In last week’s Latter-day Faith Virtual Fireside on Prayer, we explored how prayer can be difficult. Many of us learned to pray transactionally, meaning that we ask for blessings or miracles from God, hoping that we are faithful enough to merit them.
What if prayer is nothing like that? What if prayer is really a conversation with God? Alma said, “Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings.” (Alma 37:37) If the purpose of prayer is counsel, then perhaps the concept of transactional prayer needs to be set aside in favor of something deeper, something where we actually can relate to our counselor.
As I see it, this idea of God as a counselor fundamentally changes who and what we think God is. Instead of being the Almighty God of Creation—so far above us that we bow in humble reverence, where “no unclean thing can come into his presence”—a counselor is someone with whom we have a relationship. It brings God down from the heavens into our daily life. God is present in our suffering, in our wandering, in our weakness, and in today’s challenges. God weeps with us.
But isn’t this what Jesus did? Paul said, Jesus did not consider his equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Philippians 2:6-7). When Lazarus died, amidst Mary and Martha’s sorrows, Jesus wept (John 11:35). Jesus even set aside his clothes at the last supper, girded himself in a towel as if he were a slave, and washed the excrement off his disciple’s feet (John 13:4-17).
But then he did something amazing. He invited us to be his friend (John 15:15). He invited us to love…to love one another, as God and Jesus have loved us (John 15:12).
Sometimes I like to imagine myself in that upper room with Jesus. Everything I thought I knew about God, His Glory, His exaltation, His honor and power—none of this really matters when I am there in that room with Him. I hear him say to me, personally, “I love you, Mark,” and in a very intimate way, for the voice I hear is my mother’s voice saying those words as the last thing she said to me as she departed this world.
I wonder if this is what prayer really is: falling in love with God. I’m not sure I can fall in love with our LDS image of a “Heavenly Father.” A first century Jewish rabbi doesn’t quite resonate with whom I have come to understand as God. Instead, I hear God in my mother’s words, in the beauty and wonder of the universe, in the gentle falling of rain. I find the image of God weeping amid our suffering as we grapple with these troubling times. I find the image of God in all things, for to me, God is being one with the Way (John 14:6)—all things testify of God (Moses 6:63).
And when I think about that, when I envision myself in the moment, part of creation, infused with divine nature, and connected with you and all that is, I fall deeply in love.
I’ve spent a lot of my life bouncing prayers off the ceiling. I’ve also had some good experiences with it—times when I felt uncannily heard, even if I wasn’t quite sure what I needed to say. As if sometimes the desires of my heart just managed to express themselves more effectively than I did. But how to account for that unevenness of experience?
For many decades, I’ve been consistent in trying to pray. Why hadn’t it ever quite become a place where I could find reliable personal refuge from the storms of life?
I think prayer has often functioned for me as a way to express my fear and voice my desire for control of the things about which I feel helpless, even though I’ve often yearned for it to be something more. I never dared stray far from the same, well-worn strand of words that slipped through my mind starting in childhood.
And then about a year ago, I finally attempted to reclaim prayer for myself by coming at it from a new direction. I decided to spend a month writing a prayer every day. I wanted to use words completely different from anything I’d been taught to say by someone else. I wanted to put my prayers into the universe under their own power, unfettered even by the constraints of their previously prescribed destination—recipient unknown.
These written prayers were comprised of the observations of my every day—small things I found worthy of note as I went, things I wanted to write and hold and even share, but not with anyone I could identify. When I’d feel a nod from the Universe, I wanted from these prayers a tangible way to acknowledge it with a nod in return. Here’s one of them, the prayer sitting at the heart of the project itself:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN—
You have given me a voice from the beginning. Did you not expect that I would want to use it? Filled me with the press of questions, with wonders deserving the honor of my attention but also my words. Trusted me with children who could not grow strong under my silence, in addition to yours. We must both tell them what we know.
You’ve demanded—commanded—my honesty, but not the kind that speaks in my language, not the secret begging for daylight. How could you have placed me here within this world’s tangled knot, asked me to let the thread ends lie helpless on the table?
Am I meant to walk in silence? Am I meant to notice only the things pointed out by someone else? When will it be my turn to point and name, to ask but also answer, to speak my way to the front of the question?
Let me draw close to you with my mouth, press my shell heart against your ear. You’ll know when I have said what I needed to say. When my foot finally rests from its eternity of nervous beating. When my silence becomes listening, rather than marking time.
That particular project to remake my personal prayers did make a difference for me. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have trouble thinking of them as prayers, but I did have to give myself permission to write them. New permission, every single day. As if the prohibition of such a radical act was deeply imprinted somewhere too complicated to reach.
