It is my habit to open and close each sermon with a prayer. They are somewhat formulaic prayers and generally are quite detached from the rest of the sermon. I have preached about prayer before in Prayer and Your Own Personal Anthropomorph, but, especially as the former is the single most popular sermon to date (at 119 views, if you're interested), it seems a reasonable thing to explain myself, and this practice, a little further. I'm sure it won't be the last time I discuss it.
Prayer is a practice that is simple, undemanding and effective in cultivating focus, direction and will in our lives. It is not magic. It's not telepathically communicating with a disembodied sentience. It is a practice which uses the everyday power of words, formulated as conversation between oneself and one's reality, as a means to 'tune', 'program' or just focus the mind on the job at hand - life ongoing. I find it very helpful and I propose that it may be helpful to people of any ideology, theoretically (it may not be to their taste) even an atheistic one.
Prayer in my understanding is not something that was invented but is, in its essence, an evolved function of mind, or at least the seat of the object of prayer is an evolved function of mind. In practice, throughout history and throughout a given biography, it manifests itself in very diverse ways. The term I have candidly used for the cerebral equipment of prayer is the 'IF (imaginary friend) function'. Although a somewhat playful term, the imaginary friends common among children are examples of the function in practice, in this view.
A more traditional terminology which might be helpful to grasp what the act of prayer is, is microcosm and macrocosm.
The idea of and relationship between mikrokosmos and makrokosmos goes back in the West to the Neoplatonists but also has a strong parallel in Taoism. The Greek means, essentially, 'small world' and 'large world', and the idea has been used variously as an epitomic description of any smaller system which reflects in its nature and workings a larger system of which the smaller system is a part. These days we will most likely encounter the schema in sociology.
In religion and mysticism the microcosm/macrocosm formula is taken to its logical, almost mathematical conclusion as Self/God or Self/All, self (or 'source') being, in mysticism, equivalent in some way to the whole. In neoplatonism the person is sort of a summary of kosmos, which is a compelling meditation at least, but I don't want to get trippy here. The insight is simply that a conscious self is obliged to have, with the cerebral equipment available, a relationship with reality, a reality which is infinitely bigger than us but whose entire accessible existence is inside our own heads. It is good if the relationship is harmonious and positive. It is an essential social fact that the manner of engaging reality is shared with others (starting with language).
'Focus on Everything' is a kind of oxymoron of course, and only made more difficult as we have no firm idea of Everything's shape, colour or structure. I'm not saying it is difficult to conceive of as such - the idea is accessible to anyone - but unlike any form of idol it is a slippery concept to hold in mind. Also unlike any form of idol it is a perfect focus, transcendent in a kind of hyper-reality. Everything is complete and, although prayer to any idol may be helpful in the sorts of ways I'm speaking of, the spiritual theory here is that we are completed by engagement with the most complete, uncarved object possible, and that the most effective practice of prayer is to Everything.
Another way to put it is that an object of prayer is to hone our intuition, and praying to anything less that Everything is risking leaving something important out of our intuitive aperture. The nature of intuition is that it makes use of information that we don't necessarily have conscious access to, and hence we don't know where that information has come from, or what it will be needful to notice. We can help the quality of intuition by practice but we can't pre-empt it.
The other major advantage of Everything as our object, our ghost in the IF as it were, is that It is the god we all share no matter what and, in the face of Everything, we are all about as equal as it is as statistically possible to be. Everything awaits humanity, albeit as a mere potentiality, as the ultimate object of universal solidarity. That in itself might be a good reason to turn our attention away from idols and superstition: nature is, implicitly, the universal object of comprehension.
My own practice of prayer changes and develops from month to month and it really has only about six or seven years of erratic development. But I am letting my imagination as to what is possible with prayer get ahead of my practice in a way, and at the same time I am certain that every individual's effective practice of prayer is going to be unique. Broadly I recommend be casual, comfortable and completely honest (obviously; dishonestly would be a bit pointless). But for the sake of example and possible inspiration, allow me to parse the following prayer, the formula of which will be familiar to regular readers of my sermon as it is generally the basis of the opening prayer. I do also use it as a sort of simple mantra.
Help me to do thy will.
The, "Hello" - the acknowledgement of Everything - is, especially with practice, a type of reset button for the mind. Possibly its effectiveness is explained as simply as Everything mentally, however momentarily, obliterating the relevance of every other feature of reality. Ideally it is a rapid path to stillness, or at least a good, quick approximation of mental stillness with which to continue in prayer.
Especially at first I think, when you are first asking your mind to even conceptualise the single whole which is Everything as its object, some annotations and even repetitions might be helpful. Let the words do the work: Universe, Nature, Reality, Ineffable Infinite, Totality of All Things, All, Macrocosm of Macrocosms, The Highest, Largest, Most Complex Entity, the Greatest Conceivable Conception, 'God' if you like. I use the term Everything or Every for short, but if I find myself failing to concentrate - failing to actually address Everything as the object in my conversation - I still fall back on using various words until I think I'm actually addressing The Lot.
It's an ongoing practice, almost a game I play with my mind. Maybe it's just me but, a) it's kind of hard to address Everything and, b) it's immensely satisfying, and strangely compelling, when I find that I am doing so.
On the other hand 'Hello', or some acknowledgement, may also be seen as a mere punctuation with which to call one's mind to the mode of prayer, just as 'Amen' might be seen as a signing off from the mode of prayer. I am attempting to give my suggestions some substance, but they remain suggestions, is what I am trying to say.
