PRAYER: perspectives from Theosophy Andrew Rooke

Throughout history prayers have been offered by individuals or congregations to beings considered to be more elevated than the human condition. Prayers of ancient nations are recorded on monuments throughout the world expressing aspirations similar to those which motivate millions to seek this form of inner communion today. We might summarize the motivation of most prayers as follows:

1. Prayer formulae for specific occasions when people wish to draw close to divinity, ‘Liturgical Prayer’, e.g. church services which emphasize a particular aspect of faith or aspiration, and commemorative rites such as mortuary services or public offerings in honour of remarkable events.

2. Prayer offered, perhaps with the aid of some device like a mantra, prayer wheel or incense in order to create a harmonious atmosphere in which people can feel close to divinity.

3. Prayer as a private act of faith and inner communion in an attempt to seek spiritual security especially in times of stress. This type of prayer has become more common in the Christian churches since the time of the Reformation.

4. Action or power orientated prayer designed to achieve a desired end such as is common amongst the fundamentalist Christian churches for healing.

5. The most common type of prayer which encompasses aspects of the four other types mentioned above, is selfishly orientated prayer in which we importune some modification of divine will for what is perceived to be our personal advantage. This type of prayer is most common precisely because the majority of humanity at present lives an intensely personal, self-centred existence within what Theosophy calls the “kama”, or “desire” nature. It is my hope in this talk to discuss the true nature of prayer and meditation as an attempt to reach inward beyond the trammels of the desire nature towards the light of the inner divinity. Great religious teachers throughout the ages have emphasized this aspect of prayer and meditation as paramount. In St. Luke, Chapter 11, 1-13, Jesus explained prayer to his followers. One of his disciples said to him: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.” After reciting for them what is now called the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus continued: “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he shall ask a fish, will he offer him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” Note that Jesus was at pains to stress that the reward for prayer was not worldly goods but the gift of the Holy Spirit, or consolation in the inner divinity.

The need to build inner strength:

Theosophical literature provides a deep understanding of the nature of the attempted identification with the Inner Self that lies at the heart of every individual’s spiritual search. It is insistent that prayer which is directed towards selfish motives can severely undermine the need for an individual to build spiritual strength by personal effort. By that I mean that when we are faced with problems, one should develop the habit of cultivating your intuition rather than seeking solace from an outer source in order to develop one’s inner resources by such exercise. It is said that one’s fate or karma never faces one with a problem that is beyond one’s inner resources and therefore by earnestly seeking solutions within, surely the answer will come and the individual will be stronger for making the effort. My understanding of theosophical teaching is that by such inner searching and consequent character building, an entity progresses spiritually. He is therefore in a position to contribute to the welfare of others by both having the inner spiritual strength developed by individually facing problems and by being able to empathize with others who are suffering similar trials. To quote from one theosophical writer, G. de Purucker, on the necessity of building inner strength: “It is in the silence that the soul grows strong, for then it is thrown back upon its own energies and powers and learns to know itself:…“One of the first rules that a neophyte is taught is never to ask a question until he has tried earnestly and repeatedly to answer it. Because the attempt to do so is an appeal to the intuition. It is also an exercise for strengthening powers.” (From: The Fountain Source of Occultism). In making what must seem to be rather harsh comments about the engrained religious habits of millions of good and faithful people, I do not wish to denigrate their sincerity in the Path that they follow. At all times we must try to respect that another’s approach to spiritual matters must necessarily differ from one’s own and that all are equally valid for each individual on the great journey in which we are all engaged.

Krishna expresses this truth in the Bhagavad-Gita when he says 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.” Prayer and the Law of Karma: The question naturally arises – to whom or what do we pray? This question is easily answered by those who follow defined religious traditions in that they have a clear personal vision of their God, Gods, angels, saints, or other types of higher entities who will hopefully intercede on their behalf. However, it is worth considering that even if higher entities were able to be reached by selfishly directed thoughts, which, because they are tainted by the personal element, would surely not reach the higher planes of perception, they would not interfere with a lesser developed entity’s karma or freedom of thought or action. When we ask for a modification of divine will, we assume that we possess the wisdom and insight into the intricate workings of karma to justify our petition. Surely the vast majority of humanity does not possess such knowledge and before we petition too strongly we should consider whether the answer to our prayer might not be a potentially disastrous interference in our individual duty to build inner strength by facing the comparatively minor problems of daily existence. The ancients were more aware of the power of prayer in this regard than we are today. For example, when one of his disciples questioned Pythagoras (the ancient Greek mathematician and Initiate) concerning the advisability of supplicating the Gods, the great sage recommended that only the wisest men should ask favours of the deities. He explained that only those who had outgrown personal ambition and prejudice would be likely to pray for the good of others. Pythagoras wisely explained that most men will pray for what they want, but only the Gods understand human need. If an unwise prayer be granted, he taught, disasters only multiplied. A modern theosophical author, Jim Long, puts this ancient truth another way in his book Expanding Horizons: (p.28):

