I have a friend who says that she doesn't pray, but she lights candles for friends in need and causes she cares about. She is lighting candles for peace in the Middle East. She doesn't view lighting candles as a substitute for action, but rather as a significant complement to it.
When I ask her why she lights the candles, she says two things: "I'm holding it up to the universe" and "I'm holding it up to the Light."
It seems to me that she is sending her feelings to God, or at least to God as understood in process theology. God is the Light and Love of the universe. She doesn't expect a miracle to occur, but she does feel like her candle-lighting becomes part of something more than herself that somehow, in some way, takes her prayer into account. Something that feels it and is good. This something is the universe and it is the Light.
I understand why she doesn't call it prayer. Her sister is a fundamentalist Christian and thinks of God as a self-contained lawgiver and judge: a policeman in the sky. So do many of her friends. This image of God doesn't make sense to her, and she knows many people who have been hurt by it. She associates prayer with this image. I don't try to convince her to call lighting candles prayer. Why do that? The universe and the Light are enough.
But when I see her do it, I can't help but think of prayer. I guess this is because I'm so influenced by process theology, In process theology God and the universe are not so separate. God, the living whole of the universe, is a consciousness in which the universe unfolds. When we see the universe around us, we are seeing God's body. It is not a body that God can completely control, but it is part of God's life. The universe is akin to an embryo unfolding in a sky-like and womb-like mind: a living whole.
And this living whole is indeed Light and Love. It is Light in that it is a non-coercive lure toward well-being for the world and each creature within it. And it is love in that it is a receptacle for all the worlds joys and sufferings: a deep listening that feels the feelings of each creature with a tender care that nothing be lost. This Light and Love can shine through the world in moments of beauty and kindness. And also in acts of courage and joy. Wherever there is goodness of this sort, we see the Light and Love. But it is not all-powerful or all-controlling. It needs us.
If we wish, we can address the Deep Listening as You. We can say "I love you" and "I need you" and "Help" and "Thanks" and "Wow." We can also say "I'm sorry" and "Please forgive me" and "I know that I'm a mess, but please accept me anyway." We can be human in the presence of this Light and Love, this living and sacred whole. But we need not personify it if that doesn't make sense to us. It is enough to say Light and Love. But we can also say You if we wish. We can pray to something or someone that is not a bully in the sky, but that is everywhere at once, and loves us.
If prayer means communicating with God, then, in my view, my friend is indeed praying. I believe she would resonate with these three quotes from Anne Lamott in 'Help, Thanks, Wow':
'Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.' — Anne Lamott
'Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something.' — Anne Lamott
'Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken… Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.' — Anne Lamott
I thought about giving my friend Ann Lamott's book. I thought she might like this quirky and talented writer who means so much to so many. But I decided against it. I don't sense that, at present, she needs to think of the universe as having a mind or soul. It's enough to say Light and Love. No, more than enough. It's plenty.
- Jay McDaniel
Ann Lamott on Prayer
1. “Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” — Anne Lamott
2. "Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something.” — Anne Lamott
3. Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken… Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.” — Anne Lamott
4, “When we are stunned to the place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere… when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until it’s down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is ‘Wow,’ that’s a prayer.” — Anne Lamott
5. “Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises.” — Anne Lamott
6. “Art makes it hard to ignore truth, that Life explodes and blooms, consumed, rots and radiates and slithers; that eternity really is in a blade of grass.” — Anne Lamott
7. “Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath.” — Anne Lamott
8. “Awe is why were are here. And this state is the prayer: ‘Wow.’” — Anne Lamott
9. “Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.” — Anne Lamott
10. “We are saved by memories of love and beauty—maybe there’s more of that to come, if we keep on keeping on.” — Anne Lamott
* These quotes are from "21 Quotes about Faith from Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott" by Jennifer Healy
Two Kinds of Prayer
In historical Christianity, there are two kinds of prayer which are woven together in the quotes above: addressive prayer and contemplative prayer.
Addressive prayer is the act of addressing God, with the feeling that someone is listening. It can take the form of praise, contrition, hope, lamentation, confession, seeking guidance, or petition.
In "Help, Thanks, Wow," Lamott speaks of three attitudes from which it can originate: a sense of powerlessness, gratitude, and amazement.
