This next piece is going to be a long one and it’s going to be about an essential element of devotional worship: prayer.
Some Pagans might be uncomfortable with the idea of prayer. In our society, among fundamentalists, religion (and prayer) can often be used as a weapon which has been used to harm many people, including many Pagans.
But as a polytheist, I believe that the gods are real and are actual entities. As such, prayer is an essential way to establish a connection with these gods. This column is for people who believe in the gods as actual real beings and who desire a personal relationship with Them.
There are many different kinds of prayer. Prayer can range from being simple or very complex. It can be very formal or wildly informal.
Mostly, when people pray in modern Western society, we pray to ask for something. A “Help” prayer, if you will. “Please heal my mother’s cancer.” “Please help me get this job I want.”
Prayer in some ancient polytheistic cultures was relatively simple. “I give you this (offering), so that I may receive (thing prayed for).” Often, there would also be a comment along the lines of “Please forgive me if I have worshipped incorrectly or made a mistake, I do not know the correct way to worship you.”
But prayer does not necessarily have to be about a request for something. Prayer is building a relationship with a particular deity. This can be done in many different ways. The purpose of this article is to briefly describe some of these methods.
Beads (or other objects used to keep track of repetitive prayer) are an effective tool for devotional worship and prayer.
Most people in Western culture are familiar with the rosary beads of Roman Catholicism, even if they’re not entirely sure how they’re used.
Basically, the beads in a Catholic rosary are separated into sets of ten small beads called a “decade”. Upon each small bead, the “Hail Mary” is said. These beads are separated by a larger bead upon which “The Lord’s Prayer” (better known to Catholics as an “Our Father”) is recited, along with a prayer called the “Glory Be”. There are mysteries and meditations associated with various decades of the Rosary or upon your purpose in saying it, most of which are devoted to bringing one closer to Jesus or helping to visualize aspects of his life.
Orthodox Christian monks often use a “prayer rope” made of black wool that consists of knots (sometimes with beads) upon which they say the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”) repetitively. Historically, the rope had 100 knots but some Orthodox use smaller ropes.
Muslims call the repetition of Allah’s name and/or attributes “dhikr“, which is especially practiced by Sufi groups. Sometimes a string of prayer beads called misbaha, tasbih, or tespih are used.
Hindus also use a string of beads called a mala for prayer. In this case, there is a mantra or specific sacred phrase in Sanskrit (or simply the sacred syllable Om) that one repeats over and over as a form of worship and remembrance of their deity. Usually, malas contain 108 beads, as that number is significant within Hinduism. The beads will often be made of rudraksha seeds (a plant sacred to the God Shiva) or tulsi wood (sacred to Vishnu).
I practice my own form of Shaktism and will either repeat my Deity’s (Sri Ganapati or Sri Lalita Devi) name 108 times, or listen to recitations of Her 1000 names (Lalita).
Buddhists have their own beads which can vary depending upon the tradition, but many use the Hindu form of 108 beads for mantra repetition.
So, how can this be used for Paganism?
You can take one of these examples and adapt it to your use. Or make your own, deciding what kind of beads, you should use, how many of them, or what sort of prayer or phrase to use.
Perhaps you’re a worshipper of Aphrodite. Historically, we know that Aphrodite has many titles, many names. (Here is a list of some of them.) You can create a rosary with the number of beads corresponding to Her names and while worshipping Her, use the beads as a tool to repeat her Names with devotion and love. Either in front of your altar out loud or silently while you’re on the bus or train on the way to work. The late Layne Redmond has included a track on her album “Invoking Aphrodite” called “The Call” which involves repetitions of some of the names of Aphrodite. Here is a link to that recording.
If your deity does not have many titles, you can simply repeat Their name.
The idea is that by remembering your deity, you become closer to Them.
Daily practice helps. In the beginning, you might feel stupid or silly. But once you become accustomed to doing it once a day, do it twice a day. Keep on improving it.
This is more associated with either meditation itself or with Christian practices like contemplative prayer, centering prayer, or Quaker silent worship.
It is said by some mystical Christians that silence is the language of God. I don’t think it’s specific to the Judeo-Christian God.
Silence..and the quieting of discursive thought that comes along with silent prayer…can make one receptive to what your Deity is trying to tell you. Quieting the endless chatter of the ego is a good practice, regardless of what you are using it for. It can help you with reading, visualization, meditation, ritual, and any number of devotional activities.
I lived in a Quaker-based intentional community for four years and got to experience a great deal of silence. The Meeting for Worship would meet in our House every Sunday morning. The silence would be held for nearly 45 minutes (unless someone felt moved by the Spirit to speak something). I’ve also gone to spiritual retreats at monasteries where silence wasn’t enforced, per se, but idle chatter was discouraged.
It might be challenging for people with young children or loud pets to have any sort of silent space but I think it’s a good and healthy practice to pursue.
My advice is simply to start small. Try spending five minutes in silence. Set an alarm. If a thought arises, gently push it aside. No need to beat yourself up over a thought here and there but don’t dwell on the thought. Make this a daily practice. When you feel comfortable, try ten minutes. Then fifteen.
One technique that I’ve read about involved doing your morning offering/worship without speaking. Conveying what you want to express to your Deity by your postures and gestures focusing both on your body and on your heart to communicate to your Beloved.
In Catholic mysticism, there is a technique used by the Benedictines called Lectio divina (or “divine reading”). In it, a piece of scripture (perhaps words of Jesus from the Gospels, or the words of a Psalm or something else in the Bible) is read, then meditated upon, then the individual will pray and finally contemplate.
As Pagans, we don’t often have religious texts, which complicates putting this into a Pagan context. We certainly don’t view religious texts as “scripture” in the same way that a Christian might view the Bible.
(Though some Heathens might feel that way about the Havamal or the Eddas with some believing them to be the words of Odhinn.)
For those who are Wiccan, influenced by Wiccan-based Paganism, or Goddess-worshippers, parts of the Charge of the Goddess can be ideal for this exercise. Or any writing purporting to be ‘spoken’ by the god or goddess that you are devoted to.
In the worship of Lalita Devi, I have used ancient texts like the Saundarya Lahari or the 1000 names of the Lalita Sahasraranamam for this purpose.
I will be discussing more aspects of prayer in an upcoming article. As always, thanks for reading!
(Note: Portions of this article were adapted from articles at my previous blog at http://paganmysticism.wordpress.com.)