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Capture Your Prayer Flags

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Bhutan, prayer flags

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We pray, not because God needs it, but because we do. Prayer is a sacrament, an outer, visible expression of an inner, invisible grace — or intention.

This article appeared in our April 2003 issue.

Last year I took a journey into the remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which is in the high Himalayas, sandwiched between India, China, and Tibet. There I experienced an entire culture that prays without ceasing. Waking in a village before dawn, the first sounds we heard were monks chanting or households repeating the great prayer of the Lord Buddha — Om Mani Padma Hum. Even when there were no voices, there was still prayer. Everywhere, multicolored prayer flags fluttered in the breeze — atop the hills overlooking the villages, in the mountain passes, by the small farms tucked into the deep valleys. In auspicious places by streams, water-powered prayer wheels turned constantly. In nooks in the cliffs alongside the trails were tiny shrines that contained ritual statuettes made from compressed earth mixed with the ashes of the dead. A monk told us that the wind and the water, like human beings, should constantly offer prayers.

Taken literally, this is all nonsense. Tibetan Buddhists have a saying about their fantastic sacred stories and bizarre claims of supernatural happenings: “You are a fool if you believe these stories.” And the hard-nosed, anti-mystical, no-nonsense realists among us hasten to agree: “Exactly. Prayer is nothing but primitive superstition.”

But not so quickly. The second part of the Buddhist injunction is: “You are a fool if you don’t believe them.” There is something going on in prayer that is not to be explained by calling it either communication with God or childish wishful thinking.

We pray, I believe, not because God needs it, but because we do. As a friend of mine says, “I don’t believe in prayer. I just do it because I can’t help myself. When I am overwhelmed by the death of a friend or the wonder of walking through Muir Woods at midday, the expression of grief or thankfulness is simply squeezed out of me.” Prayer is a sacrament, an outer, visible expression of an inner, invisible grace — or intention. We use words not because God speaks English, Swahili, or Hebrew, but because we do. We are linguistic and narrative animals. We are not really human until we can say Momma, Daddy; I’m scared; I want; thank you. The more human we get, the more adept we become at saying complicated things in clear and poetic ways. The more we articulate the deepest desires of the heart, the more we tell who we are to those we love the most. Maybe the measure of love is how many unspeakable things we manage to express within the sanctuary of intimacy.

Think of our verbalizing our deepest sorrows, wounds, desires, concerns, fears, hopes, and joys as planting inner prayer flags in the vast territories of the self — the known regions and the terra incognita. Think of it as signaling the intention to inhabit, colonize, and cultivate your entire soulscape, to bring your life under the dominion of what is sacred, godly, and abiding. In short, to pledge allegiance to the most profound presence of God you can discover in your journey through the years of your life.

If this seems like a grandiose intention, we need only remember that our inner landscape is always colonized and governed by exterior forces and concerns. Someone is always planting flags, claiming ownership of our time, energy, money, loyalty. In the United States we currently live in a highly secular, global economic, consumer, entertainment environment that colonizes our desires and promises us more and more of everything. Every TV commercial is a mini-story promising health and happiness if we buy brand X or Y. We are always being urged to place the flags of God and Country in tandem, turning God into a tool of politicians to sanction the most aggressive and bloody policies.

What flags fly over your soulscape? Who or what governs your desires, intentions, concerns? What do you think about when you get up in the morning? What is the climate of your psyche? What moods? Many explorers of the life of the spirit have suggested ways of planting inner prayer flags.

In the 17th century, Brother Lawrence tried to practice the presence of God in everything he did: washing the dishes, scrubbing his monk’s cell. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the more mystical believers practiced the pilgrim prayer, constantly repeating, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Contemporary Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we follow the rhythm of our breathing. Inhaling, silently say “Peace.” Exhaling, allow a slight smile to break forth. Some Christians have made a breath mantra of the phrase “Breathe through me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew.”

For me, the prayer flag that represents the highest vision of what my soulscape and the climate of my inner life might be like if they were ever transformed into a fully sacred place is contained in the prayer of St. Francis.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

“O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”


Sam Keen, whose Psychology Today conversations brought Joseph Campbell, Norman O. Brown, and other seminal thinkers to national attention, holds two M.A.s in theology from Harvard and a Princeton Ph.D. in philosophy. His books include the best-seller Fire in the Belly, Hymns to an Unknown God, and his most recent, Learning to Fly: Trapeze – Fear, Trust, and the Joy of Letting Go.


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