The sun often casts reflections on a pond or lake. The images of trees and rocks that border the shore are projected onto the surfaces of the water along the banks. So, too, are the puffy clouds in the sky at times. They appear to literally sit on the water’s surface as if transported through space onto the lake itself. As amazing as these reflections are, though, the images splashed on the water are not the things themselves. Instead, they’re projections of the actual trees, rocks, and clouds– thanks to the sun and its many angles on the horizon. These images can appear vivid and clear when viewed on calm water during a windless day. However, they become blurred when the waters churn in response to a heavy, sustained breeze.
Prayer is a lot like that, I suppose. We sometimes think that our prayers to God emanate completely from within ourselves. That we’re the nexus and source of these prayers. That our stated needs, desires, and respective prayer ‘agendas’ are the things that comprise the crux of our praying exercise. Further, we believe that simply adding more words, or using more eloquent words, or somehow getting it ‘right’ will make our prayers even better in God’s eyes and ears. But, in truth, our entire human prayer process can act in the same way as does a steady wind on a lake. Our prayers can become blurred by the windiness of our own speech and our own harried minds. Further, our oft-times approach to prayer obscures the fact that our prayers actually emanate in and from God as our true source of ‘being’, not from ourselves as we might otherwise think.
We know how it often goes in our prayers, whether we pray alone or as part of a group. We praise God. We thank God. We tell God what we need right now. We ask God for it. We thank God for it, in advance. Then we ‘sign off’. Is that prayer? Or is it a monologue? Ours. Does it get us any closer to God? Or does it separate us further… by positioning God’s love as somehow distant and conditional? Because if God hears us, we think that God, in turn, needs to answer our prayers. God does this by giving us what we’ve asked for. Preferably as soon as possible. God becomes a performance and outcomes-driven magician. Pulls another miracle out of the hat. Puts the toothpaste back into the tube. Gets the horse back into the barn. God dispenses favors like some mysterious cash machine at the bank. But is that all there is here? What do we forsake and lose when we approach God with only a structured, repetitive, or specifically needs-based prayer dialogue all the time? Think about it. Are we praying for God or simply to God?
Now, to be clear, prayer is a critically important component of human spirituality. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for God’s favor, grace, and gifts as part of our prayers. Further, a path of regular, specific, and disciplined prayer practice can be very helpful spiritually-speaking. That said, I’m advocating for approaching prayer differently at times. I’m proposing that we re-imagine our prayers as sometimes simply sitting with God in silence every now and then. In reverent, quiet stillness and solitude. Admittedly, the notion of solitude gets a bad rap in the world today. We’re surrounded by sound, visual stimulation, and constant action in life these days. We get bored and distracted very easily when things go quiet. In fact, ‘solitude’ is often mis-defined as mere loneliness, isolation, remoteness, and emptiness. Who wants that, anyway? But when looked at more deeply and spiritually, solitude actually grounds itself in far more positive notions of peacefulness, restful quiet, purposeful withdrawal, and healthy detachment. When properly positioned in our lives, periods of uncluttered, silent solitude can refresh us. Restore us. Calm us. Help us to listen more. Foster greater mental clarity and creativity. And assist us in being more present and mindful along the way.
Even more importantly yet, stillness actually connects us with God. The 20th Century monk, writer, theologian, scholar, poet, and mystic Thomas Merton said it best when he wrote (paraphrased):
“All people need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable God’s deep inner voice to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice of God is not heard, when we cannot attain the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with our own true selves, our lives are miserable and exhausting. For we cannot go on happily for long unless we are in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of our own souls. If we are locked out of our own spiritual solitude, we cease to be true persons.”
Put another way, our own outward, single-direction, and needs-based monologues with God can get in the way of actually connecting to the very source of our being. And with the peace, emotional strength, physical energy, and mental clarity that we most need in the moments surrounding our prayers. Philosopher Alan Watts said it well when he wrote, “The menu is not the meal”. More recently, contemporary singer-songwriter Natalie Grant added this advice, “Help me want the Healer more than the healing… Help me want the Giver more than the giving.” Kudos to both Watts and Grant for their wisdom and respective contributions to this topic.
In light of this, what if we periodically changed things up in our prayer lives? And embraced simple stillness, silence, and solitude in our God-encounters? For example, what if we simply meditated every so often before God while listening to our breath? And imagined ourselves as being so close to and present with the Divine that we were literally breathing God’s outward breath as we took in that sacred air? Alternatively, what if we solely focused on a sacred image of God: such as a light, a heart, a lamb, an angel, or the idea of love, itself? And let that image penetrate our very souls. Or what if we silently prayed with awe and wonder, simply musing on God as something and someone more amazing than anything that we’ve ever heard or read about? Or held a quiet feeling of ‘thankfulness’ in our hearts? You know, spent an entire day periodically meditating on our silent expressions of gratitude to God. Finally, what if we truly opened our hearts to prayer more holistically? And recognized that we also pray when we simply laugh or shed tears. For our unspoken smiles and tears are not just our own. They are God’s, as well. Reflections of God’s own empathy, love, grace, and presence in our lives… if only we’ll create some quiet, open space for God to remind us of this throughout the ‘ups and downs’ of our daily lives. Not just in the moments that we typically call praying.
The aforementioned philosopher Alan Watts mused that, “If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” I might add that you’ll experience the very same thing when you gaze out on a calm lake or pond. When you do, enjoy and relish in the reflections of trees, rocks, and billowing clouds upon the still water before you. But in the process thereof, remember that these images on the water are reflections of something else created by the sun’s angle in the sky. They’re not the actual things. The same idea applies to our prayers.
For, in truth, all things emanate in and from God (not from ourselves), including our prayers. And God already knows our hopes, our losses and setbacks, our desires, and our fears anyway. As such, when we spend all of our prayer time simply recounting our needs to God, we’re not bringing anything new to the ‘discussion’. More importantly, we’re disrupting the calm on the ‘water’ with our windy words– blurring God’s vision of us, while simultaneously interfering with the potential for a deeper prayer-connection between us. In the end, the real and most lasting power, strength, and peace of prayer is gained through nurturing God’s inherent, divine connection in and with us, not via the imperfect words that we try so hard to concoct in our verbal outreach ‘upwards’. So, when we more fully embrace quiet, meditative, and truly ‘reflective’ quality time with God instead of our ongoing monologue to God, we’ll start Re-Imagining our Prayers for the better… forever.