What actually happens during prayer? Prayer is not about trying to manipulate the Divine for personal gain. It’s a sacred practice that can offer insight into our deepest desires and needs. Let us take an unprecedented approach—when we lift up our hearts in prayer, it will open doors of awareness that allow us to accept life with grace and courage. Prayer does not change God; rather, it changes US!
In this episode, we explore the essential attitude you need to cultivate a meaningful relationship with God. If you’re curious about mysticism, or you’re a mystic-in-the-making, this episode will give you a foundational understanding of the metaphysics of prayer. Listen closely now as we explain how prayer can enrich your soul.
The metaphysics of prayer fascinates me because when we pray, we’re at our most authentic and vulnerable—it’s so private and revealing. Sometimes our prayers surprise us because we discover our most sincere desires that have gone unspoken and hidden, even from our own conscious minds, until the moment when we whisper them in confidence to God. And that is exactly what makes prayer so powerful—in it we discover parts of ourselves that were hidden.
God is constant, It is unchanging. But that doesn’t mean God is distant or impersonal. It means that the Divine, the Source of all things, is absolute. You can’t influence It. Which is the opposite of what most people think prayer is for. Prayer is never meant to change God or persuade it to do our will or give us certain results. That’s unhealthy because you’re basically saying that “things are not what they’re supposed to be.”
Chances are, if you’re on a spiritual path, you strive to be more resilient to challenges and surrendered to The Good that’s coming your way, so trying to convince the Universe to adapt to your desires isn’t going to achieve those personal development goals. Generally speaking, someone who’s showing up in prayer asking God for outcomes is like a child begging their Mom or Dad for something they want. If you’re doing this, don’t worry. It’s not your fault! Most of us are taught that petition prayer is the only form of prayer.
We’re taught to ask God for things, “Dear God, please make them fall in love with me, or, get me that promotion”. It’s not very helpful if you’re seeking to grow in your relationship with the Divine. You can’t pray like you’re writing a letter to Santa. It’s counterproductive. If you want to grow spiritually, you have to avoid an attitude of manipulation when you pray. I don’t mean to condemn petition prayer. There’s a time and place for it, but if you want to open yourself to mystical prayer (we’ll get to the types of prayer later in this episode), then what you have to do is place yourself before the Beloved as a friend, ok?
Arriving in prayer as if you’re going to have a coffee with an old friend—that is the attitude which will cultivate in you a kind of receptivity that’s required to hear your intuition and get guidance that’s more than just your ego masking itself as the voice of God. You need to come to prayer with a sense of openness.
If you’re used to asking God for things you want, and that’s the only form of prayer you know, don’t feel bad. I was in the same shoes. You hear people say that you “should” pray, a priest or minister, a mentor or guru, a teacher, someone in a position of spiritual authority. They urge you to pray. And I always thought ya ya, ok. But I never did it. Like, maybe for 5 minutes, but I didn’t really know that prayer could be anything but asking for stuff, and I had quite a judgmental attitude about it. I thought, “Prayer is for the desperate. It’s for unbearable circumstances only” … so I refused to pray, thinking that the point is to hold out as long as possible until you absolutely couldn’t stand it anymore.
Like a game of Mercy, where you interlock fingers with someone, in this case God, and you fight it out until one of you either has your hand broken or screams “mercy”. Lol…. well…. I was wrong. God doesn’t want to break your fingers. God wants you to thrive because it’s your natural inheritance to thrive.
If you’re doing either of these extremes: either you’re asking God for specific outcomes (things you want to happen), or you’re playing Mercy by refusing to ask for help, don’t worry… The good news is: there’s so much more in prayer
Prayer is your gateway into the mystical life.
There’s no other way to mysticism but through prayer. This is true in any religion. Because prayer is about connecting with God directly. It’s a conversation between two best friends.
I’m so excited to share this exploration with you, in this episode and in future episodes. Today we’ll reflect on the metaphysics of the first, foundational level of prayer, which is called The Purgative Way. This will prepare us for mystical prayer. And this is very important because mystical prayer builds on these foundational principles. Today we’re going to discuss what the great mystics say about prayer, how they prayed, and how we can nurture our inner life. Prayer is not just sitting around, asking God for stuff like most of us were taught when we were kids. It’s your direct line to the Source of Everything. For mystics, prayer is a lifeline.
What do you think prayer is for? What is its purpose? I’ve just made this definitive statement that prayer is essential to the mystical life. Why do you think that is?
I’ll share something that John of Damascus says. He’s a 7th century monk, and he describes prayer succinctly as,
“the raising of the mind and the heart to God.” Isn’t that beautiful in its simplicity?John of Damascus
Teresa of Avila, one of the great mystics and doctors of the Church says plainly,
“Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight, but a desire to please God in everything.”Teresa of Avila
When we pray, we’re lifting ourselves up to a contemplation of the Divine. The act of prayer isn’t meant to change God, it’s meant to change us. As we raise our hearts, something metaphysical is happening. That is, our state of being is changed, we are lifted out of our limited perspective. We are relieved from our anger or fear, and our soul is elevated to another level where we can better face our lives. God doesn’t change. We change.
