‘In the midst of crisis or heartbreak, a regular spiritual practice can help us find the capacity to remain present to our emotions and experiences without cutting them off or turning away.’
29 JULY 2010 - PHOENIX, AZ: Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, from the Unitarian Universalist Church in Phoenix, waits to be arrested during a blockade of the 4th Ave Jail in Phoenix.© 2010 Jack Kurtz
I did not grow up praying. As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, prayer was not woven into my religious experience. Yet for most of my adult life, prayer has been a daily practice.
My prayer life began in college, when I turned to it in a time of discernment. For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be a scientist—to understand the world and how it worked. I was well on this path when something inside me began to feel unsettled, unhappy. The certainty I once had fell away, and I was not at all sure what came next. I turned to meditation. Each day, I would take time to sit in silence, light a candle, and contemplate these questions: What brings me joy? What makes me come alive? What is my path?
Ultimately it was this quiet practice of meditation, a form of deep listening, that guided me to ministry.
Whether it be a question of discernment on life’s path, a next step, or even bold action, prayer to me is an act of preparation.
Prayer helped to prepare me on July 28, 2010, when hundreds of people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, where I was minister. It was the evening before the National Day of Non-Compliance, a major protest organized by Puente Arizona and other immigrant rights groups to challenge the racial profiling law that Arizona had passed two months earlier.
For days I had been preparing to help physically shut down the entrance to the jail of the notoriously abusive sheriff. I was afraid of the ramifications this action would bring for myself and the congregation. I feared what might happen in the jail, where many had been injured and some had even died.
I had committed myself and others were counting on me, but I did not know if I could go through with it. I took a moment in the congregation’s memorial garden to pray.
I am not a theist, so my prayer was not to a deity. But it was a prayer nonetheless, an opening and listening for clarity in the midst of fear. As the sun broke through the trees, the words that came to my heart were “It’s about the children.”
In those days after the racial profiling law was passed in Arizona, teachers shared stories of how the children in their classrooms panicked when they heard sirens outside, terrified the police were coming to take them. This is just one manifestation of the ways systems of oppression built on racism and fear create generational damage because they violate the lives and wholeness of children, families, and communities. With just a few words, the moral imperative was clear. This was all I needed to give me resolve and prepare me to be steady and present through the course of what was to come the next day.
Prayer prepared me.
For the past eight years, it has prepared me daily. In the midst of crisis or heartbreak, a regular spiritual practice can help us find the capacity to remain present to our emotions and experiences without cutting them off or turning away. It can create the capacity to find a stillness—not necessarily a peace but a stillness of presence and love that helps us hold the complexity of life and community.
When I pray, I find a quiet place and a comfortable seat. I begin by calling attention to my breath, and I relax into my being. Breathe. Check in with my body. What am I feeling? What’s present? Where do I feel tension? Where do I feel calm? Breathe. Listen. Be attentive.
My own prayer practices take a variety of forms, but their foundation for many years has been poetry. Inspired by the work of Laurel Hallman and Harry Scholefield in Living by Heart, I learn poems and wise words by heart, a practice of memorization and recitation whereby these words become part of me.
I also practice more traditional forms of meditation. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has been a guide in this work; both her writings and meditation practices have shaped my own. When I have a strained relationship, I practice loving-kindness meditation. It’s human to cast someone with whom we have difficulty as our antagonist. Loving-kindness meditation helps shift and expand our view and bring more compassion to ourselves, to others, and to the relationship between us.
When I am afraid or overwhelmed, prayer can be an act of surrender and letting go. I surrender what I can’t control, what is out of my hands, in a way that allows for some peace and acceptance to come.
In public, prayer is a way to give voice to what we hold in our hearts, a way to remember our interconnectedness, to be grateful for the gift of life, and to name the hopes we hold for one another and the world.
Prayer, meditation, sitting with the wisdom of poetry and scripture—these practices complement our analytical ways of understanding the world. Rationality alone does not teach us to see ourselves or each other in the fullness of our humanity. It does not signal for us to listen for “the ancestors’ breath in the voice of the waters,” as Sweet Honey in the Rock sings.
Spiritual practices teach us the discipline of listening, of interdependence, of loving, of letting go. These are the skills we need to grow in wisdom and kindness.
It is my hope that as a religious tradition, we can rediscover the wisdom, the power, and the gifts that are present in prayer. It offers a fullness and humility essential for the maturity of our faith.
This essay is excerpted with permission from Conversations with the Sacred: A Collection of Prayers, edited by Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Kelleher (Skinner House, 2020).
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The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is the ninth president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She was elected in June 2017 to a six-year term after serving congregations in Phoenix, Arizona; Youngstown, Ohio; and Nashville, Tennessee. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Brian Frederick-Gray, and their son.