From chapter 10: Praying On the Subway
Transit states are particularly potent times for prayer, and not simply because travel in buses, on subways, by air, or in our cars at high speed or in slow traffic can be annoying, stressful or even dangerous. As any type of travel moves us from one place to another, one domain or realm to another, it prefigures the really big transitions or changes of state of everyday life––like birth, death, transformation or loss. A subway ride across midtown, for instance, can be an ideal venue in which to practice dying. The metaphors are numerous: both involve a passage, and perhaps through a tunnel, and both involve us in darkness. Imagine the benefit of using a daily subway ride with the intention to recapitulate your life’s work, to pray for all who have served you; to prepare yourself with sharpened attention for your final stop.
I’ve done a fair amount of airplane travel in my work, and I always note that there are men and women who study the Bible or read the Koran as they fly. Maybe like me they’re just white-knuckle travelers who are doing their best to keep from panic, to prevent themselves from running up the aisle of the plane screaming “we’re gonna crash” at the first signs of turbulence. But I don’t think so. I think that many people in this world do orient their lives around God’s word, and I am awed and humbled to see this. A large airplane or a crowded bus or train presents me with a wide cross-section of humanity, and I get to see what others are up to. I also get countless opportunities to practice kindness, generosity, compassion and the offering of merit on behalf of all.
And speaking of praying while traveling . . . the best story I’ve ever read on the subject, which was related as true, was about a business man (let’s call him Joe) flying home from Chicago after a long conference. Joe found himself on the plane situated next to an empty seat. Hoping to keep it that way, he spread out his carryons and coat to discourage the last passengers boarding from choosing this spot. When everyone was apparently settled, and the seat remained unoccupied, he realized his great good fortune, and breathed a sigh of relief. Before the doors were closed, however, the steward announced that they were holding the plane a few minutes longer to accommodate two additional passengers making a tight connection. Cursing slightly under his breath, Joe made a prayer of sorts, something like, “Oh God, please give me a break here.” And with that, two women dressed in white entered the plane amid a great hubbub by the pilot and crew who greeted them. As the women at last bustled their way up the aisle, Joe was astonished to recognize Mother Teresa accompanied by another sari-clad nun moving toward him. And then she stopped, smiled at him and directly pointed to this empty seat. With no mind at all, Joe immediately stood to give her entry, as her companion moved on to find another place.
As the plane taxied down the runway Mother Teresa took out her rosary and quietly fingered it, while Joe, still stunned, kept respectful silence. Still, he couldn’t help but notice that her rosary was a bit unconventional. Each set of ten beads (known as a “decade”) was a different color––red, blue, yellow, and so on. Finally, as the plane reached its cruising altitude, and unable to suppress his curiosity any longer, he remarked to the elderly nun about her unusual rosary. Without apology she told him that she liked it because it reminded her to pray for the whole world: on the red beads she might pray for the continent of Europe, on the blue ones for Africa. In this way, her prayer was never limited; her intentions were always for all. Needless to say, Joe, a former Catholic, was touched and impressed with her story, and soon they were discussing this and that.
When Mother Teresa asked him if he prayed the rosary, Joe candidly admitted that he had long since left behind his connections to both church and ritual prayer. She was undiscouraged. Taking the colored rosary from her pocket she handed it to him, urging him to use it once again. And with deep gratitude he accepted this priceless gift.
As the story goes (and I won’t guarantee that it may not be somewhat apocryphal), Joe left the airplane in a new frame of mind and, with a healing of heart, once again began to pray the rosary.
Not long after his return home, Joe was confronted with the shocking news that his beloved sister had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Interestingly, his first response was to take hold of the saintly woman’s rosary that he carried now all the time, and to pray for his sister. Then, hurrying to meet her, he handed over the special rosary, telling her the amazing story and expressing his faith that this prayer would not fail to be useful to her. And apparently it was. Joe’s sister used the rosary faithfully throughout her treatment, and successfully overcame the illness. Then, she passed the rosary along to another friend in need. And so the prayer continues; who knows where it is today. . . . maybe Mother Teresa’s rosary will make its way to one of us some day. Prayer like hers alters people’s lives. It also obviously kept her own transformational work alive!
Regina's essay from How Do You Pray?: Inspiring Responses from Religious Leaders, Spiritual Guides, Healers, Activists and Other Lovers of Humanity
by Celeste Yacoboni (Editor),
I use several forms of prayer, because I love forms. We’re incarnated and that’s a great gift, so to be able to use form is a great help in sacramentalizing all aspects of our lives. My essential form of prayer is more a “resting in being prayed” rather than an active praying. In the mystical Christian, contemplative tradition, they might call this “passive contemplation,” but it doesn’t really need any formal label to it. It has more to do with deeply resting in the source of all, whatever one might call that. For me, it’s a ground of love, as the ground of existence. What emerges or arises from that is a spontaneous upwelling of silence, praise and gratitude, and perhaps a sense of expansion. A numinous experience, for sure; difficult to capture in words.
From my background in Catholicism, as a nun, the whole idea of “me” doing the praying always took a backseat to attention on that “One” who is always already praying. Prayer might be called the breath of the universe. For me it’s aligning with that breath, surrendering in some way. If I have any “goal” in my prayer it might be availability as a transformational vehicle—to serve in creation, in whatever way I am called to do. I know that prayer affects creation. How it does this, well I can only speculate.
