Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Communal Prayer -- Individual Prayer

Alto Artist made a helpful comment on my prior post about prayer. She said "... I think of communal prayer differently; for me it's small, in a way. In a group I can lean on the thoughts of others; when my attention wanders, I still feel like the prayer is being carried by the people around me to wherever it has to go. But praying alone--sometimes it feels too intimidating, knowing that no one else but myself is responsible for what God hears at that moment.

Alto, bless you for this. Prayer is deeply nuanced by its setting; you are so right. There is a difference between communal and individual prayer for me too - most often, in my Christian faith tradition, communal prayers are part of the liturgy, so that great ribbon of formal prayer has been winding itself out Godward for centuries. Once in a while I grok the fact that my voice joins billions of others in timeless supplication. It is at that moment that the clouds slam together, and zillions of irridescent stars tumble out.

One of the other times I get that feeling most keenly is with my extended family at Passover Seder every year. As part of their (and now my extended) tradition, at one point in the evening's liturgy, the door is held open for the arrival of Elijah. Without fail each year I get this moving image of household doors being opened in Jewish homes around the world, like a travelling wave of earthly welcome. I get that we are all a part of something bigger, a larger reaching. The Passover Seder has a way of driving home that point every year -- perhaps because it is a liturgy about community and about joy.

Then there is silent communal prayer, which has a whole different tone to it, as the prayers are not formulaic. There we sit at worship, or in retreat, sharing intention, which is a very powerful thing to share. There is a huge difference between the way a quiet room feels and the way intentionally contemplative space feels.

In both of the above -- liturgical and silent communal prayer, I feel held, even embraced -- but also I feel limited. I know there are people who can pray with others and on their own at the same time, rather like those vocalists that appear on NPR occasionally who can sing whole chords at once. Or people who can rub their tummies and tap their heads at the same time.

I can't do that.

I am a one-note-at-a-time prayer person. I can pray melody, or I can pray harmony.

Then there is solitary prayer -- such a reedy thing, like the orchestra's piccolo. I wonder how my little prayer finds its way to God. It has to work its way through so much -- through the noise of cities, the rumbling of volcanoes, the music of millions of other prayers wending their way heavenward. I think there is so much going on, that my prayer will fall like autumn's last leaf, unnoticed at the foot of the heavenly throne. I feel the weakness, the vulnerability, the impossible nature of my prayer. But then something catches in my heart, and I pray and I pray and I pray.

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Blogger beth said...

Beautiful post.

11:34 PM  
Blogger The Harbour of Ourselves said...

as always very thoughtful and beautifully provocative. the best writing i came across about prayer was from my late friend mike yaconelli - he said this

i have always been terrible at praying
i forget
my mind wanders
i fall asleep
i don't pray enough
i don't understand what prayer is
or what prayer does

if prayer were school...
i would flunk praying

but prayer isn't school
it is mystery

maybe the mystery is...
jesus loves terrible prayers
when i can't think of anything to say, he says what i can't say
when i talk too much, he cherishes my too many words
when i fall asleep, he holds me in his lap and caresses my weary soul
when i am overwhelmed with guilt at my inconsistent, inadequate praying
he whispers, "your name is always on my lips"

I am filled with gratitude, my soul overflows with thankfulness and i...
i...find myself saying over and over again,
"thank you"
praying the mystery

thanks for the reminder, thank you

6:52 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

What a wonderful post.

I really like your sense of all the doors opening during seder around the world as a wave of blessing, a wave of welcoming, of which we are all a part.

9:00 PM  

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