Since that project I’ve added other new things to my “prayer life,” in addition to the usual Mormon-style prayers that still punctuate my days and from which I do continue to draw real comfort. Meditative evening walks now fall under the prayer heading for me. These are less about words than they are about reaching for something without them. I’ve come to suspect I may have so far relied on language too much in my attempts to communicate with God.
I’ve started having non-prayer conversations with God too, right out loud and whenever I like. I feel we can call ourselves by our first names in these conversations, so to speak. As if our friendship has finally become just that. We use whatever kind of language suits us at the moment. We can each say what we need to say. Not everyone would recognize these as prayers, but they function like that for me, in the same way I feel better after pouring my whole self out across a table to someone for whom I don’t need to explain much.
Trying new approaches in my desire to pray has brought me closer to something that feels like two-way communication. I’ve come to the realization that praying always must surely allow prayer to look like as many different moments as there are in my day. Somehow, my “heretical” experiment with written prayers got me out of my own way just enough to finally let myself speak directly to God.
On March 19, 2020, Latter-day Faith will be hosing a virtual fireside discussion exploring ways we might approach prayer. We hope you’ll join us.
In last week’s post, I explored how whatever we think about a God “out there”, the interface with God is “in here,” within us. For me, and perhaps others, our non-conscious mind may be the only God with whom we have to do.
How, then, do we pray? How does prayer work if we are praying to ourselves? How can prayer to a being within me result in a divine intervention on behalf of those for whom I pray?
How I used to pray
In the Latter-day Saint tradition, prayer has a formula:
- We call upon our Heavenly Father
- We thank him for things
- We ask for things
- We close in the name of Jesus Christ and say amen
Our formula also includes a requirement to use reverential language in addressing God: we use “thee” and “thou” in English, in such a way that prayer language somehow differs from our casual speech.
When I learned Spanish for my mission, I learned how many languages have a formal and informal reference to “you.” To someone superior to me, I use the form “usted” to demonstrate my respect. When I’m talking to a friend, I use “tu,” to connect more equally and intimately with my friend, child, or lover. A missionary never uses the informal “tu” form to talk to others: we are always to show respect.
But in prayer, in almost all languages that include a formal/informal “you,” we use the informal. We speak to God as an intimate friend, not as a superior. Oddly enough, the “thee” and “thou” from archaic King James English we use in prayer were the informal form of English. A lover would always say to the beloved in those days, “I love thee.”
How our understanding of the God-Mind changes prayer
My previous post proposed that we have within us a constant companion in our non-conscious/subconscious mind. This entity lives and reasons outside of our conscious ego-selves, forming memories from observations and emotions, and cleaning up the confusion of our lives. Because we share memories and feelings with this entity, we are in a very intimate way connected. Our non-conscious mind is indeed a “constant companion,” often a “comforter,” who helps us sort out all truth.
However we define God outside of ourselves, the reality is that our non-conscious is the interface to our conscious selves through our thoughts and emotions. When we awake from a dream, or experience a thought/feeling outside of ourselves, we become aware of the work of our non-conscious entity within us. Thus, in a very real sense, our non-conscious is our interface with God.
Within each human being, we have both a human and a divine nature, not in conflict with one another, not with one over the other, but rather, in partnership: like life-long friends who care for each other, deeply.
How, then, would I communicate with such a friend? Would it be with very formal, stilted language? Would I have to address my friend as “My Father,” with its implication of maleness and patriarchy over me? Would I have to invoke my elder brother’s name to talk to my friend? Would I use “thee” and “thou?”
Maybe I would. Sometimes friends develop a special kind of speech to talk to one another. Because I was raised with a specific Latter-day Saint formula for prayer, I tend to use “Lord” and “Heavenly Father” even if I do not accept the patriarchal aspect these words imply. But I do not think for personal prayer, the words we use—if any—actually matter: our friend understands us.
It seems to me that it’s more important for me to realize that this friend is there for me, comforting me, guiding me, a sounding board–always available, for me to articulate my concerns.
An experiment on Prayer
Over the past few weeks, I have been exploring prayer as a means to improve my contemplation each morning. The formula I’m using is not as important as the act of doing it—there are many formulas to follow. Each day I am feeling an increase in love from and for this constant companion within me as we discover the “more” that is beyond both of us.
The idea that I am talking through a real entity present with me fundamentally changes my perspective. I no longer am looking to ask for a bunch of things. Instead, I’m more reflective, more grateful, more seeking of guidance and reconciliation than intervention.