The forms of prayer that I’ve been instructed in from my recent spiritual teacher (since 1985) come out of the more Eastern Hindu tradition. I’m very partial to praying the Name of God. Let’s face it, like anybody in this chaotic world I run around from appointment to appointment, I drive around here and there, my mind obsesses and focuses and gets drained of its attention so easily. So, in this particular age and time, the use and repetition of an internal prayer is extremely useful, keeping the highest intention possible. I use the Name of God repeated, much like the Prayer of the Heart or the Jesus Prayer. These forms keep the pilgrim focused on his or her intention, focused on the source of all. It is my experience that the sounds of the various Names of God do have an impact on the neurological system of the body and do align us to an energy that does open what needs to be opened and align what needs to be aligned.
Prayer at specific times and in specific places is a part of daily practice. But prayer also spontaneously arises when, for instance, one hears in the news that there are fires raging in New Mexico, or wars in Afghanistan. What can I do from my desk in the office, or my post at the kitchen sink, except to hold my intention for those afflicted, and to breathe and to repeat an internal prayer in the Name of God to bless those who need courage in this particular time and energy to work that. I generally don’t find myself praying for things like, “Oh God, please make the fire stop.” I’ve never been oriented toward praying to ask for some kind of divine intervention. That always seemed really presumptuous. However, just holding in compassion and blessing the whole situation—the situation of the Earth, the situation of the individuals involved—is important because we all need courage and strength and joy in any kind of challenging situation.
Prayer really becomes a way of life. It’s possible in each relationship, with each person who walks in your door, and with each bit of news you hear. You “witness and bless,” as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi would say. You witness and bless in everything you do. Prayer can become how you breathe. How you communicate. How you align yourself with the ground of being, the ground of love. For me, prayer is also silent sitting for fifty minutes to an hour every morning, occasional stopping during the day for quiet periods, contemplative reading of the great teachings, the use of prayer beads—I always loved the rosary when I was more ardently a Roman Catholic—I love to have something in my hands because I love form. I use mantras, I use prayer beads, I love to do yoga, because for me, that’s the body in prayer—it’s exciting to know that prayer is not only the mind; it’s the work of every cell in the body. Singing, chanting the psalms—the psalms are really wonderful—are other great forms of prayer. Song and chant create a vibration within myself, certainly, but I also experience that this vibration touches something in creation. I don’t know how; we don’t know the technology of this, but I just know that the ethers are full of static and getting more and more all the time, and that filling the ethers with chant, with the Name of God, with blessing—well, it wouldn’t hurt!
I love going on retreat. Prayer retreat is an essential part of my year. What a privilege to take a couple of weeks to go away and do nothing except to practice in the sense of devoting the whole day to prayer and study of the great teachings and to immerse myself in what lies at the center once again.
I would like my life to make a difference—I think we all would. Some of us will do this through our active lives, as we are like the finger cells in this great mystical body. And, some of us are quieter, more contemplative cells, and our prayer will be our contribution to creation. I really truslt the great contemplative traditions, East and West, which have sustained the Earth for as long as they have, and certainly have served as sanctuary to vast numbers of people throughout the world. Just knowing that there are people in prayer throughout the world sustains us and provides a counterpoint to the insanity that we live in.
For me it’s not about doing “the big praying thing.” It’s about relaxing into that which already is. And, it takes awhile to learn. But, we are up to it.
Author’s Pilgrimage To Romanian Monastery Inspires New Book On Spiritual Life
When author Regina Sara Ryan travelled to Bucharest, Romania in the Spring of 2009, she planned to lead a workshop on wellness and a weekend retreat for women. Much to her surprise, the trip turned into a pilgrimage that took her to monasteries in the Carpathian Mountains. In a remote village, far north of the capital, she received the blessing of a 90-year-old hermit monk, recognized as a saint by the Romanian people. His message—about love in the time of terror—and other highlights of this unexpected pilgrimage, inspired her newest book, Igniting the Inner Life, just released by Hohm Press, Prescott, Arizona.
Ryan, a former Roman Catholic nun, has apprenticed to a spiritual teacher of the Western Baul tradition for the past 25 years. Since the early 1970s she has studied contemplation and mysticism from many faith traditions, and is the author of 9 books in both wellness and spirituality, including: Praying Dangerously; The Woman Awake; and the classic Wellness Workbook, which she coauthored with John W. Travis, M.D. Regina is a freelance writer and editor, and conducts seminars and retreats in the U.S. and Europe.
The inner life is the intrinsic spiritual dimension of existence. To “ignite” it is to make a pilgrimage within, says Ryan, to move from out there to in here in the orientation of life, work, choices and relationships. Her book is directed to those with a focus on spirituality, self-understanding, yoga practice, contemplative prayer or the awakening of the heart’s knowledge, regardless of the religious tradition they follow.
Every major spiritual tradition contains recommendations for building and maintaining an inner lifethrough silence and solitude, through prayer, mantra and ritual, through sacred reading and contemplation, through poetry, nature and symbolism. Igniting the Inner Life is designed to remind readers of what they already know about the life of their souls, and yet easily forget in the busyness of contemporary life. “We can unplug and slow down,” the author writes, “we can work hard while still maintaining our sense of self; we can bless others rather than judge them; we can learn to see ourselves more clearly and build a foundation of self-appreciation and forgiveness.”
Igniting the Inner Life will serve as a welcome friend to any pilgrim who wants to move deeper within. It will encourage long-term but weary travelers to take that next step, and point out common detours or dead ends along this interior highway. Each chapter contains one or more contemporary poems to uplift the reader, and the book concludes with suggested practices and prayers to rekindle the heart’s intentions