- At the Desert Retreat House -
It’s Sunday morning and I think of all those thousand of times in my life that I have gone to church on this day – off to church to say my prayers, and as a priest, to lead others in their prayers; and while lots of people will not be going to church on a day like today, plenty of other people will. On any given weekend millions of people from all across the globe will be attending a mosque or a temple, a shrine, a church, cathedral or basilica to say their prayers and engage in age-old rituals. Some will pray in Hebrew, others in English or Arabic, some in Hindi, Korean or Chinese.
I come from a “liturgical” Christian tradition that is not only focused on saying prayers but also puts a rather strong emphasis on “how” prayers are to be said, making sure that a ritual is performed in the proper manner. In my tradition we are careful about wearing all the right vestments and saying the proper prayers assigned for the day. We are precise about who sits in what places and we even have some rules about how to hold your hands when you pray.
Actually I don’t think there is anything at all wrong about precise ritual and careful formulae in the way people say their prayers - much of it reflects a rich history and provides links to ancient ancestors in faith. The problem is that it’s so very easy to slip into the trap of “saying prayers” carefully, that we can easily lose sight of “why” the prayers are being said.
This morning I remembered an experience of several years ago when I was traveling in South Korea. One particular Sunday morning, my Korean friend and colleague took me to visit a local Buddhist monastery. When we arrived at the site, the monks were assembled in the shrine, gathered together for their regular prayers, so we took off our shoes as directed and we joined them.
At first I was almost “frightened” by the sight - it all seemed so very foreign to what I normally experienced on a routine Sunday morning. I was surrounded by statues of the Buddha everywhere on ornate walls - the monks in their saffron robes were all seated barefoot on the floor chanting a mantra in a language that I could not understand. My first instinct was to flee for safer and more familiar territory – maybe find a nearby church.
But as we “settled in” and I “settled down” I began to relax and go with the flow of what was going on. I turned to my friend and whispered, asking him what it was the monks were chanting? He told me that they were praying: “May I be at peace, may you be at peace, may the world be at peace.” When I heard that, it was as if a veil was lifted from my heart and in an instant everything that once seemed so foreign now appeared to be a life-long friend. After all, this is what I also pray every Sunday – I pray that peace may be upon me, upon others and upon the world.
As I sat in that Buddhist shrine thousands of miles away from my own home and so far removed from my own tradition, all the walls between us seemed to fall apart, the differences were turned into similarities, and the real reason “why” any of us say any prayers suddenly struck me.
We may say different prayers in different places, with different forms in many different languages, but the real purpose of praying isn’t so much to “make contact” with some “distant heavenly being.” Rather, all our prayers and all our rituals are merely vehicles, tools, keys to open our hearts to the God abiding among us, to the ONE in whom all the many live and move and have our being.
Simply put, we say our prayers to open our hearts to LOVE.
I am reminded of a wise and powerful Sufi saying:
In my soul there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church,
where I kneel and pray.
Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.
On this Sunday morning I honor and respect the many different ways people may choose to pray. I honor those who will sit in church or temple pews, those who take off their shoes and sit in robes on the floor, those who choose to pray while sitting on a meditation mat or near a clear mountain lake or on an ocean beach. And my prayer is that all the prayers said or sung throughout the world today may indeed bring us all to an altar where we discover there are no walls between us.
Mahatma Ghandi once said:
In prayer it is better to have a heart without words
than words without a heart.
Whatever words you may use or not use to pray on this day, may you have an open heart.