By Sarah York
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am often in the position of offering a “prayer” as part of a community gathering. The challenge is always to be inclusive of a variety of perspectives, including people who have no belief in a deity. So instead of saying, “Let us pray,” I will suggest we join in a spirit of prayer or mediation. On one occasion, a member of my congregation noted that people in other religions use prayer as a way to connect with the infinite, the core, the fundamental meaning of things. Although she did not pray, she wanted to make a prayerful connection. She then posed the question, “If you don’t pray, what do you do?”
Religious liberals have been described as praying “to whom it may concern.” In truth, many spiritually-oriented people do not pray – at least not in a traditional way. It is a matter of personal preference how a prayer is addressed (if indeed it is addressed at all): Father; Mother; Allah; Jesus; God; Goddess; the Tao that has no name; the Light; the Dark; the Blessed; the Mysterious; Spirit of Life; Spirit of Holiness; Spirit of Love, Peace and Hope; Nameless One; Eternal One; Beloved Presence; Creator of the Universe; and so on. If you address a divine presence (or absence), it may be with many names or with no name; it may be the Spirit among us and within us as much as the Spirit beyond our knowing.
If you are skeptical about whether or not God has ears, it does not mean that you do not want to connect with a deeper source of wisdom, goodness and hope. I know many hard-core atheists who feel a deep and spiritual connection with the cosmic energy that sustains creation.
Even the most skeptical agnostics still have the human needs to do what others do with prayer – to offer gratitude, to praise beauty, to confess personal failures, to dedicate their lives to a path of goodness, to cry out in despair or to call on the powers of healing or strength.
So if you don’t pray, what do you do? You create inner space, which is where you become more comfortable with yourself in all space.
And how do you do it? Many ways. What makes the difference is not what you do but the consciousness in your heart and mind as you do it.
For some people, meditation is an effective way to create inner space. Depending on what fits your personal style, this might be Zen meditation or Transcendental Meditation or something you have devised. It might be a walking and breathing meditation, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. You might apply a Hindu’s devotion to cutting vegetables or a Native American’s reverence to planting a garden or a Sufi’s universal love to dancing. Perhaps you take a daily walk on the beach or in the woods – a walk in beauty and gratitude and reverence.
I have discovered that I respond to what Matthew Fox calls “extrovert meditation” or “art as meditation.” If I play the drum or walk or swim with a consciousness of immersing in the rhythms of life, it creates inner space. The same is true if I put on a tape of a chant and light a candle, then just sit and let the chant sing through my body.
If you set aside even a few minutes a day for creating inner space, you invite a spirit of peace and healing to abide in the soul and offer nourishment for even the tiny losses that occur in your daily life: your favorite vase is broken; you need new glasses; your computer ate your homework. It is not easy, however, to maintain a schedule in which inner-space time is created, and a bit of extra discipline may be required to be sure the spirit is not neglected.
A few years ago, while my husband and I had our grandchildren living with us for three months, some of my routines for creating inner space were interrupted. Instead of meditating in the early morning hours, I was packing lunch and making breakfast and talking with children. I had to adjust. I became very sympathetic with parents of young children. I often went through days feeling more in touch with outer space than with inner space. I took more baths, using the time in the bathtub to create inner space.
Knowing that I had to have some inner-space time, I carved out about fifteen minutes in the evening to sit outside and watch the sun set. Jennafer, my seven-year-old granddaughter, caught on and wanted to join me. I was annoyed at first, and then I explained to her why I wanted that quiet time with the sky. I told her what kind of time and space this was before she came into it, and she understood. So we cuddled under a blanket as the sky darkened and watched the stars come out. As the first star appeared, we shared that moment of wonder, saying, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” In the context of creating inner space, it was a form of prayer.
If we do no more than pause for two minutes or silence or light a candle or sound a bell and invite focus, we create inner space.
In that space, we recognize that the divine spirit dwells within us and among us.
When death intrudes on our lives and disrupts or destroys structures of relationship that give us meaning, we are more aware of this inner space and our need to cultivate it. I am not saying anything new here, of course – just offering a reminder to those whose inner space has been invaded and taken over by outer space.
Yes, you may know this, but what do most people do when they have experienced a loss? They try to keep themselves busy. They seek distraction. It is a coping mechanism. It is also a human impulse to avoid pain.
Cultivating inner space is not a coping mechanism; it is a spiritual habit. It is more likely to take you into the pain than out of it; through the pain rather than above it; beyond the pain rather than around it. Even if all you can do is carve out ten minutes for a regular bathtub meditation or a few moments at dusk to wish on a star, your awareness of inner space will be there to help you through the heart-wrenching and life-shattering times of grief that will surely come your way.
• Writing Your Legacy
Also by Sarah York:
• Planning a Memorial Service after a Suicide
Sarah York is an author and Unitarian Universalist minister. Her book Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death, now available in a new paperback edition, speaks to people who do not want a religious or spiritual context for ritual as well as those who do. The book received outstanding reviews from numerous publications, including Publishers Weekly, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. Ms. York is semi-retired and is available as a keynote speaker and workshop presenter on topics related to her books.
Image Source: JLC