Tag Archives: prayer

My thoughts are not my prayers

There are a number of statements that float around the internet as memes – my work is my prayer, my thoughts are my prayers, my words are my prayers… it is all too easy to assert this and have it be a way to not really make any effort.

My thoughts are not my prayers. Firstly, I think a lot. While I am ambivalent about deity, I certainly don’t believe that deity is especially interested in me and I don’t imagine that every random thing wandering about in my head is something to ask a God to bother themselves with.

I do not have a disciplined mind, nor do I ever intend to have this be the case, nor do I think it’s a good idea. Thinking is good. Reflecting, pondering, questioning, imagining, planning… For any of this to work, you need room to try things out, and change your mind. You can’t be creative without giving yourself space to think things that you may later reject as rubbish. If every thought is a prayer, when is there time to be creatively messy?

If your thoughts are your prayers, then the inside of your head has to be pretty saintly. I aim to act well in the world as much as I can. I give myself permission to feel all the little shitty things that pass through. Frustration. Resentment. Anger. Envy. All the knee jerk reactions to experiences that have me wanting to put politicians in wicker men. I give myself space to process these reactions and to work out better ways of expressing them. These are not prayers. I do not want them answered. These are things I need to take responsibility for. Equally, there are old feelings of guilt and shame, uselessness, anxiety, despair and unacceptability that surface now and then. These are not prayers, but they do need processing.

I firmly believe that to be human is to have this full range of experience. To be human is to get cross about things, to worry about aspects of the future, to regret past action or inaction… we don’t learn or grow without being able to do all of this. If the insides of our heads were only prayerful, there are too many things we wouldn’t be able to process. Repressing all the awkward stuff doesn’t make it go away, it just means it emerges in weird, uncontrolled ways. The sudden lashing out that you can’t explain. The telling yourself you’re doing one thing when really doing another. Make no room for your shadows, and you’ll end up with some serious cognitive dissonance, especially around who you are.

I don’t believe that the point of a spiritual life is to transcend being human. I don’t believe in higher self, as I’ve said before – I’m much more interested in deeper self. I want room to explore and to ponder. I like to treat the inside of my head as my own, private space. By giving time to reflection, working with my shadows, owning the awkward bits and working to heal them, I become more whole, and in turn less fraught. I realise this does take me, slowly, towards a place where all the things in my head could be beautiful and functional and worthy of being directed towards something other than myself. But at the same time, I always want to be angry at injustice and frustrated by needless hoop jumping. I will always need space for daft ideas so that I can work my way towards good ideas.

I can’t help but feel that thinking you’ve overcome the least good bits of your own humanity is probably only ever a sign that you’re successfully kidding yourself.


Guest blog from Jason Lewis

Jason contacted me by email to ask if I’d host this post. It’s interesting stuff – I think we should be doing more to explore the social impact of religion. I don’t think you need to believe anything specific to benefit from many of the things a religious practice can do – themes I’ve explored in Spirituality without Structure and When a Pagan Prays. I think what Jason says has relevance for all faith groups and its interesting to think about how we might apply this to a Pagan context.

 

This Is Why Seniors  Should Attend Church

Whether you’re ultra-religious, simply spiritual, or somewhere in between, church can give you perspective on life’s ups and downs in a safe environment. While people of all ages can benefit from a weekly prayer session, it can be particularly helpful for seniors — here’s why.

 

Mental Health

Due to life circumstances that may be unique to their age or health concerns, elderly people often confront a variety of emotions or mindsets that may be somewhat debilitating and hard to bear. These include a sense of isolation, loneliness, boredom, and grief, as well as others. Seniors need activity in their lives to help ward off isolation and depression, which can lead to risky behavior like substance abuse. Studies show that seniors who regularly attend church have greater mental health than those who do not. In fact, depressive symptoms improved and they were able to cope with illness better later on in life.

 

Preventative Care

Seniors who regularly attend church are more apt to stay on top of preventative care such as flu shots and cancer screenings. Those struggling with medical costs will benefit from church-sponsored health fairs that offer service like those listed above and more. Church communities tend to promote ways to live a healthier life.

