lose their faith because the magic God they’d prayed to did not come through. I’ve seen others deny their honest feelings in order to defend the magic God. I think the healthier response is to give up on the magic God and find a truer and more mysterious God who works in our world through the power of Love. I have given up on the God who needs to be coaxed into goodness, who can be manipulated by my own strivings, a God I can control. Prayer, for me, is willingness to relinquish my own reliance on power and control—in order to find peace and freedom in God’s love.
That’s the “what” of prayer—for me. I appreciate that prayer for you might be very different. Now here’s the “how” of prayer—which for me is both harder and simpler than I had thought. Prayer now is harder—because prayer is a way of living that combines self-forgetfulness and self-understanding. And it’s simpler—because prayer is as natural as breathing.
Did you know the very word for God in the Old Testament, usually translated as LORD, is itself a prayer? There are other Hebrew words that are generic names for the word “god”—El Shaddai and Adonai–but for the specific God of the Israelites, the early writers of the Hebrew Bible used the word Yahweh. But it was not a name to be spoken. Indeed, in the Hebrew it is written without vowels so it is not really pronounceable. But if you attempt to take those 4 consonants and turn them into a pronounceable word—you breathe life into those letters and the word becomes Yahweh. Many believe that the Hebrew name for God was an attempt to imitate human breathing. The first syllable is the intake of breath. The second is the exhale.[i] Try it. Our very breathing is prayer. We are born to call upon God’s name. We cannot exist without this prayer. The Spirit is always within and beyond us and as essential to us as air.
As Richard Rohr explains, the first word we spoke as we came out of our mother’s body is the name of God, and it’s the last word we’ll ever speak. “Yahweh.” We simply bring it to consciousness. Another word in Hebrew that also sounds like what it means is ruah. It means spirit and, as is the case in other languages, it also is the same word for breath and wind. Creation began with God breathing human beings into being. Jesus concluded his ministry after breathing the Spirit into the disciples. (Rohr.) This is how you and I can, as Paul instructed, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We breathe. This is the prayer to pray in the wee hours of the morning when troubles are keeping your exhausted mind astir. This is the prayer that can turn off the brain and connect you to your body. Let your breath bypass the mind and reconnect you to a larger life beyond your little self.
I’ve known for a long time the etymology of the word YHWH. But I learned only recently the origin of the word “Allah.” Al in Arabic means what the word “el” means in Hebrew and Spanish: “the”—the definite article. Adding a second “l” signifies in Arabic something that is the “ONLY” one of its kind. So Allah is the very special one and only—what? Following “all” is an apostrophe and just the sound of “h” –which is the sound of a breath. The Islamic word for god literally means the only–breath (Rohr).
God is that which literally surrounds us and enlivens us. But it can’t be controlled or distributed as some religious authorities would like to do (Rohr). No one controls the air. No one religious group or authority owns God’s breath. It is available to all. It is invisible but essential and accessible to all. Prayer is recognizing our free access to this divine spirit. In a way, we can’t help but pray—from birth to death. But we can become more aware of it, more aware of the holiness of all life.
If prayer is as wordless as breathing, why do we attach words to our prayers here? Well, for one thing, we pay attention to life through language. Though language can sometimes confine us, it also has a way of linking us to something beyond self. And it is through liturgical prayer used by a community of faith that we remember prayer is always about connecting to others, getting outside our little self and joining with God in union with all. This particular community of faith needs to share one another’s joys and concerns. This community of faith needs to fashion a prayerful language together that helps us communicate our individual and corporate faith journeys. This community of faith is centered in a worship life that exists not for the individual but for others because fundamentally prayer is personal but is never really private since it’s about uniting with others and with the Other. Therefore, we speak to one another and we speak to a Reality that is beyond language but which we language-oriented beings know, in part, through words. We speak words because speaking, like breathing, is a human thing to do.
Speak you must.
But don’t forget to breathe.
[i] This section is based on a Oct. 2010 lecture by Richard Rohr at Drew University. See parts 1 and 2 of this address at these 2 links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNBKt87AWjA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCsh_R5-HuA