Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hope, Desire, Secrets and Meaning

Desaray’s early morning post today – and her slow, scary, exciting and mystifying approach to the Friends community – set me to thinking about prayer. Election day – filled as it is with conflict, with the thirst for power and prestige, with self-delusion and self-congratulation – empty as it is of quiet, reflection, honesty and generosity – is a really good day for reflection.

So, please be patient as I type for a while about these things: Prayer and weddings, prayer in weddings, prayer after weddings and prayer that puts weddings in a new light and new perspective.

Weddings – no matter how secular – are still built on the foundation of archaic prayer services. Yet, prayer is not one of the words that we hear a lot in planning weddings. It’s an elephant in the room. Related words like blessing and of course vow are commonplace – they stand for prayer without making a big deal about it.

The Knot has just five references to “prayer”: three of these are under the rubric of “requirements” for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish ceremonies; one is a Celine Dion song; and the last prayer is one that was answered with a good photographer.

The Knot is no one’s standard of serious intellectual or spiritual involvement, but I think it’s fair to say it dimly reflects the zeitgeist.

It’s not surprising that prayer should be a bit of a taboo in the matrimonial-industrial complex. For one thing, planning a wedding is so often about “getting it just right,” which is impossible with prayer – when prayer is “just right,” that usually means it’s scripted, stilted or hollow. Prayer’s outcomes are unpredictable. They are neither right nor wrong. They often look like failure but feel like success. A wedding ceremony as ambivalent as this is unlikely to “impress” anybody.

Another ideal of wedding planning is making it “personal,” or customized. It would be hard to get prayer right according to this standard. For many people, the most authentic and meaningful prayers are the involuntary ones that flow out of hope, despair, grief, fury, ecstasy – in short, vulnerability. These prayers would be inappropriate (or, at least, very uncomfortable) for a wedding, no matter how intimate and personal it might be. Consequently, the "personal" prayers that couples tend to choose are treacly.

For those of us who are religious but getting married outside a church, asking people to participate in religious prayer is delicate. Inside a church, with a clerical celebrant, a marrying couple has some cover. “These prayers are not really our words,” they could say. Or, more affirmatively, “These prayers are a lovely, old-fashioned tradition.” “These prayers don’t quite reflect our beliefs, but they are part of the bargain for having our beautiful wedding in this beautiful space – and maybe they’re not so bad, since we got to revise them a little bit.”

I don’t think we got prayer right at our wedding. We were close, but not quite there. Our readers and co-celebrants weren’t entirely comfortable with the language, although they were good sports. They saw it (generously) as “our day,” and they gamely did their part to deliver what we requested. Still, I wish we had collaborated with them more. Talked more. Prayed together. Invited them more deeply into our personal prayer lives so they could get the counterintuitive connections between our “personal” spirituality, and the public signs and language of the ceremony.

Sometimes – more than sometimes – just going through the motions of prayer is good - as good as getting to that deep, dream-like state of prayer, the state that prayer strives for, in which one is in communication with hidden parts of one’s self, and with hidden parts of the world, and they are forgiving one another. Practicing prayer not only prepares us for those extraordinary moments, but it also has good, objective outcomes of its own. It is energetic.

In retrospect, looking back at the last year, I wish that I had spent at least as much time in the practice of prayer as I did in the practice of foxtrot. At the same time, I am not regretful. Our wedding, at sunset, on the cusp of autumn, opened up new channels for my prayer life, and reopened some that I had been neglecting. With a new, renewed family, the time and space for having and creating memories, I am refreshed and eager to get down to the good work of prayer.

I have some tools that I use for prayer. Maybe it is indulgent or boastful to write about them in this forum. Maybe it is helpful.

My criteria for choosing these over the course of my life has been that prayer tools should be easy to do but challenging to my feelings and beliefs, and they should have evidence of tradition and inspiration.

The “Suscipe” prayer from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola is one of these. It is easy to find a good/correct rendering online. But, I learned it a bit differently from my spiritual director in college, and I like my shorter, simpler version:

Take, Lord, and receive all that I am and have. You have given it all to me, and I give it all back to you. Just give me your love and your grace, and that is enough.

Another prayer I learned in college is one that I didn’t think I could use or accept, because it seems so . . . prosecutorial. This is the Orthodox Rosary (Chotki) Mantra, known as the “Jesus Prayer.”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The last prayer tool that I want to share – because I’ve gotten very long-winded here – is the Avalokiteshvara Mantra, which you surely know already:

Om Mani Padme Hum.

I sometimes just repeat it or look at it, like a pure mantra. Sometimes I alternate the mantra with a prayer to eliminate both anxieties and seductions, like this:

Om Mani Padme Hum.
To be without worry.
To be without peace of mind.
Om Mani Padme Hum.
To be without screwing up.
To be without getting it right.

And so on. This prayer is like a bloodhound for detecting secret fears. Other times it exposes my "goods" as addictions.

So – what are your tools or prayer, reflection and communicating with hidden parts of yourself?

1 comment:

Kristy said...

Music. For me, it is absolutely music. I had the most worshipful experience I've had in a while at a concert I went to on Sunday night. It was secular music, but he sings so much about love that it's easy to connect with Love.