"The End in Peace"
- Sunset at the Desert Retreat House -
The other day as I was browsing through the bookcases in my office, I was struck by the many “prayer books” I have accumulated over the years. Since I come from a “liturgical” tradition in the Christian church, I suppose this shouldn’t be all that surprising since we have prayers, rituals and blessings for every time of day and all seasons of the the year – many words for all occasions.
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” and easily lose sight of “why” the prayers are being said.
As I looked at my many prayer books, I called to mind a time back several years ago when I probably learned more about saying prayers than I ever had before in my life - interestingly enough I learned this from a community of Buddhists monks.
Several years ago when I was traveling in South Korea, a Korean friend and colleague took me to visit a local Buddhist monastery. When we arrived at the site, the monks were all assembled in their shrine, gathered together for regular daily prayers, so we took off our shoes as directed and we joined them.
At first I was almost “frightened” by being there because it all seemed so very foreign to what I normally experienced while I was in church. Several ornate statues of the Buddha looked down on us as 100 monks with heads shaved and dressed in saffron robes were seated barefoot on the floor chanting a mantra in a language that I could not understand. My first instinct was to flee to safer and more familiar territory – maybe find a nearby church.
As we “settled in” and I “settled down” I began to relax and go with the flow of what was going on. So, 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 – I pray that peace may be upon me, upon others and upon the world, I just use different words and different rituals.
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.
The underlying purpose of praying isn’t so much to “make contact” with some “distant heavenly being.” Rather, all our many words, all our prayers, all the chanted mantras and all our rituals are merely keys to open our hearts to the energy of “God” abiding among us. Our prayers 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.
Today I honor and respect the many different ways people may choose to pray. I honor those who sit in church or temple pews, those who take off their shoes and sit in robes on the floor, those who choose to pray positioned on a meditation mat or while sitting near a clear mountain lake or in a desert as the sun goes down. I honor those who use many words, those who use few words, and those who use no words at all when they pray.
My prayer is that all the prayers said or sung throughout the world this day may indeed bring us all to an altar where we discover there are no walls between us.
Mahatma Gandhi once said:
In prayer it is better to have a heart without words
than words without a heart.