This is the goal of the first level of prayer, which is called the Purgative Way. There are 3 levels altogether, and there are 3 types of prayer within each level, which makes 9 types of prayer total. Today we’re focusing just on the first level. If you’re new to prayer or you’re new to this type of prayer, try this:
When you sit down to pray, imagine that you are ordering your life to God. Don’t pray for outcomes. Pray to become the person you were born to be. Pray that YOU will change. For example, let’s say you’re feeling afraid—don’t pray for circumstances to resolve themselves. Instead, pray for courage. Here’s another example—if someone betrays you, and you are angry—don’t pray for justice. Pray to become someone who can forgive.. Trust me, I know this is hard to hear, but I speak from experience. If you’re sick, don’t pray for a miracle. Pray for endurance. If there is an inexplicable loss, and you are overcome with grief, don’t pray for answers. Instead, pray for the grace not to numb your heart.
If you only take one thing away from this episode, let it be this: Pray for inner fortitude, not external outcomes.
Because when you’re someone who has unshakable integrity, this is the jewel around which all the other goals we associate with a spiritual path spin. When you are someone who holds to your moral compass no matter how great the external pressure, you’ve made it. This is the ultimate spiritual achievement.
This type of prayer is the Purgative Way because you’re purging all the things about yourself that aren’t helping you. The goal is to align yourself to the person you were born to be. When you align yourself with God’ will for you, which curiously, is also your own deepest desire for yourself, when you do that, then you become that person.
How you show up in the world does affect some of what happens to you. Check this out: Let’s say friendship is important to you, but you’ve had bad experiences and you’re kind of cynical about humanity and have a difficult time trusting others, so it’s hard to form lasting friendships. Well, if you’re being judgemental and grouchy, how are you going to muster the enthusiasm or take the emotional risks that a new friendship requires? Your attitude will stop you from putting yourself out there, and you’ll create a feedback loop that reinforces your core belief that humanity sucks. Don’t do that to yourself.
When you pray, focus on connecting with what you really want instead of relying on a coping mechanism that prevents you from being hurt. Ask yourself and ask God, “Why am I so defensive and afraid of rejection? God, help me see how I am sabotaging new relationships. Help me let go of the past. Open my heart to new experiences.”… and then listen. Sit in the discomfort of realising that maybe you need therapy, or maybe you’re projecting previous hurts onto the future and sabotaging relationships before they have a chance to begin! Imagine what it would feel like to be free from your conditioning. How would you feel in your body? If you didn’t have this self-defeating pattern, how would your behaviour be different? Now, what’s stopping you from acting on it? Prayers manifest through real-world follow-through, not magical thinking. Pope Francis says,
“You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”Pope Francis
It’s worth noting that sometimes it’s not that simple. Sometimes there are deeply entrenched core beliefs or trauma that needs psychological healing. Prayer is not a replacement for therapy. It works on a different level. Therapy can help you understand your wounds. Prayer helps you release them. But you can’t release that which you do not understand or haven’t processed on a psycho-somatic level. So, I believe therapy and prayer are two wings of a bird. You need both to fly.
This is what The Purgative Way is all about. See how far we are now from the childish idea that prayer is a form of appeasement to get what you want. Purgative Prayer challenges you to let go of the idea of God as the grantor of wishes.
We project our human values onto the Divine. It’s our nature to personify God because we want to make the transcendent nature of the Universe personal in order to have an intimate relationship with It.. or Him… or Her, if you prefer that pronoun. This is why we use pronouns to describe God. This is why we give It titles like, God the Father, or The Divine Mother, or whatever… And it’s good because those pronouns give us the ability to relate to God on a personal level, BUT we have to be careful not to get trapped in the idea that the Divine is a person because people are flawed. People require praise. God is not a Being who rewards good behaviour and punishes wicked deeds. God isn’t a being, not even The Supreme Being at the top of a hierarchy. God is Beingness itself. It’s entirely apart from the world, and yet it’s inside every cell of this world. God is the source and infrastructure of reality. It’s the absolute, unconditioned Realness from which all things, seen and unseen, are born. And this is why, when you pray, it’s helpful to imagine connecting with the raw energy of Being that animates you. Try it. Think of prayer as spending time with the Essence that enlivens your soul. God lives in the inmost part of you, and It’s also transcendent of everything you can possibly imagine. Let that idea enchant you. Let it move you to a state of wonder. Let it make you into a child again.
Do you see the difference here? Between God as Supreme Being vs God as Beingness itself? And do you see why this matters so much when you pray?
We are barely skimming the surface here. Of how prayer works and what actually happens when you sit down to pray. Here’s a takeaway from today: It all comes down to who or what you imagine that you’re praying to—What is God? If God is the life that animates reality, then how do you pray? Imagine that you are lifting your heart and mind to the divine. This practise can change you. And that’s the point. Try it.
In the next episode, we’ll continue this conversation about the metaphysics of prayer. Specifically, why does it seem like God answers some prayers and not others? What should you do when your prayers go unanswered?
Before I let you go, can I ask you for a favour? If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a review. This is a brand new podcast so your comments help me tremendously because they let Apple Podcasts and Google know that this is a podcast worth recommending to other spiritual seekers who want to learn more about prayer and mysticism. So please, leave a review below, wherever you’re listening to this podcast.
Mentioned in this episode
John of Damascus on prayer
St Teresa of Avila on prayer