Image of First Parish Universalist Church

First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Prayer: Its Power, Use, and Abuse

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 15, 2009

            “We pray without ceasing,” our great Unitarian forbear Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. “Every secret wish is a prayer. Every house is a church, the corner of every street is a closet of devotion. Every desire of the human mind is a prayer uttered to God and registered in heaven.”


            Life itself is a living prayer, Emerson reminds us.


            We religious liberals have also tended, by and large, to see our daily work as our living prayer. It is easy for us to identify with the words of Susan B. Anthony: “I pray every single second of my life,” said she, “not on my knees, but with my work. Work and worship are one with me. I cannot imagine a God of the universe made happy by my getting down on my knees and calling Him ‘great’.”


            Neither can most of us.


            Many of us, like Susan B. and (perhaps) Ralph Waldo might very well have a basic philosophical problem when it comes to more traditional concepts of prayer. The very mention of the topic might conjure up in our minds outdated and discredited notions of patriarchy and old-fashioned, authoritarian religion. Some of us might well agree with the perception of the psychologist R.D. Laing, who looked at a person deep in prayer and said:  “[There goes] someone, gibbering away on his knees, talking to someone who is just not there.”


            But it is also possible, of course, that such a wholesale, sarcastic belittling of the religious faith and practices of others tells us more about Laing than it does about prayer.


            As modern religious men and women, we are called to be in constant dialogue with the past. We’re called to move beyond theological or religious ideas we no longer find useful, while at the same time affirming and reaffirming those religious forms which feed our souls and nurture our spirits. Maybe this is the direction from which we need to approach the topic of prayer.


            My guess is that most of us don’t pray (or even meditate) all that often, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. We may not be doing ourselves any favors by truncating our spiritual lives so severely, and getting so enmeshed in the day-in/day out struggles of life that we don’t allow sufficient time to exercise our souls.


            I’m not suggesting that we need to address our prayers to some gray-bearded patriarch in heaven. Nor do we need to pray on our knees, sequestered in some dark and lonely corner of our rooms. (We don’t even need to call it “praying” if we don’t want to.) It has often been said in the past that we Unitarian Universalists address our prayers “To whom it may concern,”; maybe that’s largely true. Maybe, too, that’s not such a bad idea. When we pray (or meditate), perhaps we’re not doing anything more than talking to ourselves. But as I often tell myself—at the grocery store, or at the post office, or wherever I happen to be--  there are worse people to talk to! And there are worse ways to spend a small part of each day than in a little bit of intense analysis and contemplation, even if we’re just talking to our own selves.


Whatever the transcendent and metaphysical dimensions of prayer may be—and we have to admit that that, as so many matters transcendent and metaphysical are, really is a mystery— prayer can play a seemingly modest—but really quite profound—role in our daily lives, nonetheless: It can help us to discern, just a little more clearly, how we got to where we are in life, and the road that is ahead of us, and the work that is still ours to do. Prayer can help us to make more confidently the choices that are still ours to make. Prayer (or meditation, or contemplation) can foster the ties of compassion that connect us with one another, and can help us to bear more patiently the burdens that are ours to bear. Prayer can do a lot for us.


            We human beings hunger and thirst after truth and meaning. We yearn to experience a deep and abiding sense of inner harmony and peace. I believe we’re hard-wired that way; it’s just an innate part of who we are. We yearn for a sense of “intimacy with the Absolute,” as the theologian Henry Nelson Wieman once expressed it. We yearn for a sense of transcendence; a sense that we are somehow connected with all of Creation.


            Through prayer, perhaps, we can strengthen the spiritual roots which connect us with the sources of all life. Through prayer, too, perhaps, we can also strengthen our spiritual wings, and soar above this mundane, earthly life toward a life that is more transcendent and transformational.  


            Prayer is one way we have of tapping our deeper wellsprings of love and life. It is one way we have of making connections with our deepest values, and our deeper sources of creativity and joy and peace.


            There is an ancient Buddhist story which tells of a pilgrim who asks a monk the question, “What is prayer?” The meek and gentle monk held out his hands—and flames shot from his fingertips! “This is prayer,” the monk replied. His was a soul on fire—so much so that he was able to manifest that fire physically if he wished.


            To learn to pray is to learn how to kindle the fires of our souls. To learn to pray is to learn to fan the sparks of divinity within, so that our souls can break forth into flame—into warmth, into enlightenment, into compassion.


            Prayer can help us to clear away, slowly and surely, some of the excess baggage that clutters up the innermost sanctuaries of our souls. It can help us to clear away some of the baggage that obscures that fire of divinity from being seen.

            Prayer can be a very powerful, productive, positive force for us.  But—like most things religious—it can also be a terribly dangerous force, as well.  It can be a divisive and destructive force. It is a power that can be used to good purpose, certainly; but it is also a power that can certainly be abused.