Contemplative prayer, on the other hand, does not involve addressing God or seeking guidance from God. It is about resting in silent, attentive awareness, with a sense of divine presence as a companion and listener. It is about being "with" God in the immediacy of the moment.
Contemplative prayer can take two forms: contemplation of nature, where we feel "with" God through the presence of the natural world, including human life, seeing it as a window through which divine light shines, and contemplation of God, where we feel with God as an inclusive presence, even apart from the world.
Process theology offers a way of thinking that can appreciate all of these forms, but my focus below is on addressive prayer and the question Who is Listening? I want to suggest that the one addressed, the one who is listening when we speak in silence, is God as the living whole of the universe.
- Jay McDaniel
Shifting the Paradigm of Prayer
Dear God, please help me. Dear God, thank you. Dear God, it’s all so sad. Dear God, it’s all so beautiful. Dear God, are you listening? Can you hear me? Is anyone listening?
Process theology answers yes: someone is listening. It offers a deeply personal perspective on God, conceiving of God as a fellow sufferer who feels the emotions of each and all, continuously and with tender care. But who or what is this Someone? And where is it? The Living Whole of the Universe
Here is where process theologians might perplex those who envision this Someone as a discrete entity standing over or above the universe, separated from the world by a gap. This view of God is substantialist, treating God on the analogy of a giant billiard ball in the sky, separated from the world by the boundaries of divine transcendence.
In contrast, many process theologians see God as the living whole of the universe, or in Whitehead's terminology, the "concrescence" of the universe. In this sense God is everywhere, and not located above the world.
In order to understand this point of view, it is best to recognize that own minds, too, are concrescences of the universe. We are not simply located in our bodies or our brains, we experientially connected to the world around us through our feelings, perceptions, memories, and reflections, such that the world itself is part of us. True, we are also located in our bodies. But we are also located in our friends and family, in those we love and also in those we hate. They are inside our minds and hearts, even as they are outside our bodies. They are “inside” us through our acts of concrescence.
An act of concrescence occurs when, in the immediacy of a given moment, we feel, perceive, remember and think about the presence of the world around us such that, in the very act of feeling and perceiving, the many entities of the world “become one” in us. The many things are "together" in our experience; and our act of experiencing them is how they are together. They are inside our experience even if they are external to our bodies.
And so it is, suggest process theologians, with God, except God does not have a localized body but instead includes all regions of the time-space continuum. God is the concrescence of the universe: an ongoing activity of feeling the emotions of everything that happens and, in the process of feeling them, gathering them into unity. God is the mind of the universe or, better, the heart of the universe. This act of gathering, of feeling, is the One who hears prayers when we pray.
Shifting the Paradigm of Prayer
When people hear the term "prayer," they often associate it with supplication or petition, asking God to intervene and bring about changes in the world that wouldn't happen without prayer. Process theology departs from this traditional model of prayer towards a more dynamic and relational understanding. This paradigm shift manifests in four key ways:
Co-creation: Instead of merely asking God to act, co-creation involves partnering with God to shape the ongoing process of becoming. It's an active participation in the unfolding of events, collaborating with the divine to shape our reality.
Deep listening: This is the act of opening ourselves to the presence and influence of God, akin to a deep listening where the universe reveals itself. It involves quieting our minds, tuning into the divine, and being receptive to subtle guidance and insights. It acknowledges the existence of an eternal companion, omnipresent, sharing in the experiences of all sentient beings.
Communion: Recognizing the world as God's body doesn't imply that God can do whatever God pleases. Instead, it signifies that the world is part of God's own life, an integral aspect of God's diversity. Opening oneself to the web of life is opening oneself to God, acknowledging our place in the grand scheme, interdependence, and fostering a sense of belonging.
Compassion: This facet of prayer allows us to share our vulnerabilities, finding solace in the knowledge that we are not alone. It's about opening our hearts to the suffering of others, extending empathy, and discovering comfort in shared experiences.
In this way, process theology reframes prayer from a one-way request line to a dynamic, interactive, and relational practice that deepens our connection with the divine and the world around us. It encourages us to engage more fully, listen more deeply, connect more authentically, and love more compassionately. This shift transforms prayer from a monologue into a dialogue, from a solitary act into a communal experience, and from a passive plea into an active co-creation. This enriches our spiritual lives and enhances our understanding of prayer.