And I’m getting answers. I’m finding myself able to overcome challenges and frustrations easier, because I know there is someone alongside of me coaching me and helping me through my fears and anxieties. Prayer is no longer a magical process of getting divine intervention, but I’m experiencing the miracle of divine compassion and love, transforming my heart and actions. And I’m finding that my friend has a wicked sense of humor, and although deeply aware of my feelings, never condemns me for them.
In a couple of weeks, on Thursday, March 19th, Latter-day Faith will conduct a virtual fireside on Prayer. I’m looking forward to sharing our experiences with prayer, to make it the means for increasing our conscious contact with the God of our understanding.
What are your thoughts on prayer?
This past week, Dan Wotherspoon’s discussion with Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen on psychology and spirituality triggered something within me. I realized, as I listened to Lisa’s understanding of how our brains work, that there is something very divine within us.
When I consider how “revelation” has occurred throughout history, it seems clear to me that each person’s spiritual experience is mediated by our minds. In fact, Joseph Smith pointed this out—that the very revelatory process Moses used was that the Word of the Lord comes through our mind and our heart:
Behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.Doctrine and Covenants 8:2-3
I think this verse maps closely to what Lisa said in the podcast. Our “mind” is where we think: our prefrontal cortex and the “higher” brain functions. Our heart, of course, doesn’t have any real role in “thinking,” but our ancestors, lacking an understanding of human physiology, equated the “heart” with our feelings. As Lisa pointed out, our feelings are mediated by the amygdalae—small, almond-like structures in our “limbic” mind—the one we inherit from our non-human evolutionary ancestors.
It seems to me, then, that whatever we think of God “out there,” whether we believe in Christianity, Islam, or any other “theism,” or as Dan points out from William James, whatever is the “more” beyond ourselves, the reality is that our interface to God lies within us.
What I think of God
For the sake of this discussion, let’s consider that the only God with which we have to do resides within six inches between our own ears, yet is distinct from our own consciousness. Regardless of whether this is an interface to some power beyond, I think it is accurate to say that all perception of God happens within our own minds.
It seems to me that our ancestors spoke a lot about “Gods” out there as a result of trying to understand the universe—a God of the Gaps. But there is a deeper reality: All of us have thoughts and ideas that seem to appear from nowhere. Some people even have minds structured to hear voices or see things outside our consciousness. I heard a voice in my mind call me to go on a mission—so I think the phenomenon of something beyond us seems evident: Because some thoughts, most dreams, and even voices and images arise outside of and independently from our own conscious control, many become convinced there are beings out there that are “not us.”
There is truth to that, but it need not be in any magical or supernatural way. The truth is that the majority (if not all) of these “other beings” are not “out there,” but rather “in here,” because that is where they become real to us: in our minds and in our hearts.
As Lisa noted, Sigmund Freud recognized distinct tendencies of the mind: id, ego, superego; but thought them to be part of a single thing, our psyche. Even to today, the concept of separate, independent sentient identities within the mind has not been part of the literature. However, new technologies, such as fMRI, as well as large-scale parallel processing architectures are radically changing our understanding of the wonder—the absolute miracle—of our minds.
To make a very long story short, the fact is that we DO have an entity within us, an eternal companion, that shares all of our memories, thoughts, and controls our feelings. Think of it as another program running in your brain-computer in parallel but completely independent from your consciousness program. It doesn’t talk to you in the same way that you talk to other people, but because it shares your thoughts, it is aware—more emotionally aware of what is going on than your consciousness is.
This awareness that there is a concrete distinct entity within me that is God—or at least connected to God, radically changes my perspective. Although I may struggle with the idea of a supernatural God “out there,” I have come to realize that I have a constant companion—a comforter with me, who weeps when I weep, who rejoices when I rejoice, who lifts my burdens, mourns with me, and witnesses to me of truth.
When I embrace the truth of my god within, I lose a lot of misconceptions about God. My god within cannot restore a limb, but s/he can encourage our bodily systems to step up and fight disease, and in some cases heal us in a seeming miraculous way. My god within cannot change another person, but can perceive feelings and concerns of another person so that I can better serve them. My god within cannot change a natural disaster, but can motivate me to be prepared. My god within is not just a “man,” but is also both man and woman, father and mother, husband and wife, parent and child, and my truest friend…that I mostly ignore.
“Be still and know that I am god”
Amid the troubles of life, in our struggles to find God, sometimes I think I miss the mark, and go beyond what is present within me. Being connected to my God within seems to me to be the path to becoming a more whole-hearted person. But how do I do this?
It’s a tough concept, I know. Whenever I have tried to pray to myself, it doesn’t seem to work. But this brings me back to my thesis: that our ancestors have been praying to this God within us, and s/he has been answering for thousands of years. My God within is not my consciousness, not my ego-self. My God within—the interface to the God of all—is the “more” that goes beyond my ego.