 

Social Life

Research suggests that when seniors retain some semblance of a social life, they can decrease — or slow down — the rate of cognitive decline. It’s likely that they’ll make friends who they’ll see outside of the church environment. Even acquaintances can be beneficial as there’s the possibility of meeting someone younger who can help with lawn work or occasional errands.

There may even be an opportunity to contribute to the community, which can give the elderly a sense of purpose that could help ward off depression. Going to a place of worship gives seniors a safe place to get support through good times and bad.

 

Cognitive Health

Between participating in church services (singing, reciting prayers, listening to a sermon, etc.) to socializing with other members of the congregation, the church environment can help prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognitive disorders.

 

Longer Life Span

Studies indicate that attending church can lower stress levels, which reduces inflammation that increases the risk for disease — it actually may reduce mortality rate by 55 percent. Religious attendance is also known to boost the immune system, decrease blood pressure, and possibly change bad behaviors such as smoking, excess drinking, and promiscuity.

 

Increased Optimism

Though it’s not exactly clear why, there’s a link between optimism and attending church. Seniors who attend more than once a week are 56 percent more likely to have an optimistic outlook on life in comparison to those who never go. Churchgoers are also 22 percent less likely to experience depression.

 

Physical Health

Having a reason to get dressed and leave the house may be just what a senior needs to keep moving. Findings show that leaving the house every day — even a short trip — can help seniors live longer. Staying indoors regularly can contribute to physical and mental decline.

 

Improved Coping Methods

The golden years can be an emotionally challenging time because seniors live to see the passing of friends and family while experiencing their own illness. Going to church can help seniors cope through sad and stressful times by encouraging mindfulness.

It doesn’t matter who or what you believe in as the benefits that come from attending a place of worship are the same. Don’t worry if you never regularly attended church in the past. There’s never a bad time to incorporate spirituality into your life.

 

Photo Credit: Pexels


Pagan Prayer

This is an excerpt from When a Pagan Prays. I started out exploring prayer as an intellectual idea, and discovered that the only way I was going to make any sense of it was by doing it. The book was a result of more than a year of exploration. It was a really interesting process that had a huge impact on me. It also made me realise that I didn’t want to continue shaping my personal practice around things I might later be able to write a book about.

“First and foremost, to stand before the unknown is to recognise the existence of the unknown. That which is bigger than we are. That which transcends our understanding. Prayer is an act of opening awareness that puts our small lives into important perspective. Most of the time we need to protect these fragile, human minds by not letting them be swamped with how much there is outside of us. We tune out far more sensory information than we allow into our conscious awareness. However, it benefits us to drop that defence now and then, to consider the terrifying, glorious enormity of it all. Death. Infinity. Eternity. You might call it deity, you might not. Of course our human natures want the enormity to wear a friendly face, pat us gently on the head and say, “Well done, keep up the good work.” Of course we want mystery to be on a manageable, human scale. This is why we like to give bits of it names, beards, clothing preferences and stories. Religion is all about making the unimaginable possible to engage with. Prayer is all about letting go of those stories again to try to encounter what we cannot hope to
comprehend,

I cannot tell you what it means to stand in that place of awareness for a few seemingly bright seconds. I’d love to say it’s like this familiar thing, or that other thing you do, and bring it down to a more mundane level. If I did that, I wouldn’t be telling you what it is like. We go there for ourselves, or not at all.

I’m conscious that I am barely skimming the surface of mystery and that many others will have gone far deeper in their quests. I have only deliberately worked with prayer for about a year now. I have an advantage in that nearly two decades’ worth of meditation work have given me some mental discipline and I know how to open my mind a bit. I can be still and quiet. It also helps that I can shift fairly easily from dealing with the mundane, to states of mind appropriate for ritual and trance. I find those same sorts of mental states are necessary for prayer.

What I struggle to do, is to remain in that place of openness to mystery for more than very short bursts. My psyche simply cannot maintain it, and I recognise there may be very good reasons not to go too far, anyway. Practice is no doubt key here, returning over and over to a deliberate opening up, and listening, to glimpse some fleeting thing and fall away again. It feels very much as though I am breaking my mind open. Perhaps if I managed to do this all at once, my reason would not survive the experience. I am here to live in this world, not to gaze continuously at something else. It is absolutely essential therefore that I crack myself open gently, slowly and with care. Not just to avoid madness, but because I think there are other processes happening here and I suspect time is needed for those.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays


A prayer

Do not speak the names of killers.

