A staunch humanist minister, while serving a historic humanist congregation, had a steel plaque hanging in her office that read: poetry is prayer.
She had a lyrical heart, and mind, and spirit—recalling and reciting prayer and prose, favorite writings and readings by memory and by heart. It is as if the words that point to meaning and depth and intention and hope and love found their way into her mind and settled into her heart as a guide, an inner poet—and she held it like a prayer.
Prayer isn’t a word to fear. We tend to get lost in the questions of who prayer is addressed to, or what good will it do. I find it helpful to think of prayer as a verb—something active, a practice—like mindfulness and meditation. Then, it doesn’t need to be addressed to anyone, necessarily, but rather it can be a time for breath, centering—a posture of reverence and humility to the mystery of life, and a moment of intention toward growing more compassion and strength and courage in the rest of one’s life.
It’s like a phrase I recall from my grandfather, a Lutheran minister: When you pray, move your feet. For him, prayer was about centering your heart in the values and teachings of scripture, and then enacting those values in the world through service—to love thy neighbor.
Prayer can take many forms—as Muslim mystic Rumi said, There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. From walking meditation, to music, to old forms of “Lectio Divina” where one reads a piece of scripture or poetry over and over to find more layers of meaning. Prayer can be about expressing gratitude before a meal or during a commute or at day’s end—alone, or with others. It can be about grounding and bracing oneself for a task ahead, or about setting your intention, your heart, toward holding someone who is struggling—which grows your compassion and, if shared, can be a source of strength and support for your loved one.
Sometimes, prayer needs old words that you know by heart that connect you across generations and speak of ancient truth.
Sometimes, prayer needs new words that you find in the moment with fresh metaphor that use the vernacular of the now.
Sometimes, prayer needs lyric and harmony, to lift our spirits and blend our breath.
Sometimes, prayer needs sighs and silence too deep for words.
And sometimes, when the words and forms and philosophisizing get in our way, we would do well to remember the words of Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you said was “thank you, ” that would be enough.
-Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer