Sunday, 25 March 2012

Sunday Sermon: Prayer

Everything, your ways astound us and defy understanding. The grandest gods created by men are momentary motes when compared to you. All of our fantastic worlds, heavens and hells together are but a drop in your vastness. We serve you, worship you and seek knowledge of you because we love you. It is not for our worth that we were born but by grace alone, and by grace alone we may grow, prosper and dance, until such grace ends. Thank you. Our gratitude is profound. Amen.


It's very hard to talk about prayer, or I find it so anyway, and perhaps it is hard to talk about any spiritual practice for the same reasons. A given journey through life is such an individual thing, after all. How can I tell you how to pray or how to meditate or how to sing? I don't think anyone really can, but nevertheless I'll attempt to discuss the practice a bit in order to demystify it and hopefully make it seem accessible to some who may have thought it not.

First of all I must be very clear that when one prays both the subject praying and the object of the prayer (whether Everything, a god, ancestor or a tree) are both in our brains. I don't know enough about neurology, if anyone does, to really explain this, but my proposition is that there is a mental function available to us, a product of evolution most likely, which we can mentally engage with and also mentally develop with name, shape and personality. With candour I call it the IF (Imaginary Friend) function.

Some people talk to plants. I never have really, so can't talk about it, but I understand they gain calm from it.

I occasionally 'talk to' my father. I used to do so much more so soon after he died, as is very common with people who have lost loved ones. According to the theorists, it is losing loved ones that may be one of the origins of religion, and it makes some sense that it may have been the origin of prayer. The thing is, John Alcorn, my father, had a very developed reality in my head when he was alive, even though I wasn't with him the vast majority of the time. In my head he had personality, values, opinions, particular skills and also flaws. Apparently even the recognition of his face and voice takes up a big chunk of mental capacity. And none of this - not a jot - disappeared when he died.

So the theory is that people believed in the reality of people's existence after death (ghosts if you like) not for any positive reason but simply because they had no reason to believe they had stopped existing. They could still talk to a developed personality which induced in them particular feelings, fears, anxieties and joys. Once again, I think this casual practice of the IF is very common, whether it has been incorporated into a cultural mythos or not.

The IF can also be iconic, as is the case with the worship of pagan gods. Like the dead, these gods have developed personalities, histories, flaws and strengths. To engage with a particular god (Zeus or Elvis) is engaging a part of self. Note that these entities are shared by many, who may therefore speak of the god, discuss the lessons from the god and share stories and songs of the god.

Is that a useful thing? Well in the case of a deceased loved one, it is a way to maintain a connection to a real source of wisdom and self-knowledge, one that is unique and specific to your needs. If I might choose Poseidon as a shared pagan god to illustrate, when the sailor makes his sacrifices and prayers before a voyage he (it's an ancient sailor ok? I'm assuming this one's a 'he') is also praying to a very specific and developed part of himself. Now neither the ancestor nor Poseidon is 'real', but the constructed part of self is. In the sailor's case, it is mental preparation for the voyage. The sailor uses the shorthand of prayer and ritual, but the preparation in his mind is very complex, incorporating generations of understanding of what is required.

But moving along, what if, when I am praying to Everything at night before I go to bed, as I often do, I pray for my friends, my wife and son, my business perhaps? What about a friend who is in trouble in some way? Everything is far too amazing to be a petty interventionist after all, even if It was an anthropomorph.

This is what I think I'm doing in this part of the prayer: I'm about to go to sleep remember, which is when the subconscious takes over for eight or so hours. I've just had a whatever of a day. I'm pausing to make mental notes. I'm applying some configuration to what I want to be looking out for, subconsciously or not, hopefully at the expense of things that I really shouldn't be worrying about. I can do without such self-reminder I suppose, but I think it is helpful. It helps keep me on track.

Now I'm just sketching here and purposely using a lot of first person. I offer no tight formulas. My hope is that a reader's imagination might fill out the beginning of a practice of prayer that they might find helpful and relevant.

What about Jesus' advice to 'pray for your enemies'? Well, I've tried it, and it is magic, or feels like it. By 'enemies', I just mean the people I've been in some conflict with. Maybe someone I've had a fight with or a telephone seller that got me angry. But my conflicts are petty. Maybe right now you are in a massive court case with enormous stakes. Or indeed, maybe you are engaging in war as a soldier of your country.

Now I think it is a good thing to find peace with people, but one purpose of praying for your enemies is very obvious: It allows you to get to sleep. The day has ended. There may be more conflict the next day, or you may never see the person again, but it is utterly in your interests to make mental peace with the person. Never underestimate your own psychological power over yourself, for good or ill.

Everything, of course, can take your anger and hurt. It can take your curses, your, "Why me?". It will not reveal anything you say to any other so you can speak to Every about anything at all. You can enquire about any perverse fantasy or reveal any bazaar dream or shameful act. Everything is not judgemental at all.

I'd also suggest, as per a formula Jesus suggested, that Everything is 100% forgiving (in the sense that you are actually free of the anxiety of guilt) precisely to the extent that you have forgiven all others. It's still all in your brain, just to be sure, but your brain is not something which "mere" describes.

For myself, some years ago now, in a very dark period in my life, a period which, incidentally, I was not merely atheist but knew there was no meaning in anything at all, with all the agony that the knowledge entailed, I prayed my first prayer for many years. I was already aware that the only thing that deserved the term 'God' was the universe itself in all its entirety. I looked to the trees, to the sky, and further in my imagination - I 'looked' at Everything, and said, "Hello."

That was the only prayer I prayed for a long time, but I prayed it every day. It was a simple acknowledgement of the greatest thing, the macrocosm if you like, the singularity - beautiful and unique - which is everything. It immediately felt good and, imagination or not, life began to dance again, serendipity started happening more, again. With belief in no-meaning, serendipity seemed to have ceased and simple things appeared to constantly go wrong.

The next addition to the prayer, incidentally, was, "Thank you." That too, is immensely satisfying. I can't even explain the benefit of gratitude. Take it or leave it.

Most of the notes above about more elaborate prayers is actually fairly recent material for me, and I continue to speak with Everything, and Everything's IF part of my brain continues to develop. It's a meditation with words which develops very particularly with continued practice. I love it, as I love Everything (how can we not?).

This sermon about prayer is largely built on personal testimony. Tentatively, I commend the practice, but if it has no resonance, you should probably ignore it and continue developing whatever practices you already have. If it has a little resonance though, if it appears to be a practice that might help give life some structure and directiveness, try it. Say "Hello" to start with and keep it casual and unforced. Share with us how it goes for you some time. For that matter, I'd love to hear of anyone's personal practice of prayer.


Everything, thank you for the freedom to speak here. Once again I pray that you bless readers with open yet critical minds, that they may, for themselves, in the midst of their respective journeys, find the measure of my words and discern good fruit from bad. So be it.


  1. Hamish, this is a beautiful sermon. 'Hello' and 'thank you': such a simple yet profound practice. I know we have talked about this often, but I appreciated hearing again your personal testimony. I find your honesty and capacity for critical self-reflection refreshing. I also feelk moved (inspired) to be more conscious in more own practice of prayer - I am aware that I pray when I *need* to, rather than sustaining a daily, or at least regular, practice. I am honestly curious to explore how a more committed practice of prayer might sustain me, as much as I sustain it. Love, Dawn.

  2. Thank you Dawn. Your conversation and support is ever appreciated. I regularly thank Every for sending you.

    One day soon we should try praying together. Xx