Praying in the Morning
Yesterday, my friend Elise asked me if I prayed in the mornings and if so, whether I used formal, set prayers, or prayed extempore, in a more conversational format. I thought it a very good question and asked her permission to recap her question and my response here, which she generously gave.
I am not, in any sense of the word, a morning person. My natural bio-rhythms ideally have me waking at about ten am, working till two am or so, and then going to bed. I can make some adjustments for work, but it tends to have an immediate and largely negative effect on my health and mood (1). I’ve learned to accommodate diurnal scheduling to a degree over the years but I hate it. Years ago when I lived in Queens, the majority of my kindred all lived within walking distance and for about six months we met every
bloody morning at six am (we all worked in the city mind you, so we had to catch the train in) to do a morning liturgy. It was lovely, nourishing, and damn near killed me. So, while I would like to keep monastic hours, treating my day as an interlocking circle of prayer in which I exist constantly praising my Gods, it is a goal and hasn’t happened yet. I do pray when I awaken, but it tends to vacillate between a garbled “arrrrrrgggghhh, gah, consciousness, grrrr…hail to the Gods and my dead” or a formal prayer like “Sigdrifa’s Prayer.” My more intensely focused prayer happens later in the day, and then before bed I usually pray for an hour or sometimes two (2). I feel bad about that though, and more and more, I’ve been trying to at least make a prayer the first thing out of my mouth when I wake, if not “Sigdrifa’s Prayer,” than this one that I wrote:
Hail to the Gods and Goddesses!
Your grace illumines all things.
Your gifts shine forth
making fruitful nine mighty worlds.
Blessed are those that serve You.
Blessed are those that seek You out
Holy Powers, Makers of all things,
bless and protect us in Your mercy.
Lead us along the twisting pathways of our wyrd,
and when it is time, guide us safely along the Helroad (3).
I really would like to develop the discipline of greeting the day with more fully formed prayers and even a ritual though – it’s a life goal. That being said, when I told all this to Elise, it led to a discussion of what is better: formal or informal prayer. She did not grow up in a religious family (nor in fact, in this country where we are exposed to religion somewhat simply by virtue of the nature of American culture) and formal prayers (set prayers, like the one above, or in Catholicism, the “hail Mary” or “our Father” prayers), she said, felt stilted and awkward. For her, praying was sitting in front of her shrine and immersing herself in the Presence of the Deity in question and …talking. That is lovely. That is what many people who practice prayer aspire to achieve. But, the two forms of prayer (formal and extempore) are not mutually exclusive. They reinforce each other, the formal prayers providing a scaffolding around which one weaves conversation, meditation, contemplating, and direct experience (4). Eventually, they should both lead to the same place: immersion in the presence of the Gods.
Each type of prayer has its pros and its cons. With formal prayers, the pros involve having this baseline that is easy to drop into regardless of what’s going on with one’s life. You know what to say and that it is going to be appropriate and respectful. This type of prayer often re-articulates and reifies our cosmology and the divine order undergirding it, so it is a word-act, a volitional articulation of and alliance with the Gods and the order They have created and that They sustain. It’s a means for us to participate in sustaining it too. Because one isn’t having to think about what to say, it allows the mind to focus on the Gods and Their mysteries, and from there, it is possible to have a powerful contemplative experience. Formal prayers also serve to remind us that there is an implicit hierarchy here, no matter how friendly a relationship with the Gods we may have in our devotional lives: this is not a relationship of equals and that’s a good thing. What a wondrous thing that we can have a devotional relationship with one of the Holy Powers, what a transformative thing!
Finally, for newcomers, particularly those who don’t know how to pray, formal prayers are excellent teaching tools, both for conveying some level of doctrine, but also for teaching one how to do this thing called prayer. I often find that those just learning to pray are often afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, or they feel awkward, or they don’t know how to pray and just stall themselves not knowing where to go or what to do. That’s all normal. Even people raised in religious households may experience this and all of us can use a refresher on how to pray well. With formal prayers, one can hit a groove that in the best case scenarios, represents a prayer prayed by generations of the devout. (We’ll get there, never fear).
