One of my favorite forms of prayer is singing. Sister Alice Martin teaches gospel singing at Omega Institute, the conference and retreat center I co-founded. I have taken her workshops because, for me, singing Christian gospel music is like diving into an ocean of bliss. Sister Alice is an electrifying singer, songwriter and gospel choir leader. When she walks into a room, you sit up a little straighter. When she directs a group of people singing, you never take your eyes off of her. During her workshops, in between leading the group in song, Sister Alice talks about prayer. "Prayer is about being hopeful," she says. "It is not a phone call to God's hotline. It's not about waiting around for an answer you like, especially since sometimes the answer you're going to get is no!"
My favorite advice about prayer from Sister Alice is this: "If you are going to pray, then don't worry. And if you are going to worry, then don't bother praying. You can't be doing both." When I stop and listen closely to what's going on inside my head, I often hear the buzz of worry, like the drone of bees in a wall. That's when I remember Sister Alice's words of wisdom. What would I rather being doing, I ask myself, worrying or praying? I usually choose praying. It's a lot more fun than worrying.
To pray is to let go of your belief that you are in control of your life and to give it over to something more inclusive than your own point of view. It requires a leap of faith. Even if you have only the slightest sense that a higher power is at work in the world, you can still pray. You can name that gossamer belief "God" or not. You can pray to God, or you can pray to your own larger perspective—the part of you that trusts in the meaningfulness of life. I sometimes use Einstein's idea about solving problems when I pray. He said, "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it." My favorite prayer these days is, "Please show me a bigger perspective, a new consciousness."
Sometimes I pray using other peoples' words. Sometimes I pray in silence. Sometimes prayer feels to me like the last resort, an act of throwing up my hands and saying, "You take over now!" Sometimes it feels like a cry of hunger or thirst. Rumi says: "Don't look for water. Be thirsty." Prayer is allowing oneself to be thirsty; it is a longing for something we just cannot seem to find. The Sufis say that our longing for God is God's longing for us. In this way, prayer is like a conversation between friends separated across time and space.
One of the reasons I love prayer is because it is an antidote to guilt and blame. If we are unhappy with the way we have acted or have been treated, instead of stewing in self-recrimination on the one hand, or harboring ill will toward someone else on the other, prayer gives us a way out of the circle of guilt and blame. We bring our painful feelings out into the open and say, "I have done wrong" or "I have been wronged." And then we ask for a vaster view—one that contains within it all the forgiveness we need in order to move forward.
The power of prayer to overcome guilt