First published in The Huffington Post
At the heart of most religions is prayer: a way to communicate with God. There are the prescribed prayers, the rituals of inner communion. But there is also our own personal prayer—our way of being with God. For the mystic this is the prayer of the heart, in which our heart cries out to God, cries our need for our Beloved.
Need is the beginning of prayer. We feel alone and in need. And only the divine can answer this need. Calling out from the depths of our being, we make known our need to our self and to God. We pray according to our need, and according to the need of the moment. At different times our needs are different. We may pray for forgiveness, for understanding, for kindness. We may pray that our relationships not be clouded in mistrust or that our children not suffer. We pray for our self and for others. All of the myriad difficulties that we encounter in our daily life we can embrace in our prayer, the difficulties of our own self and the troubles of the world. We hope to bring God's attention to these problems, so that infinite love and grace can reach into the world and help with the pain of being human. Prayer is infinitely powerful because it connects us with God's infinite power. In praying, we offer up the difficulties of living in a world in which the divine often appears to be absent, in the deepest knowledge that only the divine can really help us—that it is the source of all life and all love. We who are so small and alone look to God, and so turn our attention from the many back to the One. Sometimes people think, "Why should I bother God? How can my difficulties be of concern to this Great Being?" But this is in fact arrogance, because it places the individual before God. We are a part of God's world, and if we are in need we should turn toward God.
So many times it appears that our prayer is not heard, that we are forgotten, alone. And yet as the mystic says, "If the heart has heard the prayer, God has heard the prayer." And more important than any specific answer is the act of prayer, in which we turn toward God. In our busy lives it is so easy to forget the divine, to be immersed in our own problems and our own selves. The mystic knows that what really matters is the inner connection of the heart in which our heart opens and cries. It is something so simple and yet so easily overlooked. It is a way to be with God.
Learning to pray is also learning to listen. Within the heart we wait for an answer, for God's words, which may come even when we have not asked. Listening is a form of prayer, in which our whole being is receptive. Prayer is communion with God; we share with Him our needs, and we also learn to be attentive, as Rumi so beautifully writes:
Make everything in you an ear, each atom of your being, and you will hear at every moment what the Source is whispering to you, just to you and for you, without any need for my words or anyone else's. You are—we all are—the beloved of the Beloved, and in every moment, in every event of your life, the Beloved is whispering to you exactly what you need to hear and know. Who can ever explain this miracle? It simply is. Listen and you will discover it every passing moment. Listen, and your whole life will become a conversation in thought and act between you and Him, directly, wordlessly, now and always.
Listening within the heart is attuning our self to our Beloved. We develop the ear of the heart, the inner listening of the soul. Sometimes God communicates directly with words. We may hear these words as a still, small voice, or a thought suddenly appearing. In the silence of receptive prayer, the prayer of the quiet, we may hear words of help and guidance. Or our innermost may speak to us in dreams, when words carry an energy that we know does not belong to our psyche. Sometimes we open a book we know and the words that we read are a message from our Beloved. In so many ways, some known, some hidden, God speaks to us, answers our prayers.
We each have our own way of being with God, our own way of prayer. For some of us prayer takes place in the dark hours of the night, when we lie awake and our need is most pressing. Some find it easiest to pray as they walk, finding the presence of nature a way to access this inner communion. Others may pray while they are in their garden, feeling the presence of the divine among their flowers. Some pray when they see suffering, while others may find their heart opens when they experience beauty. In many cathedrals, temples and mosques there is the tangible presence of prayer, of so many souls looking towards God. Prayer is something essential to a human being and it belongs to the heart's relationship to the divine.
For more on prayer of the heart, see Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee's book, The Circle Of Love