William Page retired from teaching English at Thammasat University in Bankok. He has associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Thailand. This article was published in the Winter, 2010 issue of American Vedantist and is reprinted with their permission.
Prayer is the primary spiritual practice in the Western religious tradition embodied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Westerners who come to Vedanta usually feel more comfortable with prayer than they do with meditation, because they’re more familiar with it. But prayer, japa, and meditation can be practiced together. One tends to segue into another.
Prayer is particularly suited to people who like to talk. It’s especially beneficial to those who are lonely and need someone to talk to. Why be lonely? God is with us. He’s right here, right now. He’s in the air that surrounds us. So talk to him. That’s what he’s there for. But what should we talk to him about?
Some people ask for specific blessings or favors. “O Lord, please help me to pass all my courses, let me find a good job, let me earn enough money to buy a car.” This is called petitionary prayer, and it has a shortcoming. It turns God into a cosmic Santa Claus.
If God were human, he would surely get irritated with people who are always begging him for things. Fortunately for us, he’s not human. But good manners require us to exercise restraint in our importunities. Pestering God for favors all the time is extremely uncool.
Petitionary prayer, despite its shortcomings, is at least a beginning. It can easily expand into less self-centered kinds of prayer. One of these is thankful prayer. Anybody can ask God for things. How many people bother to thank him?
Thankful prayer is a good way to start the day. It puts us in a good mood and reminds us of how much God has blessed us. Counting our blessings, in fact, is a wholesome practice much neglected in the modern world. Thanking God for everything he’s given us may still be self-centered, but it’s a considerable improvement over “gimme, gimme, gimme.”
There’s also laudatory prayer, where we praise God and recount his glories. I’ve always felt uneasy about this, because it can get smarmy. “O Lord, how great you are! You are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. You bestride the universe and give light to the sun and stars. The heavens are your throne and the Earth is your footstool. O Lord, you are so cool!”
Does God want us to butter him up? Is he pleased when we flatter and fawn upon him like groveling serfs? Are we trying to turn him into a fathead? I can picture him listening to the prayer above and growling, “Yes, yes, yes, I know all that. Get to the point. What do you want now?”
One of the best kinds of prayer is conversational prayer, which means simply talking to God. This brings us back to the question we asked at the beginning: What should we talk to him about?
Anything and everything: whatever is going on, both in our minds and in the world. We can discuss knotty theological questions with him if we like, or any doubts that we may have. We can ask for his advice and guidance. Adults can talk to him about their families and their jobs; children can talk about their friends and their schoolwork. We can talk about our hobbies, sports, and even politics. I know a devotee who, as an adolescent, used to discuss current events with God. It turned out to be excellent preparation for his Social Studies classes.
A wonderful embodiment of conversational prayer was Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century Carmelite monk whose writings have been compiled into a little book called The Practice of the Presence of God. He cultivated God’s presence by constantly conversing with him. He was a simple and humble man who worked as a cook in the monastery kitchen, and described himself as “a clumsy lummox who broke everything.” (The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, translated by John J. Delaney, Image Books, Doubleday, New York, 1996, p. xxi.)
Whether at work or at rest, Brother Lawrence talked to God about everything, all the time, and experienced a constant sense of his presence. I picture him as a big, burly guy, lumbering around the kitchen in his apron, juggling the pots and pans and talking to God. I’ve often wondered how these conversations, which may have been somewhat one-sided, might have gone. They might have gone something like this:
“O Lord, please help me to make this casserole a tasty one. I want it to please the monks. Should I add more salt? What do you think, Lord? … All right, it’s salty enough. A bit of pepper, then. … Good, it tastes good. Into the oven, then. … Out of the oven and onto the table. And, Lord, please help me not to drop it, clumsy lummox that I am.”
Some people will scoff at this kind of prayer as nothing more than childish chatter. But Jesus reminds us that we have to become like children to enter the Kingdom of God; and our minds are always chattering. Why not funnel such chatter into a constant conversation with God?
“Well,” people will say, “God will get bored. Do you think he has nothing to do but listen to some simple-minded fool prattling about casseroles? God has more important things to do with his time. He’s got the entire universe to run.”
And that’s where they’re wrong. God does have the universe to run, but he’s concerned with the microcosm as well as the macrocosm. He’s intimately involved in both. He has a keen interest in the lives of his devotees, and doesn’t mind being bored. In fact, he likes being bored. Whenever a devotee reaches out and talks to him, God is delighted.
How do I know this? Because it makes sense. He wouldn’t be much of a God if he weren’t concerned about the things that concern his devotees. He won’t care if the devotee’s prattle is boring. What he values is not so much the prattle, but the reaching out. After all, how many people reach out to him? How many bother to talk to him at all?
Sri Ramakrishna was the king of devotees, and he really knew how to pray. There was nothing formal or rehearsed about his prayers. They were artless and spontaneous. I’ve often wished that they could be compiled into a book, so that anybody who wanted to learn how to pray could read it and find out.
We know that we can approach God as a beloved master, as a close friend, as our father or mother, or even as our own child. Sri Ramakrishna assures us that God is our nearest and dearest. And that’s how Sri Ramakrishna approached him. He was never shy or diffident; he never held anything back.
His prayers were spontaneous outpourings of emotion, passionate and intense. He prayed the way a child cries out for its mother. Before his first vision of Kali, his only prayer was for her to reveal herself. After his first vision, his only prayer was for her to reveal herself again and again, and to stay with him forever. In all his subsequent prayers, he conversed with her the same way a child converses with its mother: now cajoling, now weeping, now satisfied, now laughing, now grateful, now philosophical, now petulant and complaining. You can’t beat Sri Ramakrishna when it comes to praying.
Above all, Sri Ramakrishna prayed for bhakti, pure love for God. “Mother, here is Thy knowledge and here is Thy ignorance. Take them both, and give me only pure love. Here is Thy holiness and here is Thy unholiness. Take them both, Mother, and give me pure love. Here is Thy good and here is Thy evil. Take them both, Mother, and give me pure love. Here is Thy righteousness and here is Thy unrighteousness. Take them both, Mother, and give me pure love.” (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1947, p. 312.)
By his example, Sri Ramakrishna taught us how to transform petitionary prayer into a constant reaching for God. If we’re going to ask for anything, Sri Ramakrishna says, we should ask for bhakti. For it is through bhakti that God is most easily attained; and by asking him for bhakti, we ask him for the greatest gift of all: himself.