The stakes are high for real prayer:
You must gamble your self and
be willing to lose.
~ Sufi Poet Mahmud Shabistari
Please note: the various terms, ‘prayer’, ‘contemplation’ etc are used here in a specific way. They are also used in a generic sense by many writers and teachers and are also used and defined in other specific ways by a variety of schools and religions. Be careful when engaging in further reading that you do not assume the terms are being used in the same way as they are here.
Conventional and exoteric understanding of prayer considers it to be essentially an attempt at communication with a deity or the divine. The communication may be for worshipping the deity or a request for guidance, intervention, assistance or expressing of one’s thoughts, fears, or sins. Often prayer is seen to be connected intrinsically with spoken words such as a pre-composed prayer or hymn, or a more spontaneous outpouring of emotional and spiritual expression and aspirations. The ‘communication’ here can be one-way (no perceived response from the deity) or two-way (a perceived response, nearly always internal and personal).
In the western esoteric traditions, drawing from mystical Christianity and Hermetic Qabalah, prayer is seen in a different light. It is a process by which the esoteric practitioner connects with and ultimately aligns her will and entire being with her Sacred One(s). We consciously connect with our Sacred One(s) via the use of our body (words, chants, hand and body positions), our energy (via our intention, breath and other techniques), our personal heartfelt emotions (controlled and directed by our will) and mind (understanding the meaning of the prayer). This aligns our physical and subtle selves, astral through mental, to be open to and directed by the spiritual. All our bodies and selves are working in concert and in this way our lower self concerns, while not ignored are clarified and changed by connection to our Sacred One(s).
William Bloom, a western spiritual teacher connected with the Findhorn community in Scotland points out three main approaches to prayer: (1) Mystical Abandon, (2) Devotional Aspiration, and (3) Contemplation.
The first approach is often characterized by practice of spiritual dance, where surrenders to the One in ecstasy. This however, is not chaotic and in the formal traditions, such as the Sufi Mevlevi Order there is much study, prayer and spiritual transformation before being even allowed to dance. Other traditions are more organic. We may compare these two sub-approaches to mystical dance as representative of sub-approaches to mystical abandonment generally. The organic approach is spontaneous and directed by the influx of the divine at the time – however, only in certain traditions and on certain occasions is the practitioner ‘out of control’, and when they are there are many safety precautions put in place. In more formal approaches, each movement is learnt and practiced and the symbolic meanings integrated. This embodiment of the inner meaning of the dance allows surrender as the whole lower self knows what to do, and can therefore ‘switch off’ under the guidance of will. We can compare the two by looking at the difference between free-form dancing and ballroom dancing, both of which can produce intimations of ecstasy in the dancers. Similarly with other forms of mystical abandonment – some of it is spontaneous and some uses an embodied process of repeated movements, prayers, chants etc.
The second approach of Devotional Aspiration is characterised by the seeker yearning to be in the presence of their Sacred One(s). This approach is nearly always undertaken by people who have a clear sense or awareness of a particular deity or Being. It is rarely undertaken consistently by those who have a more general understanding of the Divine as the One. Classically this approach involves worship. The root meaning of ‘worship’ is ‘worth’, and so often the prayers of this approach begin by describing or reviewing the wonderful qualities of the deity in question. There are also two sub-approaches to Devotional Aspiration: the first is where the practitioner seeks eventual interior union with their Sacred One(s), the second where the practitioner remains in some way separate and so the beholding, love and worship of the Sacred One is not extinguished in mystical Unity. This latter is the classical love-adoration approach to God, called in Hinduism, Bhakti, exemplified in the classical Indian saying, “I want to taste sugar, not be the sugar.”
The third approach, contemplation is often viewed as a more interior, less emotionally based approach. It involves the direction of the entire being of the practitioner, through a mind deprived of contents and activity towards the Divine or their Sacred One(s). It may be thought of as form of religious meditation. It mostly involves no outer activity or expression, though should produce deep states of expanded consciousness, love of the Sacred and compassion when practiced over time.
Stages of Prayer.
The understanding of prayer within the esoteric traditions in the west has been influenced by mystical Christianity and the Qabalah. It is only since the Theosophical Society (1875 onward) that other influences have come to bear upon it. One of the most influential and profound studies of prayer in the West was by Saint Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite Nun of the 16th century. Some of her work on prayer has recently been re-presented to the New Age community by Caroline Myss in Entering the Castle: An Inner Path to God and Your Soul. Saint Teresa classified the states of prayer and mystical experience and developed instructions for the correct and balanced approach to God. Her stages can be summarised:
Natural Prayer is based on our own human will and the innate divinity within us. This can be practiced by anyone, anytime and has four ascending stages:
- Vocalised Prayer – intended to increase and generate devotion and love to God.
- Meditation – the term here is used differently to our usage – involving study and intellectual contemplation of God’s love.
