Personal Thoughts on Congregational Prayer


Sep 25, USA (SUN) — Type "how to pray" into a search engine and thousands of sites appear, ready to offer instruction on praying the rosary (one site even provides the user with an electronic rosary!), proper sitting posture for namaj, as well as plenty of encouragement to just do it incessantly.

Vandana, offering bona fide prayers to the Lord, is among the nine processes of devotional service. Throughout the Srimad-Bhagavatam we find Lord Krishna's devotees engaged in praising the Lord with beautiful descriptions of His names, forms, qualities and pastimes. Sri Srimad Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja said the songs of the acaryas, in particular Srila Narottoma das Thakur and Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, are the prayers we have to offer. And yet many devotees confess that when bowing down to the Deities, their prayers are sometimes tripped up by a tied tongue, despite true intentions to glorify the Their Lordships.

Many of us who grew up in non-devotee homes may be haunted by the lingering idea that prayer is a closed-lip, closed-eye, closed to the public affair. We know better now-as members of Lord Caitanya's movement, loud congregational chanting of Hare Krishna in busy city streets is our mandate-but standing alone, in front of Sri Sri Gour-Nitai, sometimes we find that the prayer in the heart doesn't easily surface on the lips. There are so many prayers we may access to convey spiritual emotions, but still we find that the question of how to pray surfaces again and again.

My early insights on how to pray came from Margaret Simon, the twelve-year-old spiritual seeker of Judy Blume's classic novel Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Like Margaret, I grew up in an environment that was "friendly agnostic," that is, no one was against God but no one sought Him out either. Like Margaret, I felt closest to Him when I prayed alone and in secret. After my mother kissed me goodnight, I would whisper my prayers to God buried under the blankets, feeling anxious that if my mom knew what I was up to, she would think I was weird. We didn't do that kind of "religious stuff" in our family.

Yet the thought of praying with other people-people who were into "religious stuff"-was always so attractive to me. It was no wonder that the billboard above the doughnut shop I passed on the drive to elementary school always made me secretly wish (pray! ) for a holy conversion to clear out the spiritual apathy that created a void in our godless house. The family that prays together stays together the bold font read. There was no picture on the billboard; just those words set against a black background, the tone stern and a little chastising. I tried to imagine what such a scene would look like, my mind conjuring up images of a family on their knees, begging for God's mercy. Certainly such raw expression of helplessness would not be appropriate outside the private sphere, I thought. I had gone to church enough times on my own or with friends to know that everyone is supposed to be smiley and happy at church. The mumbled congregational prayers confirmed my adolescent reasoning that religion is essentially a private party of two-God and the worshipper. Sure, we stand, sit and kneel together under God's roof, and we turn to the left and to the right (in that order) to offer a handshake or, if it's grandpa or Aunt Judi standing due east, a peck on the cheek during the Kiss of Peace. But praying to God heart and soul with them-to be in communion with God with the congregation-seemed an intimidating ordeal. No one would catch me doing that kind of "religious stuff" in public!

So it has been a transformative experience to pray in unison -- out loud, shoulder to shoulder with my neighbor - every morning just after the mangal aroti kirtan in the temple room in the Mayapur Chandrodaya mandir. The Mayapur Administrative Council, in a move towards building community consciousness, has implemented several programs to meet this goal, including Thursday afternoon kirtan and occasional parikramas. The daily prayer seems to be the most effective in invoking Sri Sri Radha-Madhava's mercy and, in my case, dispelling the how to pray frustrations. For those two minutes I actually have something to say to the Lords! That every devotee in the temple room is concentrating their thoughts and energy on this prayer binds the congregation together in a common goal. With that bond comes a confidence and strength of purpose-that we belong to Srila Prabhupada's family. That old billboard on Carson Street promises good results, the family that prays together, stays together.

The pray is a simple but very direct. We recite it in English and in Bengali in call-and-response fashion:

My dear Lordships Sri Sri Radha-Madhava, Sri Sri Pancha-Tattava and Lord Nrsmhadev: if you so desire, please bless us with the purity and potency to carry out the order of our beloved Founder-acarya, Srila Prabhupada, to construct a magnificent temple for Your Lordships, as desired by our previous acaryas. Please make us an instrument in spreading your eternal devotional service in every town and village.

We may lack the profound realization of Queen Kunti and the eloquence of King Kulasekara. Maybe Gajendra the elephant could teach us a thing or two on how to pray, but it's an incredibly sweet and spiritually invigorating experience to pray for the same goal with my fellow devotees. It's a coming out of the closet of sorts (as I used to think the closet was only place where devotional feelings could be expressed). Another benefit of praying a "common" prayer in a congregational setting is an ever-growing acceptance of life as a devotee of Lord Krishna. That resolve to stay put in Srila Prabhupada's samsara is nourished in a setting where devotees pray freely, joyfully and incessantly. In that spirit and environment, certainly I have gained much council on how to pray.

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