This five-part series is an offering of Contemplative Prayer forms I’ve adopted or fashioned over the past thirty years or so. The forms include prayers of Thanksgiving, Compassion, Centering prayer and a contemplative approach to Liturgical prayer. These forms also represent an outline for a general prayer form where prayer serves its beginning and end as being directed toward action through a deepening prayer life of relationship with God. With prayerful self-examination and self-development, these forms are aimed at a more active relationship with creation. Like the sunflower always turning to face the sun, Contemplative Prayer serves to keep us moving in the wisdom of Mother Spirit to our Light in Christ.
I believe a primary lesson of scripture is to describe our suffering as being born in our sense of separation from God the First Love, ourselves and each other. I also have found that scripture describes deep prayer, from a place of Gratitude and Compassion, represents a significant step towards closing the gap between God, self and each other. This deep prayer is also a step towards forgiveness and healing, a stride forward in the restoration of our relationships in each other and from the suffering of separation we experience, which in the Christian tradition is called “sin”.
Though these four forms represent different traits and immediate intentions of prayer, these four prayers are all based in the Christian tradition of Contemplative Prayer. These prayers also are understood to find themselves growing from, hopefully, the humble place that is found in an overall attitude of Gratitude and Compassion. These prayers then seek to restore balance to us, to lift us when we’re low, and humble us when too high, but which always serve to grant us vision to see ourselves truthfully in the balance of God our Loving Father and our neighbors, humanity.
Gratitude has become the starting place for my prayer life and has become the anchor for my intentional living. For me and the circumstances of my life presently, gratitude reminds me that life is a gift in which at its center is the greatest gift, Love. Thanksgiving for the Creator and the creation also allows me more humility, knowing that all love I receive ultimately is granted to me, regardless of what I do or don’t do, as a gift from the giver. All love, whether from God or from those friends, family and any person who honors me with their love, is a gift freely given to me and is something I should never take for granted.
Following thanksgiving, compassion comes a bit easier. Though often difficult, compassion is the beginning of my reciprocation of the gifts of love which have been extended to me, whether or not I am always truly deserving, or even willing to acknowledge. Compassion is then the first step towards action, as I acknowledge then give voice to the relationship I recognize at the core of my humanity, the primordial relationship with The Source of our being, The First Love. I recognize God loves me and you, and our recognizing God’s love as the basis for us, in our loving each other, acknowledges the elemental characteristic of being human as social beings in a state of relationship. In this understanding of myself in relationship to God and you (regardless of how difficult our relationship), compassion is the humble acknowledgement of my place as simply a part of the rest and the rest as part of me, where we all share the same value or worth as the other. Compassion reminds me that as God’s loving creatures, we all are deserving of the love, healing, happiness, peace, joy and well being that comes in our loving God and each other. Compassion reminds me that without relationships, I am nothing.
I also find it important for me to model Jesus’ prayer to action in his ministry. The gospels relate many times that Jesus would first offer prayers of Thanksgiving before conducting a miracle. The gospels also relate that Jesus would be greatly moved in compassion to conduct a miracle. Regardless of the simplicity or complexities of the miracles in our lives (the first of which for me is in our capacity to love), the attitudes of Gratitude and Compassion make me more and more open and vulnerable, to all the miracles which unfold from the most divine aspect of our being, love.
I cautiously offer a testimony for your consideration. It is cautious in that my experiences are mine and in no way reflect how anyone else’s life “should” unfold. There is only one “should” for us in our lives as Christians, to love God and love each other. So please don’t take my following words as anything to measure life against, but just take them as an offering to consider and experiment with as you reflect on your circumstances and discern your way forward. As well, my experiences will make a supportive example of medical research presented later, which gives tangible evidence of what we spiritual people already know, prayer is good for us and changes our lives for the better, spiritually and physically.
I was laid off in August of 2009. As you might understand, it has since been a very difficult time. It has been difficult in many ways. First, healthy people want to work and enjoy work which in turn encourages a healthy state of being and mind; they reciprocate each other. It’s difficult finding ways to fill time and see that time as fulfilling when unemployed. It takes some time to find ways to restructure living in constructive ways, in the now empty schedule of daily life that was the workday calendar. The moment after being laid off, all those calendar days and months of pre-penciled-in duties and chores, of clients, sales and staff meetings which represented a full and productive life, are now empty spaces. After being laid off, to look at the work calendar of ink and pencil filled schedules, is to see through those notes as a mirage, as ghosts hovering above the paper of a life no longer to be lived. That is a dead life, no longer in existence. That calendar is meaningless. The danger is thinking that I am now also meaningless.
Second, and every bit as significant as the routine and financial reward of working, is the significance of social interactions with clients and co-workers which provides the very important sense of community found in the workplace. Eventually too the financial pressures which arrive with the departure of paychecks are obvious. Finally, there is something humiliating in being unemployed. The sense of being at the mercy of others--those who laid me off, being on unemployment (and subject to the whims of politics), whether or not I am viewed by the hiring public as being worthy of being hired, not receiving responses to my resumes sent out (much less being offered an application or job)—all these have at times left me feeling humiliated and doubting myself.
Though the incredible generosity of others has been very helpful, and for which I am deeply and ever grateful for, there also comes with receiving the generosity of others, at times, pangs of embarrassment which leave me feeling doubly shamed, both in my need and by my embarrassment. In these times there have been days of great depression and an increased sense of suffering. I know I’m not alone and that in all likelihood these are moments known and shared with the millions of other unemployed people, right now.
Because of these circumstances, I can hardly express how important it has been for me in these times, both in my basic sensibility and prayer, to have rooted myself in the attitude of Gratitude and Compassion. These attitudes and intentions have certainly aided me in my not being overwhelmed by the negative emotions, real and imagined, which at times have become powerfully manifest during these times of stress.
As well, the choice to respond to my circumstances from gratitude, rather than fear or resentment, restores to me a sense of self-direction in my circumstances. Rather than having a sense of being helpless to, or controlled by forces beyond me, in this case being laid off and eventually being hired someday, I am taking direction of my life and sense of it into intentional spiritual direction, centered in prayer, and also in this case, “good works”. I know of many who have also restored their sense of well being in their choosing to first act from a determination of gratitude. I will also later show neuroscience reflects this by evidencing the changes in brain structure and chemistry, which confirm the idea that we can literally change how we think by what we think: we are what we think--and pray and meditate.
My sense of gratitude also reminds me that I have come from and continue to come from a place of plenty. I once had plenty of money and less time, now I have (much!) less money and much more time. Before, I gave more money to causes, now I give more time. Also, and most importantly to me now, my sense of gratitude in prayer, coupled with my relative increased sense of suffering, has allowed for me a deeper sense of compassion, and certainly a growing and more engaged sense of compassion being acted on in into my community. A great gift to have emerged in these times has been listening to and allowing Jesus, in words and Spirit, to prayerfully weave my sense of gratitude and suffering together into a cord which binds me to the center of my life, Jesus Compassionate.
Though I still struggle to find work, I know I have purpose and meaning.
Still the end of every month is an ordeal to find money for rent, bills and dog food. Through the grace of The First Love and the people who love me, who help me in the ways they can, emotionally, spiritually and practically, a way is found to make ends meet. To the people, who pray for me, who love me, who teach and support me, I prayerfully acknowledge them as being the beautiful instruments of God’s nurturing love, the answers to my prayers and my newfound source of plenty.
Here ends the testimony.
Clearly prayer is powerful. Science confirms it. I and others testify to it. Prayer creates an open place in our psyche and being within the living of our lives. Prayer reminds us that we humans aren’t truly solitary, that we need each other. Prayer reminds us that we need God’s love and each other’s love, in grand ways and very simple ways. Prayer reminds us that love requires vulnerability, and to love means being vulnerable and being open. Prayer makes us open, to every moment and every situation, open to let God shine through the thin places into us, through us, and into each other, inclining us to be restored and to restoring each other.
Prayer is communication, an opening of lines of communication, to Creator and creation, including you and me. Funny thing about people, they see openings and they naturally want to go through. I think that if we remain open to circumstances as they unfold in our lives, other people may instinctively respond to these openings as a means to help. I think healthy people want to help those who are open to help. Being helped is gratifying, but helping is much more gratifying. God’s children are helpful by their new nature and know the gratification of compassion and helping. I am grateful for the prayer that leads me to it.
I offer one last idea to hold in mind and just consider when thinking about prayer as a Christian: I have been giving quite a lot of thought to the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion beyond the usual notions. For now I’ll just express what the crucifixion signifies to me presently, and how I am now challenged by Jesus on the cross as an understanding to being better centered in the living of life. Jesus on the cross offers me direction when I view the images of the gospels’ overall telling of the crucifixion: Jesus in suffering, in feeling isolation, to Jesus praying compassionately, leading to his release from suffering, and ultimately leading to resurrection. How did the crucifixion stories lead me to focus on prayer of Gratitude and Compassion and how did they lead me to peace and growth in these times of my stressful circumstance? I suggest the gospels’ telling of Jesus' crucifixion offers a microcosm of human life, where our turning point from suffering, to the joy of rebirth, is revealed to us from within the depth of Jesus' suffering, revealed by his humble and compassionate act and prayer of mercy, “Father forgive them.”
Next: Part Two, Prayer as Contemplation