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.
Ignatius of Loyola was much like many of us: he aspired to be great and significant in the world, but as luck would have it, he was injured, and spent much of a year in recovery. During this period, he had few books to read, so he spent his days reading scripture and daydreaming.
He found that his daydreams of grandeur, of recovering the life he once aspired to, caused him to feel depressed. On the other hand, his daydreams of imagining himself within the stories of scripture brought him joy. In fact, as he lived within the narrative about the life of Jesus, he came to a personal relationship with the subject of scripture: the Christ as manifest in both the narrative and in his creative consciousness. He came to know God, not just know about God.
Motivated by his love for and with Jesus, he and his companions devoted their lives to not just reading and contemplation, but to active involvement in the world: that the love of Jesus is best manifest in our being men and women for and with others. They founded the “Society of Jesus”—Jesuits—based upon these principles of seeing God in all things, of practicing spiritual exercises including imaginative reading of scripture, of daily self-examination, and practicing love in the world, all for the greater glory of God.
I personally have found great benefit in reading scripture the Ignatian Way, that is, allowing scripture to open up as a creative, spiritual exercise, to live within the narrative, or as Nephi put it in the Book of Mormon, to liken scripture to ourselves.
To read the Scriptures as Ignatius suggests is not about just reading the text. Rather, it focuses on specific stories. For example, during the first phases of Ignatian spiritual exercises, it’s a good idea to explore the nature of sin—not as a stain on our soul, but as the process of learning to discern. The story of the Garden of Eden is particularly useful, exploring how Eve and Adam made choices in the Garden, and how those choices enabled them to learn through their own experience how to discern good and evil.
Another story is the birth narrative in Luke. In the video “Mr Krueger’s Christmas,” the title character played by Jimmy Stewart finds himself daydreaming as if he were physically present at the birth of Jesus. As he looks around, he sees shepherds, animals, Mary and Joseph, and of course the Jesus child. As he walks through the narrative, he connects in relationship with the baby Jesus, praying from his heart and enveloped in love.
My personal encounter with Ignatian spiritual reading of scripture was in contemplating the Atonement as expressed in John chapters 13-17: the “Last Supper.” As I entered the narrative, I heard the words of the Savior through the voice of my deceased mother express God’s intimate, personal, and unconditional love for me. In turn, if I love God, I will be motivated to love others “as God loves me,” that is, with intimate, personal, and unconditional love. The experience transformed everything I thought I knew about the Atonement. Click here to read the full article.
So how does Ignatian Imaginative Reading work for me?
Before reading scripture, I find it very helpful to prepare for the experience, by going to my own personal sacred space—a place outside of the noise of the world: could be a room in my house, could be in a library or church, could be anywhere where I can be outside of my daily interruptions and concerns.
There are many ways of imaginative reading—just use your imagination! The key, in my impression, is to find a story that resonates with me, then, reading the story four ways.
- I read the text as written, straight through, so that I can remind myself of the complete story line: What is the story itself saying?
- Next I read the text for what isn’t written: What is implied in the narrative? Who is witnessing this story? What are the factors, before and after, that affect the story line?
- Next I let the text go and put myself inside the narrative. Who am I in this story? Perhaps I could be one of the named actors, or simply an observer. Perhaps, in the story of Jesus’ birth, I’m one of the animals. I’m creative here—I’m putting myself in the story and letting my creative imagination run with it. I ask myself: What are my senses telling me as I become fully aware of the story? What am I feeling? What are my emotions telling me? This reading is purely contemplative—I allow the spirit to enter my heart and reveal what I need to learn from this reading.
- Finally, I return to the text itself. Yes, I have had an experience beyond the text in my imagination, but now, as I read the text, is there new meaning to be found? How does my new perspective open up the text to me to make me a better person—more loving towards and with others? How has God spoken love to me in this text?
As I close my reading session, I find myself physically and emotionally giving gratitude for the text. For me, I do a little ritual of closing the text and my eyes, touching the text to my forehead, and giving thanks for the experience I felt in the text.
Again, there are many ways to read scripture, and my approach, informed by Ignatian Spirituality is but one way. The key, in my impression, is to allow the text to open up for me, to speak to me, to become alive in my imagination, and then walk the journey of faith according to the inspiration I feel thereby.
I hope this helps. What are your thoughts about how you read scripture?