There is scarcely a culture, from the most distant antiquity to the present day, that has not venerated a Being or Power superior to man, whether conceived as God or a plurality of gods. As a result, prayers of every kind and for every occasion abound. Each people has its own rituals and formulas for invoking the divine, aided by rosary, prayer wheel, amulet, or mantra, offerings of flower, fruit, and animal; there are hymns of praise to the sun and the elements, and petitions for safety in travel, victory in battle, and fertility.
Some may deride such practices as superstition, and many today do not pray at all. Certainly, prayer at times is little more than a routine recital, while petitionary prayer is often selfish and demeaning, though not always. The prayer of fervent devotion is its own benison, and to the degree that the motive is altruistic will the ultimate result be for the good, although the petition itself may not be answered as hoped for. Then again, many times we seek not for ourselves but for another, that we may lighten his burden of pain. Here is where a love so all-wise and compassionate is needed that we know when and how to help our brother walk his way with dignity.
We dare not be swift in judgment, for within the husks of formalisms we may discern the sacred. The millions who externalize their yearning for guidance, or for union with a power greater than themselves, are following the ancient line as surely as are those who seek inspiration without benefit of temple or church, or find communion of spirit in meditation. No truer word was ever uttered than Krishna's remark to his friend and pupil Arjuna: "In whatever way men approach me, in that way do I assist them; whatever the path taken by mankind, that path is mine" (Bhagavad-Gita, iv, 11).
True prayer is indeed true aspiration, a "breathing toward" the divine, an elevating of the mind and heart to the highest, and as such is an essential need of the soul. We should pray, we should aspire, so as to orient our lives toward the light emanating from our inner god. Call it meditation, if you like. But let us be careful that we are not led into detours of a self-seeking nature which tend to focus attention on our own advancement, our own stature. After all, where we stand — spiritually or otherwise — is not important compared to the quality of our contribution to the whole. The real question is: Are we giving the best of ourselves to this world so that we bring warmth and courage instead of chill and gloom to our surroundings?
Whatever course we pursue, sacrifice is required: we cannot hope to gain access to the higher realms of being if we have not earned the right of entry. Only those who come clean of anger, resentment, and selfish desire are fit recipients of the keys to nature's wisdom; otherwise, they run the risk of opening the door to elemental forces of a low kind that may be difficult to eject from the consciousness. Prayer, aspiration, meditation, are effective in that they set up a vibratory response throughout nature: the more ardent the aspirant the greater power do they have to unleash noble — or ignoble — energies, both within the individual as well as in the auric envelope surrounding earth, which ranges from the lowest astral to the loftiest heights of inspiration.
"The many are foolish, the few wise," said Socrates. Certainly the Greeks understood the efficacy of prayer as a potent mediator between gods and humans, something not to be treated casually by the suppliant. Always, before commencing any enterprise of import, they invoked the appropriate deity, in recognition that only that which is in harmony with the divine purpose will have a fair issue. Their dramatists and poets, philosophers and orators, warn against hubris, violent or excessive pride, in those who would challenge the gods before being proved worthy. Plato also, in several of his Dialogues, has Socrates remind his young friends of the folly of being in a hurry to plead for favors lest in their ignorance they bring upon themselves great evils, in the belief that they are asking for the good. Possibly the much-debated clause in the Lord's Prayer of the Christians: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" includes this more subtle meaning: lead us not into the temptation of praying for what, in our unwisdom, we hold to be most desirable lest unwittingly we bring "unmeasured woes" upon our heads.
In these difficult times, when the smoke of confusion is thick and heavy, let us remember Jesus on the Mount of Olives as he knelt in prayer:
Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. — Luke 22:42
This is without question a noble prayer: not my will, but thine, the will of the highest, the god within — let it flow through our being that we may be enlightened and follow the path that we should.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1981/January 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Theosophical University Press)