Tools for Prayer

First off: let’s not get too hung up right away on what you might mean by prayer. Let’s just call it making yourself more available to something beyond the easily visible business of everyday life. Or maybe deep within the business of everyday life. You might prefer to call it meditation; or centering; or mindfulness.

It connects you with something you need in order to live more deeply, fully, richly, and with more commitment to the repair of the world. It might be a response to surprise. Maybe you have an intuition that it’s Someone rather than Something who’s surprised you, so that you feel an impulse to blurt out, “Oh–it’s You again.” It might be a cry of the heart in the dark, or an upwelling of gratitude. It might be a plea: for yourself, for someone else, for a world in suffering.

There’s no right way to do it. And feeling like you don’t know how is in fact probably the best start. While you work your way into it, there are any number of tools you can use to keep yourself grounded.

Beads. Every Roman Catholic boy remembers–maybe they’re good, maybe very bad memories--doing laps around the Rosary. The beads of the Rosary are mostly grouped in tens and ones, each bead is assigned a specific prayer, and groups of beads are dedicated to different meditations. There’s nothing keeping you from using different prayers than the ones Sister Mary Ignatius taught you in kindergarten. Making your own rosary from scratch might itself be a powerful act of prayer, and a way to reclaim a tradition you’ve left behind.

If the Rosary means nothing to you–or if its associations are completely toxic– there are other options, like the mala, a string of 108 undifferentiated beads used by both Hindus and Buddhists. You can just breathe deeply and mindfully on each bead; or you can add some simple mantra or prayer to your breath as you make the circuit and arrive again the beginning. Malas come in smaller numbers of beads as well. The number of beads generally has numerological significance–which you might feel free to reinterpret. In Islam, the misbaha has 99 beads for the the 99 names of God.

Votive offerings. Candles flicker in innumerable Christian churches as visible witnesses to prayer. Milagros, replicas of body parts made of metal, wood, or wax, are offered in Mexico and through much of the Spanish-speaking world in supplication for healing, or in thanksgiving for cures. Wooden tablets called ema, often bearing whimsical art stenciled on one side, hang from racks in Shinto shrines bearing the prayers of the faithful. Abandoned crutches crowd the walls of the shrine at Lourdes.

Flags. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags represent an extraordinary and unique spiritual technology: flags are printed with the texts of mantras whose merits are carried into the universe, for the benefit of all sentient beings, by the wind that blows across them. They come strung together in multiples of five, in colors to signify the five Tibetan elements.

Prayer wheels. The Tibetan genius for understanding prayer as a material practice with spiritual import is embodied as well in the prayer wheel, a rotating cylinder inscribed with mantras, held in the hand, or affixed to a door or other architectural element. To turn the wheel, especially with deliberate intention and focus, is to recite the mantra and gain the merit of its recitation.