Krista's Journal: A Richer Texture of Prayer and Contemplation

December 28, 2006

Prayer is as old as time and as vast as human experience, found in every culture across history. Counter-intuitively perhaps, prayer is a far more common bond among Americans than religious faith itself. In overwhelming numbers, Americans say that they pray, whether they are religious or non-religious, devout or agnostic. In this week's program, we do not begin to "cover" the subject of prayer, but I think we open it up. I'll devote most of this reflection to eloquent words that are spoken or quoted in this hour of radio — Rainer Maria Rilke, Roberta Bondi, Patricia Hampl, and Stephen Mitchell. I can't quote my first guest, Anoushka Shankar, because her approach to prayer comes in chant and song and simply must be heard in her voice. It is a wonderful introduction to Hindu theology as well a glimpse inside a lovely life. The four voices in this hour could not be more different. Taken together they suggest a far broader and richer definition of prayer than the public, politicized notion that sometimes divides us in cultural and legal battles. Perhaps because I am so averse to that kind of distortion, I am a great lover of the earthy philosophy of prayer of the theologian Roberta Bondi — whom I'll quote here first.

"We often have a kind of notion, as part of this highfalutin, noble picture of ourselves as pray-ers, that when we pray we need to be completely attentive and we need to be fully engaged and we need to be concentrating and we need to be focused. But the fact is, if prayer is our end of a relationship with God, that's not the way we are with the people we love a large portion of the time. We simply are in their presence. We're going about our lives at the same time in each other's presence, aware and sustained by each other, but not much more than that? However we are, however we think we ought to be in prayer, the fact is we just need to show up and do the best we can do. It's like being in a family." —Roberta Bondi

"If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action, God will hear everything that he asks." —A saying of Abba Zeno, from the sayings of The Desert Fathers

"[The French philosopher Simone Weil said, 'Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.'] I love that. I think that could be as close as someone can get to a wonderful definition of prayer. In that sense, prayer has nothing spiritual or religious about it. A mathematician working at a problem or a little kid trying to pick out scales on the piano is a person at prayer. She's not saying prayer is absolute unmixed attention; it's the other way. The attention itself is the quality that she wants to call prayer. So whatever context you're putting it in, whether it's inside a church or inside a toy box, that's the quality that is the sacred one." —Translator Stephen Mitchell

"I love you, gentlest of Ways, who ripened us as we wrestled with you. You, the great homesickness we could never shake      off, you, the forest that always surrounded us, you, the song we sang in every silence, you dark net threading through us, on the day you made us you created yourself, and we grew sturdy in your sunlight… Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you." —Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

"Prayer only looks like an act of language; fundamentally it is a position, a placement of oneself. Focus. Get there, and all that's left to say is the words. They come: from ancient times, from the surprisingly eloquent heart, from the gush and chatter of the day's detail longing to be rendered. So what is silence? Silence speaks, the contemplatives say. But really, I think, silence sorts. An ordering instinct sends people into the hush where the voice can be heard." —Patricia Hampl, excerpted from Virgin Time

Recommended Reading

Image of Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
Publisher: Riverhead Books (1997)
Binding: Paperback, 166 pages

There are so many books and CDs I could recommend on this subject, and our Web site this week includes an extended list of works referenced by our guests. Approaching prayer is such an individual process, a matter both of tradition and of temperament. Here I'll single out a book of beautiful, challenging and evocative poems/prayers that speak to many, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy's translation of Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.

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is a musician, actress, and author of Bapi, The Love of My Life.

is the author and translator of many books, including the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita.

is professor emeritus of Church History at Emory University and author of A Place to Pray.