Just as Jesus prayed among the olive trees in the Garden of
Gethsemane, many people find a spiritual center in groves
of trees like these in Yellowstone Park. Photo by author.
When people find out that progressive Christianity generally doesn’t believe in an intervening God, one of their first questions is, “But what about prayer? If there isn’t a God who answers prayers, why pray?”
Pastor Mark Sandlin suggests prayers aren’t “coins for the great vending machine in the sky.” My own feeling is that prayer is way too valuable to be mainly thought of as asking God for favors. First, as I’ve mentioned before, expecting a deity to do something for us is a very passive—I might even say, lazy—way of wishing for change. Too often I’ve heard people say, “We prayed for (whatever),” as if that absolved them of further responsibility.
However, I do feel that prayer—to use a cliché—changes things. Fortunately, it mostly changes us! It can lead us into a deeper personal wholeness. Prayer can even initiate change in the world, just probably not in ways it’s been traditionally construed. However, prayer is a critical element for a fulfilling spiritual life.
Let me first clear state that I’m no expert in prayer practices. This is definitely a growth area for me. But even though I’ve grown more non-theistic, I’ve thought a lot about what prayer is and how it can powerfully affect our lives. Allow me to use an acronym to sort out and explain the C.A.R.E. of prayer that contributes to wholeness for ourselves, others, and creation.
Prayer starts with C
It’s helpful to begin any prayer by Centering. Centering prepares our bodies and minds for focusing on that moment in our lives. Centering is saying, OK, I’m ready to open my heart and mind to the mystery of all that is. It should remind us of our interconnectedness with every fiber of the universe. We may do it consciously or unconsciously, but it lowers—or at least hides—our anxiety, our urgency level, and the we-could-to-be-doing-something-else syndrome.
For example, I’m easily distracted and don’t have much natural rhythm. When doing our Silver Sneakers exercises, letting my mind wander immediately puts me in jeopardy of embarrassingly jerky motions. I have to center my mind on the instructor’s movements in order to keep in sync with what we’re supposed to be doing at that moment.
I’m guessing that’s why people have traditionally closed their eyes during prayers—they’re shutting out distractions, going to a deeper place, looking inward to what’s important in their life. In short, they’re centering. Turning off cellphones helps to shut out worldly diversions—sort of electronic centering.
Various spiritual disciplines tap the power of silence for getting into an attitude of contemplation and mediation. During Advent our pastor used a low-toned handbell at the start of the service. The reverberating ring immediately caught our attention, and as the sound drifted into silence, we sensed our togetherness—in a sacred place.
There are myriad techniques to get a person or group to be in the moment. Folks may hold hands as a tactile way of keeping people engaged in their togetherness. Things we hold, like Rosary beads or small crosses, keep our hands occupied and allow the mind to concentrate. Just folding your hands together helps to focus your thinking to the mental place you want to be. Many Jews wear a square shawl with fringe—a Tallit. The ritual for putting it on changes one’s relationship to the outside world. While I may not personally use many of these practices, I recognize how they guide a person into a state of prayer.
Centering can be as simple as a sigh. Sighs are a cleansing breath when settling into an assignment we’ve chosen to accomplish. Whether it’s accepting a new task at work or having to clean out the cat’s litter box, that sigh helps put us in the moment and forge ahead. [After writing this paragraph, I went down to supper and began some brief spiritual thoughts with an unconscious, but very audible, sigh. I realized how exhaling is a way I center myself.]
Louise and I have a morning prayer, which we’ve modified from Psalm 118. It’s our way of reminding ourselves that we’re starting each day in love and appreciation of creation. For years, we’ve enjoyed saying it together and call it our centering prayer.
This is the day that love has made,
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
We give thanks, for creation is good,
and love endures forever.
So, why this emphasis on a process that might not even involve the words we speak? Richard Rohr notes that “Prayer isn’t primarily words; it’s an attitude, a stance, a state that precedes ‘saying’ any individual prayers. That’s why Paul could say, ‘Pray unceasingly’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17).” I think Paul was suggesting we should always be centering ourselves in prayerful living.
Well, I’ve only touched on the Centering ritual of the CARE acronym. I’ll leave you wondering what A, R, and E stand for until the next blogs. Hint: it includes some things to say.
In the meantime, is there anything you do to center yourself that you’re willing to share? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
_____________________________ Art Fabian — January 10, 2019
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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.