            Emerson told the story of a minister who, one Sunday in the midst of a severe drought, prayed for rain “with great explicitness,” to use Emerson’s words. Indeed, on Monday there was a torrential downpour, and Emerson continued: “When I spoke of the speed with which his prayers were answered, the good man looked modest.”


            Some of us might have a problem with the very idea of such intercessory prayers, praying which attempts to reduce God to a sort of celestial Jeeves, a mere servant at our beck and call. We sense that we are abusing prayer whenever we petition for those things for which we hold no automatic privilege: things like changes in the weather, or winning the Megabucks, or a championship for our favorite sports team.  


            Abusive prayer seeks to manipulate Nature, or to manipulate God (such human hubris even to think that Nature or God could be manipulated by us!). So is prayer which seeks to manipulate other people.


            On the other hand, personal prayer which seeks inner strength and inner balance—which seeks to center our lives—can be valuable and useful. Prayer which seeks to strengthen inner qualities like patience and kindness and tolerance can be life-sustaining prayer.


            There is great wisdom in the old Russian proverb which says, “Молитесь, но строка, как сумасшедшие на берег.” {Oh, that means:}  “Pray, but row for the shore like a madman.” Frank Leahy, the former football coach at Notre Dame, also seemed to understand this human dimension of prayer pretty clearly. Leahy was once asked by a reporter if the prayers of the nuns at his school helped his football team. Leahy thought for a moment, and answered: “Their prayers work best when my players are better than the other team.”


            Leahy knew that so often in life, it is the players, and not just the prayers, that make the difference. But maybe it is that our prayers can help all of us to become better players on the field of life.


            Good, honest prayer can provide us with at least four important ingredients in our lives:


            First, it can provide us with a frank, non-threatening opportunity to confess our failings, face our shortcomings, and seek to change the ways we act, and move beyond them.


            Second, good, honest prayer can also provide us with a genuine sense of well-being and acceptance. It can give us some perspective on our lives. It can help us to see the big picture, and  remind us of how we need not torment ourselves with so many things that just won’t be that important a little bit down the road.


            Thirdly, prayer provides us with an honest opportunity to offer thanksgiving for the gift of life we have received. It gives us a place where we can stand back and count our blessings. It helps us to develop some deep inner sense of satisfaction and contentment.


            And finally, good, honest prayer can provide us with no small measure of strength: the courage we need to change those things, in our lives or in our world, with which we are neither satisfied nor content. Prayer allows us to catch our breath, to refresh ourselves, to rest our spirits—so that we will emerge better able to take up the work that is ours to do.


            Confession—acceptance—thanksgiving—strength: Those are the four critical elements that prayer can provide for us. Think of C-A-T-S: confession— acceptance— thanksgiving— strength. Maybe it’s not profound, perhaps; not terribly original, if truth be told. But a useful way to look at the real power of prayer, I think.


            Prayer is not an automatic process, like getting a candy bar from a vending machine. Put your money in, push the button, and out comes the candy. Get down on your knees—ask for courage, ask for strength, ask for enlightenment—and presto!—here it comes. That’s not how prayer works, not for most of us, at least.


            Prayer is a gradual process; and I think that only as we practice it regularly, and make it an important part of our lives, can it come to play an important role in our lives.


            Prayer is also an essentially personal process. As Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, it’s better for us to pray in the privacy of our own rooms than to parade our piety in public. It seems such an obvious lesson, especially in a pluralistic society like ours. But why is it such a hard one for some of our leaders to learn? Using prayer to achieve some narrow political purpose is probably the worst trivialization—and the worst abuse—of prayer there is.


            Prayer does not help to usher in a new world of peace and justice through grand, ostentatious spectacles of public piety. It works much more subtly than that. Sometimes, as Martin Luther said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”


            The great activist clergyman William Sloane Coffin once wrote in a letter to a friend:


            “I prayed a lot this week, because in prayer you do not so much hear a voice as acquire a voice—your own—to speak comfort to those in distress, and truth to those in power… I pray a lot these days, in order not to lose my ability to believe in a better world, to keep striving for peace, defending justice… It is hard. It is tiring.” But without prayer, it would be impossible.

            Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that “Only through inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of this world in a humble and loving spirit.”


            Prayer—meditation—contemplation—call it what you will—can provide us with a powerful means through which to bring about our own inner spiritual transformation. We become fully alive only through consciously nurturing the spiritual side of our beings. Prayer is one of the best forms of spiritual nurture available to us.


            Prayer helps us listen to the song of the soul; that, in turn, opens us to hearing the great song of the universe.


            Our prayers alone may not change anything.


            But our prayers can change us.


            And in deeper ways than we even realize, we can change our lives. We can even change the world.  



| Home | Sermons and Meditations | Archived Sermons |