Let history forget them.

Let us not talk of the causes

For which they claimed to kill.

All their acts were betrayals

All their words were lies.

Let us silence their hatred.

Let our silence be a refusal

Of everything they stood for.

 

Let us speak of the innocent dead.

The honoured and beloved dead.

Let us name them and remember

The lives they led, the causes they cherished.

Lives greater than their killers aspired to.

Let us share our grief and anger now,

Blaming only the guilty,

Whose names shall be dust.

In time, let us rejoice in the memories

Of those we have loved and lost.

 

Let us speak the names of healers,

Of helpers and comforters.

Professionals brave in the line of duty.

Let us remember the fortitude of the many,

The courage, integrity and grace,

The best we can be.

 

Do not speak the names

Of those who discard their humanity

In the name of hatred.

 

(One of the things I learned while working on When A Pagan Prays, is that prayer itself is sacred expression, and there are no inbuilt assumptions about where it might be directed. You can pray to anything, or anyone, we can pray to each other. That fascinates me.)


Prayer and meditation

There can be a fine line between prayer and meditation, if you are inclined to work that way. One of the things I do is to contemplatively deconstruct The Gorsedd prayer in times of difficulty. The reflective process clears my thoughts and generally improves things. I have never been sure whether there was anything coming towards me as a consequence of working with the prayer, but it works, regardless.

Grant, oh spirits, thy protection. I reflect on why I am feeling vulnerable and what I might need protecting from, and how that protection might manifest. Courage is often key.

And in protection, strength, but what do I need to be strong for? What kind of strength, and how should it manifest? What do I need the strength to do?

And in strength, understanding. What do I need to understand in this situation? What might I better understand if I was feeling more sheltered, and thus feeling able to be more generous? Can I do that anyway?

And in understanding, knowledge. Knowledge is always good. Where are the holes in my knowledge? What might I have overlooked?

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice. What would justice look like in this situation? What do I have to do to make that happen?

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it, well, yes, and then we get into the love of gods and goddesses, of all existence, and all goodness. This causes the most pondering, because I don’t actually believe that unconditional love for all things is any kind of good idea. I reflect on where my heart is in the situation, what I love and what I do not, and why.

As I go through each line and reflect, my mind inevitably wanders around a lot. I have a nomadic mind, but the structure of the prayer pulls me back, over and over, to working through a deliberate series of thoughts. It calms me, and it improves my clarity. It reminds me that there is a sacred aspect to everything I do. It helps me to be more generous and less judgemental.

More about the Gorsedd Prayer here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/the-gorsedd-prayer/

More about working with prayer here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays


Considering the Nature of Prayer

This is an excerpt from the start of my book When A Pagan Prays…

When I first started thinking about prayer, it was very much from a position of intellectual curiosity. In many ways, my prompt was Alain du Bottan’s Religion for Atheists, which explores the social benefits of religious activity. Prayer was notable in its absence from the book. However, the idea of considering religions in terms of what they do in this world, appealed to me. While I am not an atheist, I’m not very good at belief either. In many ways the atheist position seems too much like certainty to me, but nonetheless I find a lot of atheist thinking appealing. Demanding that things make sense on their own, immediate terms rather than with reference to unknowable, ineffable plans, is something I have to agree with. Looking for rational approaches to religion led me to write Spirituality without Structure in one of the gaps while this book was being wrestled into submission.

There isn’t really a fixed modern tradition of Druid prayer. Some groups and Orders have defined approaches to praying, but my impression is that the majority do not. Early conversations on the subject indicated to me that many Druids feel uneasy about what they see as being a practice we can only borrow from other religions. Petitioning the gods for things feels both pointless and wrong. Looking further afield, I found that people generally take prayer to mean petition, unless they are deeply involved with a spiritual path that includes a more involved understanding of the subject. This seems to be true of
people of all religions.

