Pagan Contemplative Prayer

I have been trying sporadically to get into praying to Pagan deities for some time. I started with Ceisiwr Serith’s A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is excellent. I have also occasionally practised lectio divina. Pagan prayer does not assume that we are the passive recipients of favours from the deities; nor that Pagan deities are all-powerful or rulers of the universe. Pagan prayer is about an encounter with deities.

Mount Fuji, Japan

Reflection of Mount Fuji. [CC0 Public Domain]

Being a fairly lazy person, and not that great at keeping in touch with people (except on Facebook), I am not that great at maintaining a spiritual practice. Therefore, any practice that I engage in has to be simple, with no barriers to engaging in it, no effort to set it up, and of variable length.

However, John Beckett’s recent posts about building connections with deities and deepening your practice have galvanised me to try to do something.

Contemplative prayer is a practice that is fairly simple to understand, but which may take a lifetime to master. The person doing the prayer sits quietly, usually upright on a chair, and often uses a prayer word to focus the mind. When thoughts arise, don’t follow the train of thought, just let it go, and refocus on the prayer word (or your breath, if you are not using a prayer word).

In contemplative prayer, we descend into the depths of the psyche, and encounter the collective unconscious, and thereby the formless depths of the divine realms. Contemplative prayer is not solely an internal experience; it is an encounter with the divine that transcends the individual (note that I am referring to epistemological transcendence, the experience of something greater than oneself, and not ontological transcendence, which is the idea of something existing outside the universe).

I learnt a lot about contemplative prayer from reading two excellent books from the Christian tradition: Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. The first book (Into the Silent Land) deals with the stages of contemplative prayer and how one can deepen one’s practice. The second book (A Sunlit Absence) deals with the pitfalls and difficulties of contemplative prayer (boredom, distraction, feelings of dryness, lack of a sense of divine presence). Both are written entirely in the context of the Christian tradition, so as a Pagan and a polytheist, I needed to “translate in my head” as I went along. Nevertheless, these are outstanding books which explore the techniques and mental states of contemplative prayer in great detail.

In Pagan contemplative prayer, the focus of the practice might be the name of a virtue that you wish to cultivate; the spirit of a place you wish to connect with; the name of a deity whom you worship; an image or statue of a deity; a rune or a Tarot card; or a mandala. Focusing on an external image may make you reliant on the external image for maintaining your focus, but it can be useful, especially if the image is seen as a gateway or window onto the Otherworld, rather than merely an image. The point of contemplative prayer is not necessarily to ask for anything, but just to enjoy the presence of the deity you are communing with. You can, however, combine it with other forms of prayer if you wish.

My personal practice is to sit quietly, saying the name of the deity I wish to commune with, and maybe adding a few words in praise of their deeds, attributes, or qualities. I then recite their name, saying it once on the in-breath and once on the out-breath. I find I need to spend at least five minutes, preferably ten or fifteen, to really experience the presence of the deity. I usually try to commune with at least two deities (the patron deities of Wicca, and some of the deities with whom I have a personal connection).

Pagan prayer

There are several different types of prayer:

  • contemplative prayer (communing with a deity, usually in silence);
  • intercessory prayer (praying for help for someone else);
  • petitionary prayer (praying for help for yourself);
  • thanksgiving;
  • adoration, devotion;
  • prayer of approach (preparing to enter a deity’s presence);
  • invocation (asking a deity to be present);
  • bidding prayer (a suggestion to participants to pray for a particular thing);
  • confession and penitence (though I would be surprised if any Pagans do this, as we do not tend to regard wrong acts as injuring a deity, only as injuring the physical person(s) who were harmed by them);
  • words of reassurance (for the benefit of the participants of the ritual);
  • healing prayer;
  • expressing aspiration (e.g. “may we be blessed”);
  • reflection (reflecting on events).

Prayer is not just asking a deity to do things for you. It can be used as a means of creating a sacred context for your activities, by opening proceedings with a prayer. An invocation of a deity is a form of prayer. An evocation of an elemental spirit is a form of prayer.  Many Pagans dismiss prayer as “passive magic” (as opposed to doing spells, which they class as “active magic”). This reduces prayer only to petitionary and intercessory prayer – but there are many other kinds of prayer, as you can see from the list above (which may not be a complete list).

There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: for example, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer).

Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose one of the Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry, or the Eight Wiccan Virtues, or one of the Roman virtues, to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word.

Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with a deity. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.

Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth).

What is the purpose of prayer? I don’t think it is only for the benefit of the deity being prayed to. I think it is for the benefit of the one doing the praying. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul.

In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,

“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”

To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what contemplative prayer feels like. (Your mileage may vary.)

Ceisiwr Serith produced A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is an excellent starting point if you are new to this practice. The books suggests a lot of different types of prayer, and to many different deities.

Prayer can be personal and private, or collective. When sharing a prayer with others, it can be difficult to express your theological viewpoint without excluding others.  One proposed solution is to say “this is a prayer from my tradition” and perhaps invite people to “translate in their heads” if it does not quite work for them.

There are prayers in many different Pagan traditions, including devotional polytheism, Feri, Reclaiming, Wicca, Druidry, and many others. The theological stance of these prayers may vary from monism to ‘hard’ polytheism. A prayer does not have to be to a deity; you can also pray to spirits of place, or commune with Nature. I do not think there is anything wrong with adapting prayers to fit your own theology (as long as you state your sources, to avoid plagiarism, if you are praying the prayer in public).

You don’t have to close your eyes or kneel down to pray. Many people (e.g. Eastern Orthodox Christians) pray with their eyes open and their hands extended to indicate that they recognise the divine in the world.  You could experiment with different positions. Some traditions use prayer beads; there are some lovely Pagan prayer beads available.

A prayer can be nothing more than time taken to set an intention for the day, or to contemplate the day’s events before going to sleep. It can be time spent communing with a deity, or holding others that you care about in your awareness and wishing them well. It can take place at your personal altar, or just in your head. It can be spoken or unspoken, formal or informal, and involve stillness or movement. It can involve descending into your own depths to find a connection with all-that-is; or it can be reaching out to a deity or spirit of place; or some other process. Different people experience it differently.