Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul. — Joseph Ernest Renan, French philosopher and historian
Prayer helps us to identify our motives, our pains, our cravings, and joys. As we come to know ourselves, we are changed beyond selfishness into harmony with those Presences from which we spring and to which we return. Prayer is not a request to shape the future to our desires, but a way for us to offer ourselves to the Larger Process. Martin Luther said that we pray not to instruct God but rather to instruct ourselves. — Vern Barnet, minister emeritus, Center for Religious Experience and Study ( Kansas City, Missouri )
Christians pray, Buddhists pray, Jews pray, Muslims pray, humanists pray, atheists pray, agnostics pray, philosophers pray, the righteous pray, the unrighteous pray, some Unitarian Universalists pray and some do not, in the formal sense, but I believe, in the broader sense, Unitarian Universalists, of all the people I know, pray hard and long. We are praying people. Emerson, remember, called prayer "the soul's sincere desire." I've never heard it put better. — Rev. Thomas Mikelson, in a January 7, 2002 sermon at the First Church in Cambridge ( Massachusetts )
Prayer is a constant in human experience across eras and cultures, with petitions, lamentations, gratitude and requests for intercession expressed in a great variety of words, art and physical postures. Prayer can be our window to whatever energy, life force or deity we believe exists beyond our selves. It can also provide a mirror to examine our deepest personal and spiritual needs and concerns.
Unitarian Universalism is theologically inclusive, and thus embraces many concepts and practices of prayer. Some would identify viewing a sunset or attending a peace march as a prayer experience. Some find meaning in traditional prayer words and rituals from our Jewish and Christian faith heritages or another faith tradition in which they were raised. Some use Buddhist- or Hindu-rooted meditation as prayer. Some Unitarian Universalists make deep spiritual connections yet see no role for prayer in their lives.
This session presents a definition of prayer that young Unitarian Universalists can use whether they embrace humanism, atheism, deism or theism or their beliefs have yet to settle. In keeping with the window/mirror theme, participants respectfully experience prayer practices which may be new to them and explore or imagine a role for prayer in their own lives.
Note: You may wish to use the six prayer figure silhouettes by the late religious educator Reverend Barbara Marshman (Leader Resource 1) to decorate your meeting space for this session.
Prayer Stations — Which Prayer Practices?
The practices you present in Activity 4, Prayer Stations, will depend on the adult volunteers available to demonstrate, explain and lead practices with which they themselves are familiar. The Description of Activity section offers Unitarian Universalist interpretations of a variety of prayer practices from diverse faith and cultural traditions, including our own. Adapt them as you are comfortable. Present only those for which you have a true practitioner handy. Do not attempt to provide a crash course in world religions. Rather, aim to widen children's awareness of prayer practices and offer tools they might adopt in their own lives of contemplation.
If possible, arrange to use additional rooms, so adults staffing the prayer stations can play quiet music, lead singing or chanting, or have children spread out to stretch their bodies without disrupting another prayer station.
To give prayer stations more time, consider including Activity 5, Window/Mirror Panel, as a prayer station. You might set up Window/Mirror Panel work tables as the "last stop" for all the children. A co-leader can lead the Activity 5 discussion with individuals or small groups as they arrive to begin work on their panels.
Anticipate participant discomfort with unfamiliar or difficult practices. Some children may express discomfort with inappropriate giggling or mockery. It may help to remind the group of your Windows and Mirrors covenant and/or to go over Handout 2, Respecting Others' Spiritual Practices, at the start of the prayer station activity. Identify an adult whose sole task is to take aside any child who behaves disrespectfully. Most children this age will be able to take a short break to collect themselves and then rejoin the activity at another prayer station.
This session will:
- Introduce prayer as a personal religious practice Unitarian Universalist faith can guide and support in a variety of forms
- Explore prayer's purposes of thanks, regret and hope
- Present a variety of prayer practices used in different faiths and cultures, including our own
- Teach participants how to respectfully explore unfamiliar prayer practices
- Lead participants to reflect on why, how, and to what or whom they do—or might—pray.
- Understand a Unitarian Universalism definition of prayer
- Explore purposes and meanings of prayer through a Unitarian Universalist lens
- Experience several prayer practices and rituals, expanding their cultural literacy about various faiths' and cultures' practices
- Reflect on how various approaches to prayer do or might serve their own spiritual needs and their search for truth and meaning
- Demonstrate respect for the religious practices of others.