My thinking at this stage was: other religions use prayer extensively and apparently we don’t. Why is that? Are there good reasons to reject prayer, or are we missing a trick? I admit that I thought the question could just be tackled intellectually. Being the sort of person who defaults in all things to getting a book on the subject, I set off to read around.

When I was first looking for books to read about prayer, I poked about online and in bookshops. Books of prayers are plentiful, but not what I wanted. Books that consider prayer as a process are relatively few, although I did eventually track down some excellent ones, and you’ll see scattered references as we
progress.

In a Christian bookshop, a generous woman spoke to me about her own prayer practice. She viewed the urge towards prayer as innate to the human condition. She also found me some books, and did not blink too much when the subject of Druidry came up. “I pray to God as if I was talking to my father. He is my
father. I can go to him and ask him for things,” was the gist of her description. I did not learn her name, but remain grateful for her help. She spoke to me about prayer as something intrinsic and natural, and found it odd I should want a book examining how and why we pray. The shortage of such books suggests that many religious people would agree with her perspective.

From that first book (How to Pray, John Pritchard) a new way of thinking about the idea of prayer began to open up before me. “Essentially it is about entering a mystery, not getting a result.” I found this resonant. The author is an Anglican Christian, but the sentiment struck me as being totally compatible with Druidry as I practise it.

My next read was a Catholic book (Ways of Praying, John C Edwards) by which time it had become plain to me that in some quarters, prayers of petition are considered to be the least important form of prayer, at least by the people for whom praying is a professional and serious business. After that, my reading took me into works from other traditions and I wondered if I would be writing a comparative religion text. However, that would have largely been a rehashing of other people’s work, and I’m not convinced the world really needs something like that.

I had considered surveying the modern Druid community in a more formal way to deepen my understanding of what we do and how we do things. However, my initial enquiries had raised the issue that a significant percentage of the Druids I had talked to were not praying at all. There are some who admit to occasional petitions, and several groups with much more involved approaches. I could get figures for the praying and not praying, I could ask nosey questions about who people pray to, and what they think they get out of it, but how much would that help? This was my first inkling that intellectual research might not be able to shed enough light on the subject. It could easily be like scraping the paint off pictures and weighing it to make judgments about the value of art works. That leaves the anecdotal, and self-reporting, neither of which constitute good science – not even in softer subjects like psychology. I don’t have the kit to study what happens inside people’s brains when they pray.

Why was I fearful of writing a spiritual book about a spiritual subject? It was a question I did not know how to ask myself at the time, but looking back it seems significant.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays

 


If prayer is awkward

Some Pagans find prayer an easy and natural part of their practice. I’m the other sort. I spend a lot of my time writing about things I find difficult, because I find it makes for more fertile explorations. It’s not the easiest sales pitch in the world though! I can’t solve all your problems, there won’t be an easy five minute solution, but if you’re uneasy too, and uncertain, and wondering, then wander with me and maybe something will happen.

Here’s a snippet from When A Pagan Prays.

What is prayer? Prayer is something that people do as a manifestation of religion or as part of a spiritual practice. Beyond that, it is remarkably difficult to pin down, being a term for a vast array of activities. Prayer crops up in religions across the globe, but what exactly it is, and how it works, depends a lot on who is doing it in what context, and why. Prayer runs the full gamut from insidious control method to means of enlightenment. I’ve tried to unpick how some of that works.

As with most things, what you get out of prayer depends a great deal on what you bring. The reason you undertake prayer is going to influence what happens to you. If you are a lovedrenched tree-hugging pacifist, your prayers will probably be full of love and light and at the very least, more feel-good affirmations. If you are a person in pain, or full of anxiety, you’ll pray differently, but that’s no less meaningful. People coming to prayer out of curiosity, a desire for mystery, a hunger for connection, can do all kinds of good work. If, on the other hand, you are a fascist control freak with a desire to torture puppies, you aren’t going the enlightenment route this week and the experience of prayer will probably just reflect your own fantasies back at you.

Mostly what we bring to prayer, is us. Mostly what we do in prayer, is us. If we want to reach out to the cosmos, or some aspect of it in an honourable way, we’ll do that thing. If we want to justify our own greed and bullshit, prayer is a tool to be used.