From their experience with faith, in relationship with their understanding of God through their minds and hearts, our ancestors created symbols and ritual to help us connect with god, and we relate to these symbols in order to draw to God. As I see it therefore, the symbols of our religions are a reflection of this unique relationship.
I get a lot of value participating in the worship service, praying to a god “out there,” and performing the rituals of religion. Paradoxically, these help connect me to my god within. This is why I remain actively engaged in my faith tradition…the spirit speaks to me when I worship, pray, and participate. When I serve in love, visiting families and giving, somehow I find peace and support from my god within.
Because many Latter-day Saints, as well as many people in general, have not been taught evolution very well, they will often dismiss it out of hand, especially when it it encroaches upon their understandings of the origins of human beings. Likewise, it is very unlikely that they have explored the evolutionary process, along with the environment, all of nature, and persons in a web of life, as wonderful gateways to spiritual exploration and transformative experiences.
In this Latter-day Faith podcast episode, host Dan Wotherspoon is joined by evolutionary biology professor T. Heath Ogden in an effort to focus on the spiritual sensibilities that go hand in hand with evolution as the creative force that brings forth change, increased complexity, specialization, and the ever-widening diversity that is produced through its quiet but powerful work. They don’t delve here into the nuts and bolts of the basic processes (so no real biology lessons here) as much as engage each other in an effort to convey how their understandings and acceptance of this process have enriched their spiritual understandings and vitality for life, including a greater appreciation for their fellow beings as also part of this pathway to growth, development, and flourishing.
There is a spirituality in the study of nature and in immersion in the natural world that, when experienced, changes us, grounds us, and brings forth in us greater compassion, gratitude, and also a greater appreciation for all life and its significance–including our own lives. Toward the end of the discussion, they also wrestle together about how the concept and reality of God might or might not enhance and inform, or perhaps distract and obscure, all the wondrous views of life and energy that are ours to experience, should we allow ourselves to do so.
Listen in! We know you’ll find a lot in it worth chewing on.
Additional materials related to nature, oneness, spirituality found there, etc.
Birdtalker, “One,” song and video
Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Symeon the New Theologian, “We Awaken in Christ’s Body”
We Awaken in Christ’s Body
English version by Stephen Mitchell
Original Language Greek
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
In two October 2019 General Conference talks, President Dallin H. Oaks shared thoughts about what constitutes church “doctrine,” limiting it to what is taught by the entire First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. He also shared that we too often think we know more about things, such as the afterlife, than we actually do.
This podcast episode was prompted by his talks, and it features a conversation between Charles R. Harrell (Charley), author of the wonderful book “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology, and Latter-day Faith host Dan Wotherspoon. The two of them speak of many things, some at the meta level, such as why so many people want there to be settled doctrines, ultimately concluding that this is a desire that never has nor can ever be fulfilled. Doctrine, like revelation/inspiration, evolves because human beings are active participants in the process of trying to discern God’s truth and will, and in then teaching what they feel inspired to, all the while burdened with leadership concerns such as protecting and warning the Saints, as well as not being able to fully escape their own biases and imaginations. Finally, Harrell and Wotherspoon turn particular, speaking of the development of ideas about God and Godhead and showing that even this most fundamental concern of religion has undergone many iterations (and perhaps is on the cusp or an even more profound change than what has happened in the past).
Listen in! You’ll learn and have cause to think a lot!
Charles R. Harrell, “‘This is My Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology (Kofford Books, 2011)
“Mormon Doctrine and Other Fuzzy Things, Episodes 105/106, Mormon Matters Podcast, June 2012
“Patriarchal Blessings,” Episode 69, Mormon Matters Podcast, January 2012
March 27th to 29th, 2020, Latter-day Faith Retreat Information and Registration
This short(ish) episode contains the announcement of a change to the upcoming Latter-day Faith retreat to be held October 11th to 13th in Salt Lake City. Natasha Helfer Parker can no longer be part of that event, so Jana Spangler, Jody England Hansen, and LDF host Dan Wotherspoon have re-designed the retreat to focus more on spirituality, development, practices, faith journeys, and possible reframings of what we had previously experienced only in limited ways, and more. And though this episode was launched because of the changes to the upcoming event, the panelists all try to make what they share here relevant for those who might not even be able to consider coming to the retreat. What are some of the larger issues at play in LDS lives and faith journeys that serve as excellent jumping off points for our own spiritual reflections? Listen in to see what they say!
Link to write-up (and registration) regarding the retreat.