Evangelicalism taught me how to pray using my own words; agnosticism taught me to pray using community; paganism taught me to pray in and through nature; and Lutheranism taught me how to pray using a liturgy. So many traditions all woven together to form a rather spectacular tapestry within me. And even with all of these colourful prayer rugs hooked together in this patchwork quilt, prayer has often been the first thing to go in my own life.
So often, I can’t pray.
Whatever it is I need, prayer seems too trite, too lofty, too ignorant, too demanding of trust, too idealistic, or too needy. Often times, I need tangible expressions of love and assurance of presence and, let’s face it, God often doesn’t really manifest that way in prayer. It’s easy to become cynical and disillusioned when prayer becomes little more than an exercise in futility.
It’s not even so much that I treat God as the Almighty Gumball Machine. Sure, it would be helpful if my bank account didn’t register “$0.00”, or if Trump would be knocked off of his throne; but prayer, at least as I understand it, is a practice that transforms me in my relationship with God. Privately and communally, it is a discipline that opens my entire self up to connecting with the Source of all Life.
No wonder the dark nights of the soul are so fiercely black. To be unable to perceive love or relationship from the Source of Love itself leaves us hollow and terribly vulnerable. If we can’t find love with God, where else can we go?
Calvin Miller in his book “The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy” describes six common prayer practices observed by Celtic Christians that shaped their ancient world in ways that nurtured life rather than drained it. Living in a time with high infant mortality, a shorter life span, plagues, invasions, and low literacy, fuelling an intense spirituality was a crucial component to their way of life. Miller writes, “In desperate times, living becomes an altar where you pray and sing because the only good news of the day is that God lives longer than you do.” (P.17)
These practices aren’t guarantees to spice up my prayer life; they aren’t going to magically invoke God’s secret superpowers; and they likely won’t answer the many questions I have about life, death, God, and why the new neighbors host noisy ATV rallies up and down the roads on every long weekend.
What they are able to do is create space for me to practice communicating with God. Even on the smallest scale, I can be present within the reality that there are forces greater than I in this universe, forces that know more than I do, feel more than I do, see more than I do, and love more than I do. Creating a working space for me to exercise and flex my spirit with these forces can pave the way for transformation.Even transformation as small as a mustard seed.
1. Trinity Prayer
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit…different forms, aspects, and mysteries of God in the Christian tradition that is both unexplainable and experiential. The Celts prayed in Triune prayers — to all three faces of God. The movement of three in spiritual traditions from around the world is ancient as time itself. Creator, Christ, and Spirit; maiden, mother, crone; heart, mind, and body. The aspects of Three pervade our senes of consciousness in the world and within ourselves. Why would we ignore it in our prayers?
God the Father, as Miller writes, receives the grandiose prayers; God-as-Jesus gets our relational prayers; and the Spirit is often ignored. What might happen if we engage the different mysteries of God at all times? At least, the mysteries we perceive about God?
2. Scripture Prayer
This practice mirrors similar traditions I was taught in evangelicalism. Discovering passages of Scripture that can be learned by heart, and then praying them through conversation or recitation helps centre me in the reality that these words have been spoke for millennia.
Miller notes that the Celtic Christians often looked to Psalm 119 or the Gospels for their Scripture prayers. I’ve found that most of the Psalms are excellent here in terms of a grounding practice — honest, raw, terrifying and uplifting.
3. Long, Wandering Prayer
Pilgrimages taken without a specific destination or route in mind (peregrinatio) were common in the Celtic world. The Spirt would guide the feet or the coracle, as well as the wind blowing the pilgrim to where God would have the person go. It is prayer embodied in action.
I might not have the freedom to pull up all stakes and set out on a lifelong pilgrimage, but I might try lacing up the boots, donning a sun hat, and setting out without a destination in mind for an hour, an afternoon, even a day. While conversing with God along the way, opening myself up to the Spirit without agenda, who might I meet? Where might I end up? How is God already existing in the world?
4. Nature Prayer
The Celts blended paganism with Christianity in ways often demonized by the church. It’s a tragedy because natural spirituality, often branded as paganism, has so much wisdom and life to offer. Discovering the divine in a pool of water or in the way a flower manages to grow between the cracks of a sidewalk in a sprawling city connects us not only to who we are but what we are — dust and animation. Spending time intentionally discovering God in nature is not only transformative to who we are, it quite literally brings us back to our roots.
5. Lorica Prayer
The breastplates. St. Patrick’s Lorica is probably the most well-known:
“…I bind me today,
God’s might to direct me,
God’s power to protect me,
God’s wisdom for learning,
God’s eye for discerning,
God’s ear for my hearing,
God’s word for my clearing…”
These were prayers of protection often physically bound to a person. The Celts knew how utterly vulnerable they were in the world. With so much beyond human control, acknowledging the need for protection and deliverance was a crucial feature of Celtic prayer.
Often in my technologically-saturated world, I don’t need God; I have Google. I don’t need God; I have WebMD. I don’t need God; I have a pill. I’m not suggesting we eschew modern technology or medicine. Rather, I’m suggesting that perhaps a practice that highlights our need of God is a very good thing. It reminds me that I am not the all-powerful force in the universe and that, by asking for help, I submit to a Spirit greater than my own.
6. Confessional Prayer
We don’t like confession. Anything that hints at the possibility of humans being sinful is offensive to our recovering sensibilities. If you’re like me, it’s not so much denying our imperfections and brokenness as it is escaping judgmental doctrines that branded beautiful and holy aspects of ourselves as evil.
Leaving immature faith behind, learning to confess our imperfections, our need, our brokenness, our flaws, failures, and faults to God is healthy. The old adage “confession is good for the soul” rings true — when we verbalize our shortcomings with the intent of taking ownership for them, connection and community are strengthened. Healing begins. Not only that, but we are reminded of our own smallness, our place in the vast universe.
Six practices to help me engage myself, God, and others in ways that form connection and perhaps that deeply sought after illumination. Remembering that a practice is a practice and not perfection, I can rest assured that these forms of divine communication bear no rightness or wrongness about them. Love bears the weight and mass of my timidity and rashness as I enter divine space; and love shapes and crafts my silence, my words, and my life.