How We Pray Shapes How We Decide

5049125131_c33b5d8730_zA board meeting is called to order and the pastor is asked to provide an opening prayer. The pastor’s offering includes a scripture verse, a poem, and a reflection on the sure and steady nature of God’s presence.  It is a beautiful and inspiring invocation, filled with rich phrases and evocative theological ideas. A good prayer, but does it help the board do better work in the meeting that follows?

What is the point of including prayer in the “business” meetings of the church? Is it something more than a throw-away or feel good act? Does the nature of our prayer influence how we discern and decide? It should.

Two Forms of Prayer

There are many ways to categorize prayer. An ancient classification uses two Greek words that are clumsy, but useful in illuminating this conversation.

Kataphatic prayer is content based, built on the positive assertions we make about God. It uses words, images, symbols, and ideas to approach God. We take pieces of what we believe to be true and offer supplication based on those ideas and thoughts. Litanies, creeds, guided reflections, and spoken intercessions are all examples of this form of prayer. The pastor’s opening devotion in the meeting described above was kataphatic prayer.

Apophatic prayer has no content. We empty our minds of words and ideas, simply resting in the presence of God with us.  We acknowledge that God is bigger than our knowing, greater than our capacity to describe. Apophatic prayer rests on pure experience. Breathe prayers, silent meditation, centering prayer, and body prayer are all examples of the apophatic approach.

Both forms of prayer are inherently good. Each honors God and each stimulates different parts of the brain.  Balancing both prayer types equips us for different kinds of work. In the mainline Protestant tradition, we tend to over-emphasize kataphatic prayer and we are less reliant on apophatic prayer. Unfortunately, because of this imbalance we limit our creative capacities and our ability to discern.

Left and Right Brain Response

Kataphatic prayers stimulate left brain responses. They engage our objective, logical and analytical skills. Groups who center their work with word-based, content prayers reinforce rational thinking in the work that follows.

Following the pastor’s prayer in our earlier example, members of the board were asked to choose between two possible tenants for rental space in their building. The group discussed all that they logically knew about the rental situation. They asserted the pros and cons of each alternative. They advocated on behalf of various special interest groups in the congregation.  In the end they reached a sound decision, but should we describe their process as a discernment? In other words, did board members orient themselves to the mind and will of God? Probably not. It was an amalgam of their best efforts, offered up to God.  Worthy work to be sure, but not discernment.

Apophatic prayers engage the right side of the brain. The right side of the brain is where we perceive and synthesize the wholeness of things. This is also where we intuit religious experience and the movement of Spirit. If discernment is a goal, then apophatic prayer is a better introduction to the work. A group that grounds its work in apophatic prayer is more likely to open itself to the mystery and movement of God when considering alternatives and making choices.

Introducing Alternatives

The introduction of non-content prayer takes intentionality and persistence.  People may resist at first because they feel uncomfortable with the absence of words and ideas. In time they learn to value the power of the wordless experience. Consider these three practices that support the fuller integration of both prayer forms:

1. Focus on Emptying: Leaders are not good discerners when they are “filled up” with all that they already know about the state of the church, and the state of the problem they are solving. Create opportunities in the meeting for participants to shed preconceived ideas, certainties and fears. You can do this with breath prayer, body prayer or with journaling exercises. You can use the power of confession and the Ignatian practice of examen to set aside sins, wounding, agendas and the needs of personal ego.

2. Invite Stillness: Stillness is a rested state of openness and receptivity. It allows people to listen more authentically to each other and to attend the movement of Spirit within the room. Stillness often emerges naturally in a group that has done their emptying work. However, the practice of silence can help to deepen stillness.  

Groups are often uncomfortable with silence because there is so little of it in our culture. You may need to begin with brief periods of silence that gradually lengthen as the group learns to appreciate silence’s power. You can use guided meditation to slowly move away from words, gradually leading a group into the quiet.

 In a problem solving process the use of silence at disciplined moments in time is important. Frame the issue to be discussed, and then invite silence before further discussion begins. Invite another period of silence after alternative courses of action have been discussed and before a call for consensus or vote begins

3. Take Away the Words: Once a group has explored an issue using all of their best logic and employing all of their best words, introduce a word free experience.

Place a set of pictures at the center of the table and ask them to let a picture choose them, one that speaks to the complexity of the situation at hand. Or, provide participants with a small prayer mandala to trace/color, or a hand held finger labyrinth to engage. Introduce instrumental music and ask them to sit quietly and let the music speak to their spiritual heart about the situation under consideration. Invite the group to stand and reach upward with their hands to the “more” that is available to them through God, and to surrender downwards to what is (bending at the waist, folding into self and dropping hands to the floor.) The group can pick the discussion back up after one of these quieting exercises.

We don’t have to abandon our beautiful word prayers and litanies. However, if we want to deepen discernment and tap into creativity, we do need to balance those prayers with content free forms of devotion. With time and intention, we can teach leaders the creative power of emptying, stillness, and silence. They will come to value a pure expression of divine Presence, one that is not dependent on their best thinking.