How I pray is breathe.” -Thomas Merton
I grew up with the slogan, “Prayer changes things,” which I believed. I was just wrong about what got changed.
I thought it could change my lot, save my soul, rescue people I cared about. I hoped I could change God’s mind. Not surprisingly, that kind of prayer didn’t “work.” When it didn’t, we spoke of “unanswered prayer,” as if our pleas had ended up in heaven’s dead letter bin. “Answered prayers,” we were taught, came in one of three messages: Yes, No, and Maybe Later.
As I grew old enough to question the basic assumptions of that kind of prayer, I stopped praying. I knew how to pray in public (I became a pastor, after all), but I had no idea how to be by myself in the presence of God.
In my forties, when I found I was unable to locate my own soul, I was worried enough to seek help and I ended up sitting with Basil Pennington, a prayer master. Gradually I learned to sit in a few minutes of silence, just wordlessly saying yes to the divine presence. I started paying attention to my breath as literal inspiration. It felt like nothing, and yet I was drawn to it.
Thinking back to those days when I hoped my entreaties could possibly change God’s mind, it’s ironic and even a little comical that the mind that finally changed was mine. And I don’t just mean that I thought differently about things; I mean that my mind was altered.
In her new book, Practice the Pause, author and spiritual director Caroline Oakes uses evidence from groundbreaking neuroscience to demonstrate that even brief periods of this kind of quiet prayer actually re-wire the human brain. In as little as five thirty-minute sessions, brain scans of first-time meditators show a different circuitry. The parts of the brain that stimulate fight-or-flight stress shrink on the screen, while the parts that allow us to stay calm, present, and compassionate actually get larger.
While I didn’t know what was happening to my brain when I first learned to be still, I felt something change within. This was prayer I could believe in. This was a God I could trust, and to whom I could entrust those I loved.
Prayer changes things, yes. It can change your mind, literally, if you say yes.
Why is prayer such a struggle?
Question # 12 , “Are you the person you say you are?” comes Tuesday March 21.