Dear God, I’m good!

If you are intent on being self-important, are deaf to all criticism and blind to the suffering of others, prayer will not help you much. You get what you bring. If you are willing and able to be open, vulnerable, listening, if you are here to be changed, that’s a very realistic possible outcome, no matter which
tradition you follow or the methods you adopt.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays

 


Prayers for abundance

“May we be sufficient in all things, may we have abundance enough to share with others.”

As far as personal prayers of petition go, this is something that I regularly repeat, but there doesn’t tend to be much else because this covers all the practical stuff for me. I tend (at the moment at least) to simply address prayers to the universe. Does anything out there listen, care and respond? I can’t tell, but for me that’s not really the point. Most of my prayer practice is about being open and listening, on the off-chance anything does flow towards me. This small prayer is my way of wrapping up all the practical things so that I can let them go.

It has other consequences, too. Divinely inspired or not, I can’t say, but the process of using this prayer regularly certainly changes things for me. Firstly it focuses me on the idea of sufficiency. “Enough” is a magic word. Recognising the ways in which I am sufficient helps me. We live in a culture that promotes the idea of scarcity, and that we have to be afraid and grasping because everything is scarce. By focusing on the ways in which I have enough, I am able to see through some of the narratives of scarcity and get better balance in my life. In seeing through the scarcity myths I become better able to recognise where I have abundance and how I might share it to good effect.

Thinking about when and where I have enough helps me recognise where I don’t, and where that needs to change. Enough rest, enough inspiration, enough gentle happy time – these have been the areas of lack. These are not scarcities driven by poverty, but by responding to fears of scarcity. I have, slowly, learned that I do not have to be working all the time to feel safe. I don’t have to earn more all the time in case there’s a disaster ahead. I just need enough. Do I have enough for the things I need? Then I have enough. I don’t need much, and much of what I need is not for sale anyway. The more I understand this, the more able I am to have a life that I find good.

Where is the abundance? In a household with two adults working full time yet collectively earning less than the average wage for one person, how can I talk about abundance? Answer: because we have things set up such that we can live well on what we have. I’ve lived in arrangements where a good deal more money came in each month, but where very little was good or happy. As I don’t want a lot of things, and I don’t need my things to be new, or fashionable, I’m not expensive to keep. I like upcycling, re-purposing, I like using the things other people would throw away. There is abundance available in this. I can say yes to things n one else wants and experience them as richness.

At the moment my flat is full of fabric and wool that no one else wants, and I’m in the process of turning it into things that I can gift to people. Here is abundance! I can create something cheering and useful from something no one else wanted in its old form. I can use my free time making things – which I delight in, and which rests my over-busy brain and gives me time to think gently about stories. I can keep things out of landfill. I feel blessed with riches when I’m doing this.

“Enough” is fairly simple, abundance is not as hard to find as it might seem. So why does our culture encourage us to seek excess and guard it jealously? Why are we encouraged to use up our precious time – time we really want for resting, sleeping, playing, being with friends and family, getting exercise and eating well – why are we encouraged to sacrifice all of those things so that we can afford new cars, gym memberships and pre-packaged food? And why are we encouraged to feel good about all the excess we might own, when around us others go hungry, can’t heat their homes, or end up on the streets. Recognise enough, and see what you can share, because we all deserve better than these toxic normalities.

For more of my thinking on prayer, check out When a Pagan Prays.


Spiritual exposure

We are all our own priests and priestesses as Pagans, which rather suggests we do not need anyone to mediate between us and the divine. You can do that for yourself. What we don’t talk about so much, is what happens if you can’t.

Many Pagans have stories to tell of direct, personal experience when Gods have spoken to them, shown them things, made requests, demands and offers. There are many others who don’t do Gods so much, but have intense relationship with spirit, spirit guides, ancestors and the like. Some part of the universe speaks spiritually to them in a way they are confident about recognising and understanding. This makes it very hard to put up a hand and say ‘that’s not what I get.’ It feels like failure, lack of effort, insufficient worthiness. How can I call myself a Druid if nothing is particularly talking to me? This is what I’ve got, because apart from a handful of odd experiences I am none too confident about, I do not hear the voice of spirit. Gods do not choose me, or talk to me. I have no guides and no totem anything.

