What if I don't know how to pray?

Often when people feel they don't know how to pray, it's because they haven't considered the possibility that they're already doing it.

The Divine Hours

A complete guide to the ancient practice of fixed-hour Prayer

Journeying Toward the Mystery

A step-by-step guide to centering prayer

Written by Lowell E. Grisham

A butterfly on a plant in someone's handReligions are threatening to tear our world apart. When John Lennon tried to Imagine a perfect world, he could only imagine it at peace if it were without religion.

Many people of good conscience have rejected religion because they see the damage it inflicts. It is not unreasonable to believe that religion is more of the problem than the solution.

And yet there is something in the depths of the human heart that yearns for a connection with something greater. There is a spiritual hunger that is quenched only by God, especially when mere religion is not enough.

At their best, all of the enduring religions of the world testify to that Something More, Something Deeper. And though we are separated by languages and beliefs about that Something More, there are some remarkable agreements.

Every enduring religion has a tradition of the experience of the divine through contemplative prayer. Maybe when we get beyond and below words, religions can heal their differences.

Contemplative practices are a place of connection among all religions and a potential source of wisdom for all people. Letting go and letting be are habits that bring peace to religious and non-religious alike. Silence is profound. The equanimity that comes when we experience the stillness of mind and sense is a universal experience.

The Maitri Upanishad describes it well: "There is something, beyond our mind which abides in silence within our mind. It is the supreme mystery beyond thought. Let one's mind and subtle body rest upon that and not rest on anything else." Contemplative practices seek to nurture our encounter with mystery. Contemplation is the inner journey toward that mystery. St. Augustine says that God is "more intimate to us than we are to ourselves," or as the Koran observes, "nearer to us than our jugular vein."

For me, the practice of Christian contemplative prayer has been the most satisfying individual discipline I've experienced. Sadly, many people who have grown up in the Christian Church don't even realize that we have contemplative traditions. Maybe that is why so many Westerners have been attracted to the spiritual practices of the East. I think contemplative prayer is a meeting place between East and West and an instrument of healing among the various religions.

Let me share with you my contemplative practice of Centering Prayer. It is grounded in the fourteenth century teaching of The Cloud of Unknowing, updated for modern use by several Trappist monks including Thomas Keating. For more info, visit contemplativeprayer.com.

Guidelines for Centering Prayer
First choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within. What word you choose isn't important; it is merely a tool to symbolize your intention. If another word doesn't come to you, I suggest shalom.

Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, keeping your back straight. Settle briefly. Silently, and very gently, introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God's presence and action within.

Whenever you become aware of thoughts, return very gently to the sacred word. In this prayer, "thoughts" is an umbrella term for every perception including sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, reflections, et cetera. Use little effort when returning to your sacred word. If you are not distracted by thoughts, the sacred word may become vague or even disappear. Let it go.

At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with your eyes closed for a couple of minutes. I have a tape with 30 minutes of silence followed by gentle music to end the prayer. Sometimes I use a timer. Practitioners suggest that twenty minutes is a minimum to experience inner silence.

I've found this to be a profound practice. It has changed me. Silently, below the level of my thoughts and feelings, I am being healed and made more whole. I can't tell it, but my wife can.

The experience of this prayer opens up space in my consciousness. I am more present; more accepting; more whole.

You can find similar practices in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Nature Religions, and virtually every other living religious tradition. Medical practitioners are even prescribing secular versions of this practice for their patients.

What if the Wisdom traditions of all of the religions began to connect on the basis of what we share in common, things like contemplative practices? Couldn't we heal the religious divisions that threaten our world? Maybe. But it starts with each of us. Try some practice of contemplation; see if it doesn't heal some of your own divisions. Peace can only begin with each of us.

Copyright ©2006 Lowell Grisham