Prayer: Speaking, Listening, Opening, Closing . . . Continued
How Shall We Pray?
There’s no right answer to this question. Prayer is both communal and personal. Communities tend to form their prayer habits over time, shifting as times change and people come and go from the community. How you pray in your personal life is completely up to you. I’m partial to exploring forms of prayer that engage all the senses.
One of the most obvious places to begin is praying with your mind. We are thought-creatures, making sense of our world through our stories and shared experiences. We can pray with our thoughts when we talk to God. These prayers usually come with traditional body postures (kneeling, folding hands, closing eyes), although they don’t have to. Sometimes these prayers can be spoken aloud, written down like in a prayer journal, read in the Bible, or shared through a prayer chain.
Praying with our sight takes a little more intention. To pray with your sight, you see the things you look at, enveloping yourself into the present moment.
Praying with our minds usually engages these types of prayers:
- Supplication: letting God know what you need
- Intercession: praying on behalf of others
- Thanksgiving: thanking God
- Adoration: praising god
- Confession: confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness
Praying with our minds, our thoughts, or our words is a tangible way to jump-start a healthy prayer routine.
Some people pray well in a quiet prayer posture. Others pray better with their bodies. For years I tried to convince my friend to go on a silent spiritual retreat at a nearby hermitage. The idea is that you go without your work, your tech, your books, or anything to distract you. You go alone and stay in an isolated cabin built for one. You spend your time in prayer for as little as a day, or as long as you like. I loved it. Finally, my friend went. And she hated it. For her, prayer needed to be more active than that, and more socially interactive.
If you are one that struggles to sit quietly, don’t despair! Pray with your entire body. Maybe you will connect with God best on a run around the lake. Perhaps you find peace when you knit. Maybe you find spiritual bliss when you dance. “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” (2 Samuel 6:14a) When my kids were little, I found the activity of bathing them a spiritual experience because it reminded me of how very fragile they were, and it made me better appreciate the enormous responsibility God had entrusted to me. Try using your body to pray and see if it brings you a different experience of spirituality.
If you have healthy eyes, seeing is something you do without much thought. But praying with our sight takes a little more intention. To pray with your sight, you see the things you look at, enveloping yourself into the present moment. Truly see them.
Let’s take a flower, for example. To pray with your sight means not only looking at the thing growing there, but seeing each petal, the stem, the leaves. Consider the roots and wonder how deep they go. Consider all the processes involved in making the flower… created by God, nourished by the soil, watered by the rain, colored by the sunlight. Consider all the things the flower does for the world… feeds the bees and the birds, adds brilliance to the landscape, contributes to the health of the planet. “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27)
The possibilities are endless. Do you see how quickly looking at a flower becomes seeing the flower?
Let’s try it with a person. To pray with your sight means seeing not only the person’s body, but their body language, their facial expressions, how they chose to adorn themselves that day and what that says about their mood or their plans for the day. Now see even deeper.
What kind of family did they leave to be with you? What struggles might they be facing? What joys might they be celebrating? What gifts did God give them that you don’t possess? How do you see God working through them? (BTW, this can be a helpful exercise to do with your spouse – you’ll be surprised how much more you love them when you start to see them!) “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Praying with our sight can be a great way to appreciate all that God has done and brings to this world, as well as appreciating the things and the people that God put here.
Praying with our hearing can also be rewarding. It can be as simple as listening to nature, music, or podcasts that touch the deep recesses of our soul. It can be Christian music, but it doesn’t have to be. Many songs, both Christian and secular, have the power to move us emotionally and spiritually. “[Elisha said,] ‘But get me a musician.’ And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him.” (2 Kings 3:15)
Or, praying with our hearing can be more interpersonal, like listening to someone share their story with you. Seeing God in their story. Seeing where God appears absent from their story. “She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’” (John 4:28b-29)
Consider the textures and temperatures of the things that bring you comfort – a warm blanket, a puppy, a cold glass of lemonade. The touch of these things can bring us into a place of spiritual contentment and can aid us in our efforts to connect with God. Consider also the textures and temperatures that bring you discomfort – a sore throat, a burn from a stove, a scraped knee from a fall.
Even unpleasant touch has the power to make us feel alive, and it reminds us that we are limited creatures dependent upon a loving and protective creator.
Then there is the power of human touch. We have become such a touch-averse culture, praying with our sense of touch is more critical than ever. Human beings need to be touched. When we pray holding hands or with our arms around each other, we become God’s embrace for others.
Many people have become afraid of touch because of the sexual assaults and abuses that are no longer being tolerated, and indeed, we must be very careful not to touch another without permission. If we are being honest with ourselves, most of us can tell the difference between unwanted sexual touch and healthy human touch (a parent hugging a kid, a nurse bathing a patient, a pastor blessing a dying loved one). If there is any doubt, err on the side of not touching.
But when appropriate, praying as God’s hands can be a rewarding experience for all. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” (1 John 1:1)
Our sense of smell is an underutilized prayer tool. Some (but not many Protestant) churches use incense. But what about using freshly baked bread for communion, letting the aroma of bread fill the sanctuary? What about the delicate scent of lilies that flood the church on Easter? Churches might consider how they are using scents to enhance worship. (Yes, there are scent sensitivities, so you’ll need to check on that first.) “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’” (Genesis 8:21)
What about personally? Because aroma-therapy has grown in popularity over recent years, it is easier than ever to find a variety of scents that can enhance your prayer life. Here are a few things some common scents may do for you!
- Lavender: may help you relax and help you sleep
- Vanilla: may lift your mood
- Jasmine: may lessen symptoms depression
- Pine: may alleviate stress
- Cinnamon: may sharpen your mind
- Peppermint: may boost concentration
- Olive Oil: may satisfy appetite
- Citrus: may help you feel energized
- Apples: may help reduce headache symptoms
- Rosemary: may help you feel energized and improve memory
- Rose: may help you feel the love
Of course, you can also turn to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for a jog down memory lane and a quick pick-me-up!
Speaking of chocolate chip cookies, our sense of taste is probably the most underutilized spiritual sense. But any foodie can tell you, there’s something delightfully stimulating about a good meal or tasty treat. Food connects humanity, and can be used to connect us with God, too.
The very act of sitting at a table with your loved ones to share a meal that you (or someone else) cooked with your precious time and skilled hands, can be an act of prayer that brings us closer to God and to God’s children. Whether you prefer sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or umami (savory), try using your sense of taste to appreciate God’s delicacies. “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8)
Prayer: Just Do It
There are no right nor wrong ways to pray, if prayer brings you spiritually closer to God, to others, and to yourself. The best thing you can do it just start. Try different things.
See what speaks to you.
God is always glad to hear from you, and sometimes . . . God even speaks.
Dr. Kimberly "Kace" Leetch the founder of Clergy Stuff, a provider of Narrative Lectionary worship resources and the parent company of RCL Worship Resources. Her goal in her work life is to provide resources for clergy to make their ministries cooler, easier, and funner. Yes, she means funner. She lives with her family in Bloomington, Minnesota.