Prayer, Meditation — What's the Difference?

By Jim Walker

Some of you may be feeling a little apprehensive, and rightly so. You may be wondering, What is he going to say? Jim is a Catholic. He's probably going to try to fill us up with popery. And the Pope's a Nazi.

Well just relax and breathe a sigh of relief. I don't intend to preach. What I want to say this morning is more like an individual installment of Building Your Own Theology, and I want to thank Bruce for prodding us so persistently to think about what we believe. What I want to talk about this morning is my beliefs, or rather my faith, for as Mark Twain wrote, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

It is true, however, that at the end I will ask you to do something for me, but I hope that will not be too much of an imposition.

So let's talk about prayer. Please do not be afraid of the word "prayer". What does it mean? Depends on who you ask or where you look. Here is a bare-bones definition: Prayer is talking to God.

Oops! now I've done it. Trying to make you feel comfortable about the word "prayer," and I've gone and said the G word. Forget I said it. Let's use a different definition. Prayer is an attempt to communicate with some deity, or deities, or some other spiritual entity, or divine presence, or universal force or higher power or otherwise. Whatever. It doesn't much matter whom you think you are talking to, it's just something bigger than yourself, or at least bigger than your conscious self.

Why would you want to do this? There could be many motives, of course, but the main ones seem to be petition, intercession, praise and thanksgiving. These same motives seem to constitute the greater part of our Candles of Community. I'm not saying that the Candles of Community are prayers, although I do hear the word "prayer" mentioned occasionally when someone is lighting a candle. But more often folks talk about "positive energy" or "good thoughts" or something else with a less overtly religious connotation. Or there is just an unspoken understanding that sharing a concern somehow eases the burden.

I try to judge religion in general and religious practices in particular by their fruits. What might be the fruits of these various types of prayer?

In Varieties of Religious Experience, which was published in 1902, the philosopher and psychologist William James had this to say about the effects of prayer:

The religious phenomenon, studied as in inner fact, and apart from ecclesiastical or theological complications, has shown itself to consist everywhere, and at all its stages, in the consciousness which individuals have of an intercourse between themselves and higher powers with which they feel themselves to be related. This intercourse is realized at the time as being both active and mutual. If it be not effective; if it be not a give and take relation; if nothing be really transacted while it lasts; if the world is in no whit different for its having taken place; then prayer, taken in this wide meaning of a sense that something is transacting, is of course a feeling of what is illusory, and religion must on the whole be classed, not simply as containing elements of delusion – these undoubtedly everywhere exist – but as being rooted in delusion altogether, just as materialists and atheists have always said it was. The genuineness of religion is thus indissolubly bound up with the question of whether the prayerful consciousness be or be not deceitful. The conviction that something is genuinely transacted in this consciousness is the very core of living religion. As to what is transacted, great differences of opinion have prevailed.

That's a pretty strong statement, isn't it? To put it as bluntly as possible, what William James is saying is that if prayer is not working for you, you might as well forget about religion, at least as a spiritual path. Without effective prayer, religion might still serve some social or moral function, but it would be, in James' words, "rooted in delusion altogether."

Some of you have probably already come to this conclusion on your own. Others may have truly convincing experience of the power of pray in your lives. Probably most of us are struggling somewhere in between. All we have is faith, and we know what Mark Twain had to say about that. I put myself in the latter category.

So how might prayer be working in your life? What about prayer of petition? Do you get what you ask for? Perhaps the best known prayer of petition is the beautiful hymn written by … Janis Joplin: "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz." It worked for Janis, why not for me? And if God is so smart, why should I even have to ask? She ought to know what I want.

But there other things to pray for than Mercedes Benzes. Mercy for one. As Mary Gauthier was singing at the beginning of this service, "We all could use a little mercy now." We are none of us masters of adversity. It is a rare hard-core atheist whose mind does not turn to something resembling prayer in the face of death. The one time I prayed longest and most fervently was when I thought I was dying, and here I am now.

At least prayer of petition is an admission that we are not in control of our own lives – we need some help.

How about intercession? Many of the Candles of Community are actually requests for intercession on behalf of someone else who is facing some kind of difficulty. But if we have trouble discerning the effects of our prayer in our own life, how can our prayers possibly help someone else? That's a mystery.

On two occasions before she passed away, Mary Swinford told me that a friend of hers had arranged for every nun in Boston to pray for Mary. Obviously, their prayers didn't cure Mary, but they did seem to make her very optimistic.

I like to think that whenever we light the Candles of Community now there is another candle burning – Mary's candle. Mary shared our joys and concerns when she was here with us physically, and I believe, or at least I have faith, that now she has passed beyond the veil of time she is in a powerful position to act as an intercessor on our behalf.

So what I have to say is: Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee… Holy Mary, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

That's about as far as I can go with prayer. What about meditation?

In my understanding, meditation easily fits within the definition of prayer in a broader sense. If prayer is talking to God, meditation is communicating with a higher power. If prayer often asks for what is desired, meditation always accepts what is offered. If this communication is outwardly directed in prayer, in meditation the direction is inward, since while the personal God to whom our prayers are directed resides primarily outside of ourselves, the higher power that we attempt to contact in meditation is most accessible within ourselves. And ultimately I believe that the personal God of prayer and the higher power of meditation are one and the same.

William James again:

If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God's existence come in, I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of "prayerful communion," especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious take part in it, immediately suggests. The appearance is that in this phenomenon something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our center of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways.

For me, meditation is more plausible, feasible and effective. Particularly here, in the presence of all of us together. I believe that our prayers and meditation are more powerful here in the physical presence of our community. Along with the Candles of Community, the silent meditation is my favorite part of the Sunday service. And that is precisely my motivation for speaking to you today – I want to experience more of this community-based meditation. So just for today, I ask you to meditate together a little longer – just a few minutes.

When she was here last time, in preparing us for silent meditation, Rev. Marti Keller asked us to concentrate on our own breath and "the breath of the beloved community." I believe that there is power in this beloved community, and if prayer, or meditation, is ever going to have an effect, this is a good place for it to happen.

So, if you would, sit up, put your feet firmly on the floor, close your eyes, breathe and share a few minutes of silent meditation. At the end of this time, I will read one more quotation from William James.

The belief is, not that particular events are tempered more towardly to us by a superintending providence, as a reward for our reliance, but that by cultivating the continuous sense of our connection with the power that made things as they are, we are tempered more towardly for their reception. The outward face of nature need not alter, but the expression of meaning in it alter… So when one's affections keep in touch with the divinity of the world's authorship, fear and egotism fall away… It is as if all doors were opened, and all paths freshly smoothed. We meet a new world when we meet the old world in the spirit which this kind of prayer infuses.