Over the last thirty years, I've invited all my shamanic students to include prayer in their lives, regardless of whatever tradition they follow. Why do I feel this important? When we learn about spiritual healing, of course we cannot be of service unless we are first spiritually connected, any more than an electrical appliance can give light or heat unless it is first plugged in. This necessary component of Spirit cannot be left out, or our learning becomes merely theoretical or just techniques. Wherever I go in the world, whatever the audience, whatever the topic, this is largely what I am teaching. But, whether we are healers, or business people, whether we are active, retired, ill, in transit, we all need prayerful connection with Spirit. Unless we draw water from the deep well, our steps cannot be surely guided, for our lives are not lived only the world that we see, but they are also part of the world that we know from our visions, dreams, and meditations.
|Island of the Crystal Keep by Danuta Meyer,|
from Celtic Book of the Dead.
We live in an era of spiritual nomadism where, between the extremes of an over-certain fundamentalism and the often-mysterious mysticism of established religions, there dwell many people who would regard themselves as people of spirit, who try to live ethically and responsibly, but who do not fit within a fixed faith tradition. It is with these people of spirit that I have most to do: they are the people between, the spiritually marginalized, the ones whose hearts beat passionately for the state of the world, and who want to be spiritually and morally responsive to All That Is. They are not counted as part of anything, they may not be gathered into specific groups, but I witness them every day. They perceive Spirit in individual ways, under different shapes and by other names, and they are many. So when people write about our age being ‘post-religious’ they may not be giving us the whole picture: I would say that we may be post-denominational, but not that we are without a sense of the sacred, whether we see that as supreme being, an intelligence, or as a matrix of divinities or spirits.
There is a common impression abroad that prayer belongs just to professional religious people, but it doesn't - it belongs to us all, not just to the religions and faiths to which you may or may not subscribe. It is part of the dialogue which we have with the universe, and how the unseen life of the universe reveals itself to our soul. Prayer is as much for you and all those who, through default, alienation or exclusion, find themselves outside the holy sanctuaries. Prayer arises in us all.
For all who wish to begin a personal spiritual practice that helps them keep connection with the Sacred Source of Life, and for those who want to engage with the prayer life of the whole universe in ways that are natural to them, the first steps into that world of prayer are often clogged with problematic baggage. If you have moved out of the faith of your upbringing, or recently vacated a religion that did not offer you spiritual hospitality or help at the time you most needed support, you may have the bitterness of the rejected, where anything smacking of that faith may feel like enemy territory. If the holy images and devotions of your past evoke fear, guilt or distain in you, then these will probably not be your best hand-holds for the way forward.
Conversely, if you have never actually accumulated any of that religious baggage, because you had no such background or upbringing, it can be just as daunting. You may have no notion of how to get started, or your own developing sense of the sacred dimension may not feel strong enough to stand on its own legs yet. The validations that only long experience brings are not yet in your possession, and you are like a scout over unknown terrain. In which case, you are in good company, because everyone who starts down the path of prayer eventually makes their own discoveries, unknowing that we are on the road with others.
|Seabirds Steps, Bay of Skail|
This is beautifully illustrated by Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film, Fanny and Alexander, where the eponymous brother and sister are rescued from the wreck of their mother’s second disastrous marriage by a family friend, the Jewish Uncle Isak. As they settle down to their first night’s sleep of safety in many months, Isak reads aloud the story of a youth who is upon a journey: he no longer remembers where it started, nor is he sure where he is going. The way is hot and unrelieved. In his exhaustion, he cannot notice the trees, nor can he hear the waters. He falls in with an old man who, like him is walking the same way. He tells the youth the pilgrims’ cries, hopes, and dreams condense into a great cloud, becoming the springs at which travellers can quench their thirst and wash their burning faces and blistered feet.
The story Isak tells is a parable, similar to the gnostic story of the Hymn of the Pearl, from the Acts of Thomas, whereby a royal youth goes out into the world, becomes forgetful of his priceless inheritance of spiritual wisdom, and wanders in a sorry state until reminded of it once again and brought home to his family. The water that potentially irrigates the weary youth in Isak’s story is blent of the hopes, dreams and cries of other pilgrims who have been along the same route before him. We do not travel alone, and the hopes and visions of others make water for us along the way.
The paths to our natural spiritual way lie all around us: when we follow these hints and clues, they open out into a whole landscape. Trusting your own personal communion with nature and spirit can become the basis for the most powerful and transformative experience.
|Stained Glass, Lincoln Cathedral|
The received sense of prayer is that is about asking for things. In every place and time-zone of the world throughout history, people have prayed. From a place of need, they have turned to what is resourceful; from a place of smallness and dark uncertainty, they have applied themselves to what is bigger and brighter than their need, just as in my favourite written prayer, from the children’s novel The Box of Delights by the poet-laureate, John Masefield:
O Greatness, Hear!
O, Brightness, Hark!
Leave us not little,
Nor yet little, nor yet dark!
However, we don’t only ‘pray to,’ but we also ‘pray from, with and for,’ which resets the parameters of prayer. We can pray from a place of strength and witness, we may pray with those who hold the same vision, and we always pray for those times, places and beings undergoing suffering, in compassionate solidarity. But prayer is not only oral. Through silence, singing, movement, stillness, meditation, and the mediation of blessing, everyone can find their own way of welcome.
As one of my teachers, Daan van Kampenhout observes, ‘Prayer never weakens you.’ It is not pleading, bargaining, nor black magic. By stepping first into communion with these sacred sources of love and help that gladden your own heart, by seeking out spiritual connection before anything else, our prayer goes freely where it needs to go, unconditionally, unshaped and undefined, to land where it most needs to be received. Like a stone that is thrown into a pool, the ripples of prayer ray out until they reach the sides of the pool, upon which, they come rippling back.
People have always gone apart to pray, many have gone out into nature, not to feel holy, but to address those things that are beyond our ability to manage: to find inspiration, help, guidance and a sense of being companioned. Prayer is also wound into our lives and their daily concerns. Long periods of prayer are not about many words but about what happens in our communion with Spirit, however we understand that.
Prayer is the loom where we are woven, where we can reweave what has been broken, where we weave in what matters. Our prayer contributes to the greater weaving of the universe and nothing can remove us from its inclusion: it is a weaving that covers all of us. Prayer is the natural heritage of everyone: it belongs to you, whereby our lives might be a blessing.
|Caitlín at the Spring, Hawkwood College, Stroud|
I invite you to join me in the late spring as we explore prayer as a movement of the soul that goes beyond just words, but is so much more, where we include the totality of our universe, the ancestors, the natural world and the deep heart of our natural spirituality, which goes beyond denominations. All people of spirit are welcome.
29-31 May 2018 THE ART OF NATURAL PRAYER with Caitlín Matthews & Margot Harrison.
Prayer is the natural heritage of everyone, including those people of spirit with no fixed or Christian faith. At Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre with its beautiful grounds, we will explore prayer through silence, song, walking in nature, meditation and mediation, and working with the regenerative sacred source of the universe in the context of your own vision. By taking responsibility for our spiritual practice, we become fully human by our service to natural prayer, enabling us to be a blessing to others. Anyone with hospitality of soul, or who is seeking doorways to awakening or kindling a personal spiritual practice, is welcome.
Fees: non-res. £222, full board £295. Held at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, 1046 Bristol Rd, Birmingham B29 6LJ Phone: 0121 472 5171. You can also book by going to: