The images of devastation in the wake of Haiti's earthquake follow me to bed, and continue to haunt my sleep: The lifeless limbs sticking out of the rubble. The homeless orphans. The amputations performed with hacksaws and vodka.
In the interest of getting a good night's rest, I've tried banishing these pictures from my mind. As if commanding me to bear witness. However, the images refuse to fade. The donation I make offers little relief. And so, lately, I've turned to praying my way to sleep. Summoning that force of compassion called by various names throughout the world's religions, I ask for Haiti's ongoing healing and protection.
Prayer has always been central to my spiritual practice -- especially during those dark-of-the-night moments when anxiety over life's problems can send my heart racing. It was my mother who first taught me how, through prayer, to "put things in a basket and give it to God." Kneeling beside my bed as a girl, head bowed, I'd fold my hands and repeat "God bless my sister," "God bless my brother," and so on, until I had prayed for every family member, pet, and friend. I learned how to pray, too, from the Catholic nuns of my childhood. Reciting the Hail Mary continued to bring solace long after I left the church.
But it was from the Sufi tradition, handed down through the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, that I learned about the mystical dimension of prayer. There are those who recite prayers out of a sense of duty or to receive something. However, Inayat Khan wrote in "The Effects of Prayer," there is another person who prays "with imagination strengthened by faith." This person, he said:
Does not only pray to God, but he prays before God, in the presence of God. Once imagination has helped man to bring the presence of God before him, God in his own heart is wakened. Then, before he utters a word, it is heard by God: when he is praying in a room, he is not alone, he is there with God; then God to him is not in the highest heaven, but next to him, before him, in him . . . Then every word of prayer he utters is a living word. It does not only bring him blessing, but blessings to all those around him. (The Unity of Religious Ideals).
This intimate form of prayer not only brings us closer to God -- it brings us into human community, as well. For prayer, Inayat Khan taught, "becomes a thousandfold greater" when performed by those united in the same thought. The effects of this kind of collective concentration, wrote Inayat Khan, can be powerful. The world is like a dome, he said, and every word uttered in it resounds. Studies on the effects of directed prayer are beginning to bear out Inayat Khan's wisdom. There is considerable evidence, write Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D. and Nola Lewis, M.S. of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, that "certain individuals, operating at a distance under controlled conditions, can positively affect a wide range of systems" including plants, animals, and human beings. (Directed Prayer and Conscious Intention: Demonstrating the Power of Distant Healing.)
Prayer can never be a substitute for action on the ground. But it can be a potent supplement. The Herculean relief efforts for Haiti are testament to humankind's awakening heart. Yet when we have done all that we can during the day, laying down our burdens on the altar at night helps us to let go and get the sleep we need. This turning over of our struggles to a greater power is a way of acknowledging our limits before life's mystery. It protects our spirits from breaking under the pressure. Something inside us instinctively knows the wisdom of prayer: In the face of large-scale disaster, offerings of prayer tumble naturally out of the mouths of everyone alike.
Indeed, when battling sleeplessness at night, I often think of my prayers as part of an invisible "prayer relief effort" made up of all those who, like me, are offering up silent words for those in crisis. Joined across the boundaries of faith, all speaking the international language of prayer, this inter-religious net of empathy provides spiritual sustenance to those giving and receiving aid. If only we could recognize in these night prayers the power for compassion encoded in each other's traditions -- to what new level of consciousness could humankind rise?
The Sioux Holy Man Black Elk expressed the spirit of healing prayer in these humble words: "Grandfather, all over the earth the faces of the living ones are alike ... Look upon Your children with children in their arms that they may face the winds/And walk the good road to the day of quiet ... Give me the strength to understand and the eyes to see. Help me for without You I am nothing."
This is the prayer I'll take to bed with me tonight. I'd love to hear your prayers, so if you have a favorite offering for Haiti, or for others in need, please post it here.