Prayer offers us a way to respond when awful things happen. Telling someone you’ll pray for them can be a way of offering comfort and support. In the public sphere we often hear our leaders say that their thoughts and prayers are with people in their communities dealing with traumatic events.
But not too long ago there was a backlash against this sentiment. And while I love the practice of prayer, I understand why. Prayer isn’t a catch all. It’s not a platitude. And it’s not a stand alone solution to major problems. Prayer is an active practice that leads to change.
In prayer we reach out to the God of our understanding—we reach out to the Universe—and we ask for help. We offer gratitude. We try to understand complicated situations. We try to deepen our sense of connection and belonging. We try to figure out how to respond to what’s happening in our lives. And hopefully, the clarity we gain through prayer leads us toward right action.
Prayers that don’t change who we are and how we act in the world are at best, empty, and at worst, harmful. The words and feelings we offer in prayer have got to take us somewhere. Prayer is a powerful practice that can open our eyes and our hearts to the suffering of the world. It’s a powerful practice that can call us to be brave enough to change and deepen the ways in which we respond to suffering.
Prayer is an action. And when we act, it matters why we’re doing what we’re doing. A doctor takes a knife and cuts into someone’s body with the intention of healing them. An assailant takes a knife and cuts into someone’s body with the intention of harming them. It’s the same action, with a completely different intention.
It’s no different with prayer. When we feel helpless in a situation, we can come to prayer. But if the intention behind our prayer—even unwittingly—is nothing more than to offer platitudes, we add hollowness to an already painful situation. We’ve got to approach prayer as something real and transformative. When we feel powerless, we can come to prayer as a refuge and a way to reach clarity and set intention.
Prayer can be a way of de-centering our selfish ego and connecting to something larger than ourselves. Prayer can be a way of de-centering our insular anxieties and widening our view of the world. Prayer can be a way of de-centering our complacency and challenging ourselves to right action.
Amma, a Hindu spiritual leader considered to be a living saint, models the practice of praying for all living beings every day. She offers an ancient Vedic peace mantra that asks that all beings in all the worlds be peaceful, happy, and free.
It’s a short and simple sounding prayer. But there’s nothing simple about the reality it’s calling for. If we’re serious when we ask that all beings be peaceful, happy, and free, we have to pause and examine our life. We have to examine our thoughts, words, and deeds. We have to search out the ways in which the seeds of suffering are being sown through our actions and choices.
There’s nothing simple about this prayer. But I can’t think of a more worthy way to engage in the spiritual life…
So as we move through the routine of daily life, let us keep this challenging prayer in our thoughts, in our speech, and in our action. Let the desire that all beings everywhere be peaceful, happy, and free become the intention behind the big and small decisions we make everyday.
- This mantra asks that all beings in all the worlds be peaceful, happy, and free. People often add: “and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”
- How would your thoughts, words, and actions change if you decided to make this mantra a daily prayer?
We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation. What did this week’s sermon and reflection questions spark in you?