Anatomy of a Prayer

There are many forms a prayer can take; it need not have a particular shape. If you are going to pray, the primary thing is to pay attention to your intention. After that, nearly any words (or silences) will serve.

I don’t know how many in our congregation pray. The stereotype of Unitarian Universalists is that we range from uncomfortable to ambivalent about prayer. We prayer “to whom it may concern” or we use an inordinate number of euphemism (“Spirit of Life and Love, Great Spirit, Holy One, You who are known by many names …”) Yet I am always surprised by the larger than expected number of us who pray.

So here are some useful tips in creating your own prayers. I was read recently that there are five basic types of prayer: “Wow,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” “Please,” and “­­­____.” (That last one is ‘silence.’) Of course some will tell you the number of basic prayer forms is really 2 or 22, but I like 5, so let’s stick with that for now.

When I write prayers for the worship services I use a basic format most of the time. I start with an address. I’ve settled on “Eternal Spirit, from whom all things come and to whom all things return.” I’ve used other phrases as well. The classic, “Dear God,” is always an option. This may be the exact part that is the line between a person who prays and a person who does ‘spoken meditation.’ If it fits your theology better, perhaps you will skip this opening part of the format.

Typically I then list some things for which we are thankful followed by some things for which we could use support. This is the bulk of the prayer, the middle content for me. It is a combination of the “Thank you” and the “Please” in that list of 5 types of prayer. Each day there may be different things, and there are things that are regularly in my prayers.

I usually end with “In the name of all that is holy, may it be so.” I find it helpful to have this pattern. There is comfort in familiar patterns. I also find it helpful that I have room in this structure to say whatever I need to say at the time – that I have room for my intention as I mentioned at the beginning.

Prayer can be a spiritual practice to take inventory of your heart and conscience. It can be a way of drawing on your reserves of courage. It may serve as a method to center and calm your mind. It might be a means to stir up a community to act on behalf of justice. Prayer can be like art or poetry – a means of expression for things that simply must be expressed. Or it may be a way to remind yourself of the qualities you long to share with the world.

Find a pattern that works for you. That’s the part in which it becomes a ‘spiritual practice.’ Remember, your intention is the key. Your intention is more important that the theology beneath your words.