- Affective Prayer – being open to the return of love from God. (Stage one generates love to God, stage two contemplates God’s love, stage three opens us, passively to receive God’s love into our own being).
- Simple Prayer – being in relationship with God, open to His Love while adoring him with focused and directed attention.
Mystical or Supernatural Prayer is based on the influx of God’s grace; it cannot be readily practiced by everyone. Natural Prayer leads up to Mystical Prayer, but the mystic must await and be passive to the will of the God.
- Contemplation Infused by God – a passive experience of the inflow of divine grace and God’s love into the entire intellect.
- Quiet Prayer – the descent of the love and power of God moves through the intellect and infuses the human will, aligning it with God.
- Prayer of Union – the descent of God’s love increases and transforms not only the intellect, and will but also the memory and interior imagination. These become so infused with God’s presence that the interior distractions (wandering mind etc) to prayer cease. Ecstatic trances may be experienced.
- Conforming to God – the descent continues even into the physical body. This has several characteristics: (1) exterior happenings no longer distract from God’s love, (2) the experience of a desire to physically die so to be united fully with God, (3) constant ecstasy or altered states of being. As the body is purged and purified by the presence of God there may be experiences of changes in body temperature, bodily pain, fainting, temporary epilepsy etc.
- Transformational Union – The process of descent is now complete and the whole person is aligned with God from the body ‘upwards’. The desire to die disappears and the desire to emulate Christ arises, the self is forgotten and love is expressed to all including persecutors. There is a constant remembering of God and ecstasy ceases as the self has been remade in God and the union between the soul and God is complete. The Holy Spirit dwells in the Soul; the practitioner is a just one made perfect.
By looking at these stages (and there are many other maps around) we can see that prayer is far more than muttering a few words or being emotionally moved. We need to be aware of this and realise that to effectively practice esoteric prayer techniques we need to examine our own assumptions concerning prayer, the divine, God, intervention and intercession. We need to answer for ourselves certain questions, not just with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but looking at ‘how’ and ‘why’.
- Is it possible for the Many (humanity) to communicate with the One or with Deities?
- If so, how – what special conditions (interior qualities) need to be present?
- Are the various Deities interested in our attempts at communicating with them?
- Do the Deities like or even need us to pray to them or worship them?
- If we don’t, then what?
- Can the One or the Deities or ‘lesser’ beings intervene to bring about changes?
- If so, in what realms – in the physical world? And if so, how – what special conditions (if any) need to be present for this to occur?
- Is prayer more about changing the person who prays than answers or changes to our lives?
- Can we pray for or on behalf of someone else (for example, the sick or the dead) – intercession?
- Can we pray / persuade lesser beings, Angels, Archangels, and Saints etc to intercede on our behalf to the deities?
- What morality surrounds prayer? Can we pray for someone who does not know about it, or even someone who rejects our faith?
I would also recommend viewing the questions posed in this post, Spiritual Transformation or, a whole hunk of questions.
Prayer and Yearning
Worship through prayer can be defined as “becoming one through love”. This definition shows both the purpose of and energy behind prayer. We desire to unite our consciousness with that we worship by using our love, focused through prayer. From the Western esoteric point of view, this is love “under will”, that is, we control and direct our love into a one-pointed desire and ‘need’ for connection with what we worship. Our love then becomes the vehicle by which we transcend or move beyond our ego limited perception and enter a state of divine bliss. For some people this may appear to come easily – however all traditions recognize false states of divine bliss where we are deluding ourselves, so we need to watch for these.
These notes are just pointers to this mystery – the actual practice of prayer and your own worship will teach you more than can be said here.
As mentioned previously worship derives from “weorth”, or worth. This shows us that we need to see clearly the worth and value in Who pray to. Focusing upon this worth is a useful starting point to prayer. For example, if we are going to pray to Isis, we can focus upon and meditate on the worth of Isis and our connection with Her. We can recall times and stories of transformation in Her presence, we can remember what She represents, what strengths and power She calls forth from women and men, the healing She brings. Doing this before the prayer, indeed as we go about our daily lives, will enable us to enter a deeper state of prayer, deepening our own connection with Her.
Many esotericists would say that we are naturally born worshipful, full of wonder and amazement, and it is our socialisation and maturation that removes or limits our capacity for prayer and worship as an adult. This has occurred to such an extent that there is an underlying derision in western secular culture for anyone who worships or prays to anything. This has even spread into the Pagan and magical community with some Witches saying they do not worship the Goddess or God, and many magicians having an almost psychological view of the Gods. In some New Age and Neo-Pagan approaches the Goddesses and Gods are chosen for ‘invocation’ based on the qualities they can bring to a ritual, a magical working or the practitioner.
Both Osiris and Christ are used in Golden Dawn ritual, but in different places and in different ways. Neither one is an object of worship … Rather, Christ and Osiris represent a pattern of forces – in the Order’s terminology, a formula – which is used to structure consciousness in various ritual contexts”. – John Michael Greer.
