Prayer is the most important part of my spiritual practice. It’s the primary way I stay in relationship with the Gods and spirits in my life. It’s one of the ways I ask for help when I’m not sure what to do. It’s how I remind myself what’s most important.
The last round of Conversations Under the Oaks brought in three questions on prayer from three very different perspectives. While I’d like to encourage everyone to read The Pagan Practice of Prayer from 2017, I want to address these questions specifically. Because if one person is asking, others probably have the same questions.
First, from someone with an atheist background:
As someone who grew up in a non-religious/atheist-leaning home, prayer and devotion feel… weird. How can someone overcome that? How do you pray? Is there a database of them, something to memorize, a formula to create one?
Most times, things feel weird because they’re unfamiliar. This is especially true when you’re talking about practices from a different culture – and while we may all be Americans (or Irish or English or whatever you happen to be) different religions are absolutely separate subcultures. So if you grew up in an environment where you didn’t hear prayer and probably heard prayer denigrated as useless words, of course it’s going to feel odd.
Prayer can take many forms. It can be scripted or unscripted, formal or conversational, calm and rational or spirited and passionate. Different types of prayers are especially suited for different situations, but the only way to pray wrong is to pray disrespectfully.
If you’ve never prayed before I would suggest starting with scripted prayers. It helps to have someone else show you how to do it. A Book of Pagan Prayer by Ceisiwr Serith is an excellent place to start – I’ve used some of his prayers in UU Sunday Services. Ancient prayers – where they exist – have a powerful connection not just to the deity to whom they’re addressed, but also to the people who originally wrote them.
The main thing is to simply start praying on a regular basis. In addition to the ordinary benefits of prayer, the more you pray the less weird prayer will seem to you.
Our second question comes from the other end of the religious spectrum.
I grew up in a Christian Fundamentalist environment. As I’ve been exploring Paganism, I’ve found that I have a hard time escaping Christian fundamentalist liturgical patterns and practices. Growing up, I was taught “This is how we pray. These are the elements of prayer. This is their order.” Frankly, I don’t know how else to pray or how to make an offering. I know different traditions have different practices, but I’m currently just figuring it out as I go along. Do you have any advice in this regard?
The fundamentalist church where I grew up taught that scripted prayers were soulless and useless. They didn’t even like the Lord’s Prayer – they said it was intended to be a template for extemporaneous prayers, not something to pray over and over again. Of course, public extemporaneous prayer is hard, so they ended up falling into their own clichés and repetitions that were a weak parody of good scripted prayers – but at least they weren’t Catholic.
If your religious upbringing was like mine, I strongly advise starting with some good scripted prayers. They’re different from what you’ve heard so they’re less likely to trigger bad memories. They also require more concentration, which will help you focus on the deity or spirit to whom you’re praying.
Check out some of the devotional anthologies available, such as Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate or Hoofprints in the Wildwood: A Devotional for The Horned Lord. Most of them have prayers written by priests and devotess. They’re of varying quality, but some are quite good. There are similar anthologies for other deities.
Once you’ve got some experience with other peoples’ prayers, start writing your own. Don’t try to be poetic, just write what comes to you: words of invocation, praise, thanksgiving, and needs. Then edit your draft to make it as deep and as reverent as possible. When you’ve done that a few times you should be able to do your own extemporaneous prayers without them sounding like Pagan versions of fundamentalist ramblings.
Our third question is a fairly common one among new Pagans and polytheists.
I have no patron God or Goddess. How do I reconcile this with prayer and developing a spiritual practice?
There are two different ways to approach this. The first is simply to pick Someone and start offering Them devotion. Who calls to you? Who interests you? Whose virtues and values do you need in your life? Introduce yourself with prayers and offerings. You’re likely to get some sort of response (though not quickly, and not necessarily the response you expect) and in any case, it is always good to honor the Gods.
The second approach is simply to pray. Now, I don’t believe in praying to “the Universe” like some Christians pray to their God. That practice carries assumptions and implications I don’t believe are true.
But there is value in simply being thankful, even if you aren’t offering thanks to anyone in particular. There’s value in expressing the desires of your heart, even if you aren’t sure who’s listening.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – writing from a Christian perspective, of course – said “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” And while I would argue the first part from a polytheist perspective (and probably from a Christian perspective as well), I completely agree with the second part.
Done properly, prayer puts us in a state of reverence and introspection. When we realize Who we’re talking to, trivial things seem, well, trivial. What’s truly important rises to the top. We realize that however wise and powerful we may be, They’re more – far, far more.
So if you don’t know Who to pray to, just pray.
To close, here’s a video on prayer Rev. Lauren Mart and I made in 2018.