Saturday, August 1, 2020

Prompt #357 – Silence in Which Another Voice May Speak

During these troubled and stressful times, I often hear the word prayer, perhaps more often in conversation than usual. People talk about praying for a Covid vaccine, for an end to civil unrest, an end to racism, and for peace within our country and around the world. I often see on social media, people offering to pray for one another for specific concerns. As member of the Secular Franciscan Order (formerly the Third Order of St. Francis) for almost 30 years, prayer is an integral part of my everyday life.

Regardless of your own spiritual association (church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other), I thought about you this week and about what prayer might mean to you.

Years ago, Fr. Alex Pinto (who celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination last year, and who has been my guide and inspiration for 30 years) taught me that there are essentially four types of prayer.

Prayers of Praise—when we acknowledge the greatness of the Divine Presence and declare the glory of that Presence.

Prayers of Thanksgiving—when we express our gratitude to Divinity for gifts and blessings we have received.

Prayers of Petition—when we present our special needs before the Divine Presence and ask for assistance.

Prayers of Contrition—when we ask the Divine Presence’s forgiveness for things we have done wrong.

Fr. Alex

Fr. Alex also taught that just as there are different types of prayer, there also exist different forms of prayer. The three most common are conversation, meditation, and contemplation. Conversation generally comes to us more easily; meditation and contemplation, especially, require more practice and perseverance.

Conversation – when we open our hearts to whatever deity we embrace and speak to that deity in thought and word.

Meditation – when we explore the presence of deity with our minds, bringing both deity and our needs into focus.

Contemplation – when we explore and enjoy our deity relationship with our minds, hearts, and spirits, often without conscious thoughts or words; a state of heightened and mystical awareness of the Infinite Being.

I recently came across two poems by Pulitzer Prizewinner Mary Oliver that seemed especially appropriate to our place in history. Although the poems are not traditional prayers, they possess a quality of prayer that resonated for me and which I hope will be meaningful for you. These poems originate in moments, embrace the natural world, and have an organic character that reminds me of spontaneous prayer. 

Oliver once said of prayer: "I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful, and ... almost involuntary in my life. And when I talk about prayer, I mean really ... what Rumi says in that wonderful line, ‘there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.’ I'm not theological, specifically, I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth [psalm]."

Mary Oliver


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

(Acknowledgment: “Praying” by Mary Oliver, from Thirst © Beacon Press, 2007)

I Happened To Be Standing

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

(Acknowledgment: "I Happened to be Standing" by Mary Oliver, from Devotions © Penguin Press, 2017.)

Click Here and Scroll to Sound Clip (red arrow) 
to Hear Mary Oliver Read "I Happened to be Standing"

Guidelines and Tips:

1. Whether you’re a “praying person” or not and whether or not you belong to an organized faith, it may be that you will find a measure of spiritual comfort in writing a poem that is, in some way, like a prayer.  Accordingly, the challenge for this prompt is to write a prayer poem. Before writing anything, read the Mary Oliver poems a couple of times and think about how she achieved something prayerful in them.

2. Next, spend some time thinking about the things that are going on in our country and in our world today.

3. What would you most like to change?

4. Look at the natural world around you and think about the beauty that exists in nature despite humanity’s failings and frailties.

5. Start writing by making a list of things for which you’d like to pray, or a list of things for which you already pray. Alternatively, you might find it helpful to start out with a prayer free write instead of a list. Your poem may be addressed to a particular deity or it may be addressed to a person.

6. Remember that your prayer poem does not have to be “religious.” What you’re working toward should be something spiritual but not necessarily based on the tenets of any religious tradition or thinking. This is not a restriction—your poem can be religious if you wish!

7. Allow yourself the freedom to write whatever you feel deeply.

8. Most importantly, be honest and sincere. Let yourself find the silence Mary Oliver wrote about—the silence in which another voice can speak.

9. You can bring your poem to closure with a simple “amen” if you wish, but that’s not necessary. (Amen is commonly used after a prayer or creed. It is spoken to express solemn ratification or agreement. It means “it is so” or “so it be” [so be it] and is derived a from a Hebrew word (see below) that means “certainty,” “truth,” and “verily.”  

10. In its simplest definition, prayer is a “conversation between the one who is praying and the one to whom the prayer is addressed.” Keep your poem simple. There are no definitive rules about content or format. Simply write whatever your heart tells you to write.


I pray that each of you will stay safe and be well.

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