Othering Prayer at Advent 2022
They asked to pray. Out of the blue it came. Now? Right here in the middle of an otherwise “perfectly normal” conversation? Twice, in as many days. Two friends, very different in backgrounds and experience, who had no other connection asked if we could pray together. After not seeing each other for months, years, we were able to easily speak, share, laugh, confess, and delight in the goodness of friendship. Then, prayer.
Not in church, or in a “spiritual” conversation. The request stopped me… cold. On both occasions, then and there, we shared concerns and prayed. While I didn’t have a mystical experience, when we departed that day, there was a deeper sense of connection. It was, I believe what Brother Lawrence spoke of as God’s presence arising amid the routine activities of life — a deeper sense of joy and mutual love. (Brother Lawrence was a 17th century lay Carmelite monk whose small book “The Practice of the Presence of God” has been treasured by believers across the centuries as a call to seek God’s presence everywhere from the chapel to the kitchen.)
Yes, prayer has been misused by charlatans and abused by spiritual pretenders. Prayer has also been reduced to a magical formula, a one-time “believer’s prayer” for example sold as a one-way ticket to heaven, separate from any daily life of faith.
A day or so before these two serendipitous prayers, another friend wrote mentioning he was reading The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience by Professor Andrew Newberg. I ordered the book, part of The Great Courses lecture series. Again, was this a coincidence? Newberg’s research looks at the way prayer, especially what might be called “Centering Prayer,” contemplative prayer, or mystical experience can shape human perception. There are measurable changes in perceptions of reality and often a sense of joy, unity with the universe and purposefulness. My look at Newberg’s rich research linking individual prayer with brain research, however, left me with a whole other set of questions.
I am not particularly well-schooled in a wide range of spiritual practices. I know some basics but can’t distinguish, say, among types of contemplative prayer. In fact, over recent years much of my praying has occurred on “prayer walks.” I am not very practiced at what is referred to and valued as “Centering Prayer.” Most of my praying is better described as “Othering Prayer.” Not exclusively, I do prayer that my personal intentions and understandings align with God’s purposes. I also seek the heart of God on the behalf of others in the world beyond my own interests. As I walk the streets of my city, I pray for those in prison as I walk by the jail, or the judges who are passing sentences, or families of those being incarcerated. I pray for the bakers passing the bagel shop; the bankers as I pass an ATM machine; those without shelter who spread their blankets in front of the library and churches.
So much of our culture’s understanding of prayer is individualistic in focus. It is decanted into a magical thinking drink… a negotiation with God… or a shaking of the begger’s cup in the face of the Almighty. What if contemplative prayer were seen as always caught up in the prayers of a community — prayers that were joined with, and for, others. This Advent we will think further about the potential of Othering Prayer.