It’s not for lack of trying. Years of study, lots of rituals, deep work with meditation and prayer over many years. Dedications, offerings of self, work done. I’m not that good at belief, and perhaps that closes the door on me, but others who do not believe have startling experiences that change them into people who know. That’s not been me. I’ll admit I have all kinds of less than perfectly enlightened responses to the profound and intense experiences others describe. Jealousy, above all else. Frustration, confusion. Why them and not me? What am I doing wrong? What should I be doing more of? I come with a will to serve, give, work and so forth, why are so many others worthy of attention when I am not?

It would be easy to hide this, to lie about it and pass myself off as being just as beloved of the gods as the next Pagan. It would be easy to become wholly disenchanted and settle into comfortable atheism and feel no responsibility for what I am not. I’ve managed to settle on Maybeism, holding the possibility, and accepting this is where I am and that for whatever reasons, a great deal of regular Pagan religious experience just doesn’t happen for me. I can feel inspired, and I can feel wonder, and perhaps I have to just get over the desire to feel a bit special and acceptable to deity, and get on with making the best of what I have.

Writing ‘When a Pagan Prays’ felt very exposed indeed, because it is a confession of what is absent in my life and practice, and exposure of what it means to have no certainty, no confident firsthand experience. Putting it out there left me feeling decidedly naked and vulnerable – now all the people who are proper Druids and Pagans, in relationship with the Gods of their ancestors, will know that I am not one of them, not part of their experience. At times it feels like it is just me; that everyone else can do these profound spiritual things that are beyond me, but perhaps that isn’t so. Perhaps there are others quietly staying silent about what they are not, and what they can’t do. My hope is that if there are, this exposure of experience will at least make that less bitter, less demoralising.

A person can be spiritual without having certainty, can dedicate to the ideas of Gods and religions even if nothing speaks back to them. We can choose ways of living and being because they seem like wise choices, not because we had a vision or a higher being told us to. I’d like to think it is entirely valid to choose a spiritual way of life even if your quest for the numinous never brings you to anything. It is the choice, the quest and how we choose to live as a consequence that matters most, if all we have is a fairly mundane experience of the world.


Druid cover: Contains trees

I love the process of getting a cover on a book. I know it’s something authors generally get excited about, but being married to a brilliant artist makes the whole thing so much more fun. I’m not a very visual person, but I figured out years ago that the answer to covers is not to be too prescriptive. I’ve spent time at the publisher end of the book industry and a surprising number of authors are very clear about what they want whilst having no clue that it won’t work. I figure, your cover artist is the art expert, and also the expert on what works. Book covers these days have to also be viable as tiny thumbnail images online, as well as working on paper versions – its’ tricky

I’m lucky in that I can sit down and have a conversation about the kind of thing I might want, and whether that would work. I have learned to keep it vague. It helps to talk about mood, and to pick one or two key features for the artist to focus on. Then, if you trust your artist (and I trust mine utterly) its often a better bet to just sit back and let them do their thing, playing to their strengths to give you the very best they’ve got.

On this one, I wanted a sense of shrine, or altar as being a way of conveying the notion of prayer. We poured over images of Celtic deity figures online, and then Tom imagined me this strange and lovely figure, inspired by existing figures, but not anything already out there. As I’m a Druid, I pretty much have to have some kind of plant or tree imagery in the mix (it’s almost a law!). We went out looking for one, because that’s worked before (The tree on Druidry and the Ancestors is near where we used to live on the canal). What you can see on this cover, is a hawthorn perched on the side of a common – it’s not a precise take of a real tree, in its exact situation – mostly because the angles on those slopes aren’t quite suitable, but it is very much a gist of how things are on the hills round here. The grass is briefly lush, but in summer becomes a golden yellow, like a sheen of fuzzy hair that stays into the winter. The hills themselves have been quarried over long time frames, which contributes to the shape.

So this cover is very much an invocation of place. There isn’t an actual shrine around here like this one, but as there have been people living here for as long as there have been people… I like to think there was something.

 

When a Pagan Prays;

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