“While intense prayer of the personal-will type might temporarily divert the effects of specific causes, and in that sense only could we say that our “credit is extended”, we can be mighty sure that the effect of every cause will, in time, catch up with us – and often with interest compounded. For let us not imagine that any amount of prayer will nullify the action of the great law of balance. There is no ‘remission of sin’ in the sense commonly understood. Neither prayer nor ‘forgiveness’ can alter the inflexibility of nature’s universal working, and effect will follow cause, no matter how great a span of time may intervene between the one and the other.” I have read that the higher entities closely associated with the development of the human life-wave are themselves subject to some sort of higher karma and that their gerater understanding of the laws of the universe restrains them from altering a lesser entity’s individual destiny in most cases. They are said, however, to serve humanity by spreading its karmic load more evenly so that our accumulated rebellions against the harmony of nature do not overwhelm us instantly as would otherwise be the case. For this, and numberless other services to humanity arising from karmic responsibilities between more spiritually advanced entities and men, we owe the “Gods” grateful thanks rather than the supplication expressed in most prayer formulae.

The mechanism of prayer:

The thought naturally occurs in any discussion of prayer as to what actually happens when we pray. The mechanisms involved in prayer, in my opinion, are intimately related to the habits of building impersonal and self-reliant thought. This is because the mind will assume the form of the object contemplated, whatever its quality. Therefore if one is in the habit of directing the will towards achieving things at a personal level, then the mind will flow in that direction and the resultant energy will perhaps help to actualize events on the material plane. Grace Knoche in an article in Sunrise magazine comments on this aspect of prayer (Vol. 31 (2) p.57): “Prayer, aspiration, meditation are effective in that they set up a vibratory response throughout nature: the more ardent the aspirant the greater the power they have to unleash noble – or ignoble – energies, both within the individual as well as in the auric envelope surrounding the earth, which ranges from the lowest to the loftiest heights of aspiration.” Hence the importance of cultivating the habit of thinking impersonally, so that the mind will naturally flow toward the divine aspiration within. It is said that this “exercise” is especially important before one sleeps at night, which is interesting because this is the time most people pray and when we encourage children to pray. The reason for this is that as the ordinary “brain-mind” consciousness falls away in sleep, the “soul” automatically follows the impetus of the last thoughts given to it. So it is possible, by thinking on the aspirational lessons learned from the day’s activities that the consciousness, or “soul”, will ascend to higher levels of consciousness during sleep. This will serve to elevate and strengthen the “soul” by confabulation with the energies resident on the plane of noble aspirational ideas. All great religious teachers stress the importance of engraining the habit of selfless thought and motivation because such is aligning oneself more closely with the evolutionary currents of nature, e.g. the concepts of oneness and consequent karmic responsibilities in Indian philosophy; “love thy neighbour as thyself” in Christianity; and the dominant aim of universal brotherhood in the Theosophical Society. The study of occultism in the highest sense of that word reveals the pattern, or science, behind the necessity for incorporating the truth of this concept in daily life and stresses the ideal of impersonality in searching for, and expressing, these high ideals. In my opinion it is the sacred duty of everyone to cultivate the habit of expressing one’s aspirations for the better whether at a personal or universal level, such as most often happens in prayer, by raising one’s consciousness to an intuitional or aspirational level.

Grace Knoche expresses this sentiment far better than I:

“True prayer is indeed aspiration, a “breathing inward” 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 orientate 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?” (Sunrise, Vol. 31 (2) Dec. 1981/ Jan. 1982 “Not my will but thine” pp. 56-58)

This is the text of a lecture given by the author at a public meeting of the Theosophical Society (Pasadena) in Melbourne, Australia. The ideas expressed in all our public meetings are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the TS (Pasadena).