I remain mostly at a loss to explain the purpose in prayer of gratitude, but for me it came second to saying, "Hello," and I have found it essential to my practice. "Thank you." Alone in my view, thanks is prayer enough, and implicitly feeds us perspective, humility and grace. But this is also where you can start taking notes about things you value, if you want. Thank you for our loved ones, our environment, our jobs, our freedoms, but mostly, for my money, for our lives, health (if we have it) and consciousness. I also often thank Every for Logos.
Another way to 'take notes' in prayer is to entreat Everything to bless. People - 'family', 'friends' or names, peace in the Middle East, whatever is important to you. Just to reiterate, yes, the idea that Everything might 'bless' something is a metaphor, an expression in words of hope that things will go well. The objective is to tune ones mind, at strategic times like before we go to bed or before we embark on an endeavour, to the things which are important to us, hopefully at the expense of things we simply shouldn't be being distracted by.
"Help me to do thy will." Ouch. I know. "The will of God"? What in hell do I mean by that!? Before I attempt to answer I should stress that no prayer is going to 'work' if you're not comfortable with what it is meaning to you. The meaning - the stuff in your head that the words prick - is the thing, not the words. Nevertheless, I shall explain what I mean by "The Will of Everything," and why I find the prayer, as well as the related prayer, "Thy will be done," helpful.
Firstly it recognises the immovability of fate. If the Earth does get hit by a comet, so be it - the universe has bigger plans than just us. But although the direction of the universe must remain unknown to me, I do suspect it has one. I have some suspicions, based on my experience in the place, that the universe does show some direction. I have some pretty firm suspicions about what it might be too but, whatever it is, I want to participate in furthering that direction rather than working against it.
As I write these paragraphs about "the will of Every" I am noting that the idea requires a full treatment, but in brief here are the suspicions I have about the will (a metaphor for the natural, dialectical direction) of Every. I am guiltily thankful that my main source for dialectical naturalism is deceased, as Murray Bookchin, a socialist revolutionary and an atheist, would be horrified at my use of it.
The universe appears to want to become more complex and to become alive. Beyond that we only have our local version of Darwinian evolution to refer to, but I suspect there is such a process in other parts of the universe and it is my bias that it is these living planets that are the jewels of creation - rare, precarious and mind-bogglingly complex and beautiful. And yes, Earth is the only one we can be sure of so far. Even in the full context of Everything, the Earth is a precious place.
But it doesn't stop at life and ecological development. That would be sublime and precious enough. There appears to be a direction in evolution, driven by biological imperatives (evolution), toward not merely greater complexity and diversity, but toward greater sentience, self-consciousness and wilfulness. Humans are often heard to put themselves down, but in this view humans are, in the context of Everything and what it's apparently trying to do, the single most important species we know about. You may call this 'anthropocentric', but if self-consciousness is the direction of the universe, the natural direction, then my anthropocentrism has an objective base. The loss of the human species in this view would not be trivial but would put our planet's evolution back hundreds of millions of years. Mind you, the principle I'm getting at makes all species extremely important, especially as we recognise the insights of ecology.
What we're observing goes beyond the biological evolution of consciousness as well. Apparently humans along with many creatures have become conscious only in complex colonies and these, in humanity's case, have over time slowly become one large community with an extraordinary communication system. All of this is, I suspect, the natural direction of the universe.
But if that is so it might follow that it is the long term metaphoric 'will' of Everything for us to be at peace and to solve our problems. History is certainly not over and in terms of the world's future political organisation I can barely speculate. But a dialectical view of history and a scientific understanding of human society - both ongoing projects of human logos - can certainly give us clues. Such research and meditation can also show us which pathways will lead us to hell. It certainly appears, for example, that not only is renewable energy the way for the world to go for its energy needs, but that the technology is coming just in the nick of time. The only real assumption I think I'm making is that Everything does have a way for us. It's our duty at this point to find it.
And if, as I suspect is an objective potentiality, the world does become a single interconnected conscious system, sustainable and at peace, then, I suspect by inference to reality so far that the task for that universal mind will only then become clearer. At this time I have no idea what it might be except to speculate something profound like, "For Every to know Itself", but I pray that the will of Every be done, and that the project, whatever it actually is, not be interrupted either by cosmic accident or by our own intransigent stupidity.
Once again the words of the prayer don't matter as much as the actual meanings you are exercising by use of the words. For me, "Thy will be done" simply expresses that although I cannot entirely know what is for the best, I wish to have my shoulder behind it and, if my conscious mind fails, I hope my intuitions and spontaneous actions may, overall in the dance of life, lead to the good. Take it or leave it, but that's what it means to me.
'Amen' is, of course, traditional. It means, "so be it." I just like it.
In a sense practice has nothing to do with religion or the House of Every. That is, spiritual practices can be and are practiced by millions of people without the need for a religious identity, institution or place of gathering and worship. Good ideas might come from anywhere, and if it happens that someone picks up the practice of prayer from this sermon, they don't need the House of Every to develop the practice.
But praying - expressing to Everything gratitude, hopes and fears in words - may be a social activity as well and, although here I only have my Christian experience to draw from, it is my conviction that this could be a powerful, unifying, focussing collective practice. Time may tell.
According to Augustine, a song is worth two prayers. If there was ever a songwriter who produced prayers, it is Leonard: