Prayer is more then words uttered in silence or community as these four writers explain.
Music As Prayer
by Kim Taylor
My practice of prayer is in recovery. I grew up a Southern Baptist where prayer was limited (mainly) to pleading to God in front of a crowd, often with a Bible in hand, and eyes shut so hard you couldn’t pry them open. That was the only kind of prayer I knew. When the worship minister’s family (all eight of them) at Willow Oak Baptist Church in Mulberry, Florida, stood up to deliver the special music – no microphones, no instruments, just voices as wide and bright and astonishing as the great, cloudless sky outside the church – I never understood, never even considered, that they were praying. It was only when I sat down at the piano in my late teens and wrote my very first song that I began to discover a new path toward what I now (hesitantly, sheepishly even) call prayer. I’m moving past those early understandings, but I’m still uncomfortable with spontaneous prayers. Yet I sure do miss my grandfather’s response to every impromptu prayer he ever encountered: “Amen, Brother Ben!” Today, when I sing, when I write a lyric, weaving past and present, emotions and melody, I realize that I’m entering a state recognizable as prayer. Music as prayer is my solemn request, my act of pleading to God, often with a guitar in hand, and my eyes shut so hard you couldn’t pry them open.
Kim Taylor is a singer/songwriter.
Drumming and Praise Dancing as Prayer
by Trevor R. Babb
When we think of prayer, naturally we think of words being uttered to a higher power on behalf of someone or a petition for ourselves. But prayer I believe is more than words and when fully understood can be experienced in silence, through music, through dance, through the beat of the African drum and in so many other ways. If this be so, how then can prayer be defined? In An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, edited by Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, prayer is defined as, “The experience of corporate or individual nearness with God through words, acts, or silence. Any act or activity offered to God in a spirit of dedication may be prayerful.” When we use the African drums and praise dancing in an act of worship, they become powerful representations of a prayer because they open us up to different experiences of God and to a cultural richness in worship. It is as if the theology is being fed to the human soul through different straws in praise of our awesome God. This is prayer.
At St. Simon of Cyrene Episcopal Church in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, we are blessed to offer praise to God through our talented African drummers and our gifted praise dancers at various worship services throughout the liturgical year. It is this form of prayer that helps energize the congregation into clapping and shouts of “Amen” and “Alleluia.” We use the drums in worship to create a joyful and exuberant procession of the Gospel, praying the Good News into position for reading at the center of the gathered community of faith. The praise dancers are often the precursor to our acts of generosity and the celebration of the great thanksgiving, encouraging the faithful to be prayerful in their giving with shouts of praise to a good, gracious, and generous God and in anticipation of the feast at the table.
Finally, because praise is a form of prayer, the psalmist encourages us to use several instruments in our moments of praise to God as declared in Psalm 150:3-6: “Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!”
Trevor R. Babb is rector of St. Simon of Cyrene Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Icons as Prayer
by Rob Rhodes
I approach the icons, reflecting back candlelight from gold leaf and silver frames and covers. Light. Symbol of resurrection and of life overcoming death.
I approach them, and there is Mary, the God-bearer (the Theotokos in Greek), presenting the Christ child in her arms. And there is John the Baptist, the friend of the Bridegroom. Between them is Christ himself. All familiar, human, and yet otherworldly, stylized, idealized, beautiful. Theology before my eyes.
And though I came to look at them, the sense I get is that they are actually looking at me. I am somehow, through these images, actually in their presence. And all around them are others, so many saints of God—the evangelists, the apostles, Mary Magdalene, Martin of Tours, John Chrysostom, and so many others who have been baptized—reborn in the life and light of Christ, and so bearing within themselves his life and light, as do all the baptized. Who needs lamps or the sun or the moon? In the light of Christ, which shines from some place deep within them, in the deepest corners of their lives, I see the truth of what God has accomplished in Christ’s resurrection.
And what becomes most clear as I approach them and feel their eyes on me and begin to know the world lit by the light of the Resurrection is that these icons are not decorations. They are my sisters and brothers bearing and revealing the image of God and confronting me with the same in myself; revealing the sacred come to life in their own lives, and inviting (demanding?) me to face the same in my own.
What should I do in their presence? What’s the appropriate response? I don’t know. But what I do is primal. I light a candle and make the sign of the cross and invoke God’s Trinitarian name. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” I say. And then my body wants to participate in this prayer, so I bow at the waist and touch the ground, once, then twice (I don’t know, maybe more), and then I kiss the hand of Christ in the central icon. I feel the need to pray more, but which prayer will it be? The Jesus Prayer? The Lord’s Prayer? Some other familiar prayer? Any could work. Any would be fitting. But instead, I settle into a profound silence in the presence of Christ and his Church.
And, staring into those big eyes locked onto my own, anything I might want to say is acknowledged, blessed, but ultimately swallowed whole, taken up, by what, in and through that light and that silence, Christ is saying to me.
Rob Rhodes is the canon missioner for Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Breath as Prayer
by Brenda Westfall
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God!”
This seems so simple but it is one of the hardest things to do even for the very spiritually disciplined. We live in a go-go, multitasking, always plugged in, whirlwind culture. We have to be intentional about slowing down and coming into the presence of God, to commune, to lay everything down at Jesus’ feet in worship and surrender. We are so busy that we often hold our breath.
Yoga is a practice where the breath can give us access to our souls. The breath bridges the gap between our minds and our bodies, as well as our souls and our bodies. As we enter in, and focus on our breath, there is a shift, our minds quiet, our heart rate slows, our bodies relax, and our souls begin to pray.
Breathing helps us to create more room for the Spirit to work in and through us. We fill from the depth of our souls, whether we are in child’s pose or sweeping our arms high in an extended mountain pose, and life and light is breathed into the cut-off and dark spaces. It is the same breath that Jesus breathed when he breathed on his disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
Breath is a gift we often take for granted or don’t ever fully unwrap. John of the Cross writes in his Spiritual Canticle, “The breathing of air is properly of the Holy Spirit, for which the soul here prays, so that she may love God perfectly.” This is communion. You just have to breathe
Brenda Westfall is owner of WORTHY Yoga in Mariemont, Ohio.
A Breathing Practice
Ginny Wholley, a teacher of yoga based in Worcester, Massachusetts, offers this breathing practice as a way to calm the mind and prepare for meditation.
- Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the ground and your hands relaxed on your thighs.
- Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
- Through your nose, slowly breathe in and out while partially restricting your throat.
- Imagine your throat as the size of a straw. This breath can create an audible sound.
- Continue to breathe in and out of your nose.
- An alternative approach: Exhale out of your mouth as if you are fogging a mirror, making a long “ha-a” sound. Close your mouth and repeat the exhalation through your nose.
- Imagine you are on the shore. The water draws back into the ocean on the inhalation and rolls onto the shore as you exhale. Use your breath and your limitless imagination to hear the ocean sound.
SOURCES AND RESOURCES
Nes, Solrunn. The Mystical Language of Icons. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004.
Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1995.
Troeger, Thomas H. Music as Prayer: The Theology and Practice of Church Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.