What Elizabeth Gilbert, Jesus and the Buddha Can Teach Us About Prayer

08/13/2010 06:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve McSwain Speaker, Author, Counselor to Congregations, Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World's Religions, and Spiritual Teacher

She says it's her favorite book ever. And lately, all my wife talks about is seeing the movie version of Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts. So, I finally decided to check it out for myself.

I wasn't expecting much. I got to the first scene, however -- the one where the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, cries out to God in prayer -- and I was hooked. In a marriage that isn't working, Gilbert is an emotional train wreck waiting to happen. Since her life makes no sense to her whatsoever, she does what many of us have done when we can't think of what else to do -- she prays: "Hello, God. How are you? I'm Liz. It's nice to meet you...I'm sorry to bother you so late at night ... but I'm in serious trouble ... I'm not an expert at praying, as you know. But can you please help me? ... I don't know what to do. Please tell me what to do."

Who hasn't prayed this prayer?

Its appeal is in its familiarity. But, what hooked me most is the fact that this first prayer, or cry, to God, isn't Gilbert's last, as it is with many in circumstances equally as troubling. Rather, it is the first of many prayers she offers to God -- prayers that evolve into an ongoing conversation in a year-long journey through Italy, India, and Indonesia. Each prayer is but the next step she takes in the search for herself and a life that matters. As she journeys and converses, the consequence is self-discovery, self-acceptance, and an awareness of the Sacred presence.

Not a bad spiritual practice, if you ask me.

If a spiritual life is really about learning to accept yourself, learning to live compassionately, and becoming so aware of the Sacred presence within you that you converse with this Presence the way two friends would do sharing a fine wine in a corner cafe, then Eat, Pray, Love could be a guide to any seeker after a sacred life.

Gilbert prays the way Jesus prayed. The Buddha, too. So, what kind of praying is this?

Silence. Stillness. Some call it meditation -- the kind of praying Jesus instructed his followers to practice (Matthew 6:6). It's also the only kind of praying we ever see Jesus doing (Matthew 14:23; 26:36). Yet, strangely, go into almost any church, synagogue, or temple today and you'll hear plenty of public prayers (in spite of Jesus' discouragement against it in Matthew 5:5) but little or no provision for silence, stillness, or meditation. Most worship is distinguished by its chaos -- loud music, continuous chatter, lots of substance but little sustenance.

With very few exceptions, religious leaders almost universally overlook this kind of prayer, and it is likely because they know little about it themselves. It is this kind of praying, however -- and perhaps only this kind of praying -- that results in self-awareness and Divine consciousness. The Buddha said, "He who meditates attentively will attain abundant joy."

Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 10:27). If that's true, then to know yourself, as well as to know God, you must make it your spiritual practice to go within. The rabbis say, "God has but one tabernacle -- the heart." It is there, in the secret place (what Jesus likened to a "room" in Matthew 6:6) that you practice slowing down the mind (that virtual stream of thought-making) and relaxing and resting in the Sacred presence. The psalmist put it like this, "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:10).

Is it easy to learn to pray this way? Ask Liz. If you make this your spiritual practice, however, the discoveries will mirror those made by Elizabeth Gilbert and will be equally remarkable. Then, if you ever visit Italy, India, or Indonesia, you'll do so for different reasons.

Dr. Steve McSwain is the author of The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God (2010, Smyth & Hewlys). For more information, please visit

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