However, to fully worship and pray to a Goddess or God involves recognition of our own limited personality and ego. When a divine presence moves into our sphere of consciousness, we will find that, in contrast to this presence we feel ourselves limited and powerless. When this occurs it is an invitation to stand, naked and humbly before divinity, not as a lowly supplicant but as one half of an intimate relationship and partnership between God and human. If we cannot or do not accept this invitation, if we cannot own our own limitations and ego restrictions, we will find worship and prayer difficult. What may occur then is that we, out of need to protect our ego, may block off or shut out the divine presence. One of the fundamental truths of esoteric spirituality is that any spiritual process will affect us only to the extent we can be open and vulnerable to the energy it raises. If we are not open to Isis, She will not enter our beings. If we are open She will touch us and change us.
In Western esotericism one of the most useful skills we can learn (or re-learn depending on your point of view) is how to yearn effectively. Yearning, when correctly done, raises and directs our emotional energy into a force capable of calling forth truly transformative powers from ourselves and the inner realms. For example, yearning, at the correct place in the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, allows us to clearly connect with the divine, transcendent Light. Yearning is also an essential part of the process of dramatic invocation.
As children in our culture we are often taught to restrain our desires and wants. This may be done quietly violently or abusively. We thus never learn to mature our yearning and desires, and when they spring up spontaneously they often do so in childish and inappropriate ways. Energised yearning re-awakens our child-like ability to really, really want something and uses this desire to achieve connection with the divine. To do this we need first to learn to re-awaken our yearning and turn it off again in a safe and controlled manner. Then we need to learn how to place it under the control of our will. The first is achieved via the practices at the end of the notes, the second by the practices also, but mostly by development of the will through practices already given. Having a developed and controlled ability to yearn greatly increases the effectiveness of our esoteric prayers.
An Outline of Esoteric Prayer Practice
- Perform the Qabalistic Cross.
- Be seated in a comfortable position. If traditional poses such as kneeling help generate your powers of yearning, feel free to use them, but you need to stay in the position for a while so use whatever pillows and other aids you need.
- Reconnect with the Divinity experienced in the Qabalistic Cross.
- From that space – and only from that space (take as long as you need to regain that connected space) – examine yourself and honestly name those parts of yourself that do not seek Communion with your Sacred One(s). Name those actions and attitudes you remember that limit your connection with your Sacred One(s). Do not enter into the consciousness of those parts of yourself – observe them, as you do during your introspection practices. From your connected consciousness, make a willed decision not to engage in these actions and attitudes from now on. Then let go of the awareness of these attitudes and actions. Reconnect with the divinity from the Qabalistic Cross (perform it again if you wish).
This process is the esoteric meaning behind Catholic confession –facing our own limited selves and the conscious decision to let them go. There should be no negative emotion here, only observation and determination. This clears our interior space before communion with your Sacred Ones and is very important. Personally I use the sixth line of the Aramaic version of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ at this stage:
Washboqlan khaubayn (wakhtahayn) aykanna daph khnan shbwoqan l’khayyabayn.
This translates poetically as: “Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strands we hold of other’s guilt”.
- Focus upon your body. Once clearly aware of the body, focus upon the energy within your body -this is your etheric self. During these stages, do not change anything or judge. Simply be aware and be conscious of the connections between the physical body and etheric self.
- Now move your consciousness from the etheric self to the astral=emotional self. Again, pay attention to the connections and do not react, simply be aware. Finally, move your consciousness through the astral-emotional self to the mental self. Stay with this consciousness as much as you can.
- From this position, having aligned all the lower bodies with the mental consciousness you begin to pray.
- Dedicate the prayer to all within your web or all Beings. This generates more consciousness within the transpersonal self, the mental self.
- Now using whatever prayers you wish, pre-learnt spontaneous, mantra etc, generate emotional ‘desire’ through yearning to connect with your Sacred Ones.
- Keep repeating this process until the desire is strong.
- Then consciously move this yearning energy from the astral-emotional level to the mental. The translation from astral-emotional energy to mental plane energy is quite distinct and will take much practice to achieve. However, even in the early stages continue with the next stage anyway.
- Use the influx of mental energy (translated upwards from your astral self) as a vehicle by which your prayer is carried towards your Sacred One(s). Literally direct your prayer/consciousness into this energy and move it ‘towards’ your Sacred One(s). Again do this each time as if it is perfect, and over time you will develop this fully.
- During this process keep praying outwardly if you wish.
- Allow Communion or connection of your prayer with your Sacred One(s) to occur.
- At some point draw the blessings back through all of your selves: mental, astral-emotional, etheric and physical.
- At the end of the connection, consciously bring your consciousness back through each self. At each stage reflect for a moment on the blessings of connection now present within that self.
- Thank your Sacred Ones again.
- Ground more formally if required. Once adept at this practice the final stages are grounding themselves.