The cons to formal prayer is that it can seem boringly repetitive and it’s easy for it to just become rote verbal repetition. The key is to train the mind to look at each word, each sentence as a word-knot to be untangled by the mind, to look at the prayers as a rhythm aligning us with the will and architecture of the Gods, carrying us into direct contemplation. It takes discipline and practice and there are days where it’s more of a struggle than others. Like working any other muscle, one will become better at praying over time, but learning to enter into a receptive headspace, to use the prayers as an opportunity to contemplate the Gods and Their mysteries, and to allow that to open one up more fully to those Gods takes time and ongoing practice. Try not to be discouraged if it doesn’t happen all at once. Devotion is an art form, a craft and like any craft, it’s something we’ll be honing and developing our entire lives.
The pros to informal, extempore prayer are that they allow a freer expression of one’s inner mind, heart, and soul to the Gods. It often feels more natural, and it allows for one to express oneself without the constraints of any external scaffolding. The cons are that it can elide the protocols and respect or even an awareness of the extant hierarchy between us and the Gods and this can lead to disrespect. Also, for those unformed in prayer, informal prayer may seem as awkward as its more formal brother. The important thing is to understand that these two types of engaging devotionally with the Gods are not opposites. They are not in opposition to each other. Both types of prayer are important, even necessary for the devotee, and each one complements the other. I often advice my students – as I did with Elise when she asked me about this – to continue with the extempore prayer (Because that is a good and lovely thing, something to which, at its best, we can all aspire) but perhaps end the prayer session with a set prayer like the one I offer above. She liked that because then the prayer becomes like a knot tying off a string of pearls, or a door carefully and respectfully closing. I often begin and end my times of extempore prayer with a set prayer myself.
I also think that it’s important to think about ways that we can pray throughout our day. Most of us are not monastics. We don’t have the benefit of living a life centered around ongoing prayer hour by hour. Even so, it is possible to move throughout one’s day consciously centered, mentally and spiritually, in an awareness of our devotion to the Gods, and of Their grace and glory. I look for ways throughout my day that I can slip in a prayer, or turn my mind, for however brief a time toward the Gods. Working from home due to Covid (my university moved most of its classes online this term), it’s been particularly easy. I walk past a shrine, I take a second or two, to thank that Deity or group of Deities for Their blessings. Sometimes I will quickly recite a prayer. Sometimes I’ll make an offering (yesterday I was passing Sigyn’s shrine with a couple of scones in hand that I’d just bought while out on errands, so I stopped and gave Her one). It doesn’t have to be a big, huge, formal ritual, nor even a formal prayer. Sometimes a ‘thank you’ is enough (5).
So, what questions do you have about prayer? What prayers do you particularly like, and what inspires you throughout your day to turn your attention to the Gods?
- A colleague told me in passing a couple weeks ago that he read an anthropology article (I don’t have it – didn’t think to ask him for it) postulating that different sleep cycles evolved when we still lived in caves: so someone would always be awake to protect the tribe. Maybe. It’s as good a reason as anything else, I suppose.
- This is not including feast days or ritual days when there is some type of religious service.
- Helheim is not a land of punishment in Heathenry. “hel” means “light” and refers to the Goddess Hela as well. It’s a land of comfort and peace for the dead, a place where our ancestors dwell. There may be parts of Helheim where the wicked and foul are punished, but Helheim itself is not a land of punishment like the Christian Hell.
- I think formal prayers also form a solid base line, the low bar that at the very least, even when we’re struggling to get in the right headspace, distracted, sick, sad, etc., we can do. If nothing else, we can do this. It’s always better to be in appropriate and receptive headspace when one prays, but sometimes we’re just not going to be able to do that.
- My adopted mom used to say that the single most important prayer one could ever utter to one’s Gods is “thank you.”
Posted on October 9, 2020, in devotional work, Heathenry, Lived Polytheism, prayers, Uncategorized and tagged Devotional Work, Heathenry, Lived Polytheism, practicum, prayer. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.