On Being with Krista Tippett

Anoushka Shankar, Stephen Mitchell, and Roberta Bondi

Approaching Prayer

Last Updated

December 31, 2009

Original Air Date

May 12, 2005

Americans are religious and non-religious, devout and irreverent. But in astonishing numbers, across that spectrum, most of us say that we pray. We explore the subject of prayer, how it sounds, and what it means in three different traditions and lives.

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Image of Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar is a musician, actress, and author of Bapi, The Love of My Life.

Image of Stephen Mitchell

Stephen Mitchell is the author and translator of many books, including the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita.

Image of Roberta Bondi

Roberta Bondi is professor emeritus of Church History at Emory University and author of A Place to Pray.


December 31, 2009

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. This hour, we’ll explore creative and generous approaches to prayer, religious and nonreligious, in three very different lives with the musician Anoushka Shankar, translator Stephen Mitchell, and theologian Roberta Bondi.

PROF. ROBERTA BONDI: Any reason to begin a pattern of prayer is a good reason because prayer is about everyday life. It isn’t the great spiritual mystery that is too high and lofty for the likes of us.

MR. STEPHEN MITCHELL: A mathematician working at a problem or a little kid trying to pick out scales on the piano is a person of prayer.

MS. ANOUSHKA SHANKAR: If you look at the whole language of Sanskrit, I think it’s the only language in the world maybe apart from Latin where like the vibration of the way the words sound is equally as important as what you’re saying.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Americans are religious and nonreligious, devout and irreverent. But in astonishing numbers across that spectrum, most of us say that we pray. From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, we open up the subject of prayer, asking how it sounds and what it means in three traditions and lives.

The English word “prayer” comes from a Latin root meaning “to entreat,” but the meaning and structure of prayer is infinitely various. It can be a plea, an expression of thanks, a moment of introspection. Prayer can be constructed of silence or words or, some would say, of actions. In recent years, many Americans have discovered ancient contemplative traditions like centering prayer, the Jewish Kabbalah, the Sufi mystics of Islam, and Buddhists and Hindu chant and meditation. Later in this hour, Stephen Mitchell, who’s translated texts from the Psalms to the Tao Te Ching, will describe his understanding of nonreligious prayer. And theologian Roberta Bondi will describe how she learned to pray in a messy modern life with the desert fathers and mothers, the Abbas and Ammas, Christianity’s first mystics and psychotherapists rolled into one.

PROF. BONDI: One of the Abbas was asked one time which was the most difficult virtue to acquire. He went through the whole list of one virtue after another and then he concluded by saying, “But prayer is the hardest of the virtues because prayer is warfare to the last breath.” In prayer, we are likely, and it’s certainly what we want, to see ourselves as we really are. We can’t expect that we are going to be healed of the deep wounds of our heart without seeing what those wounds are. It’s also not a peaceful activity when we discover or come face to face with the reality of the world.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: We begin with a young musician, Anoushka Shankar. In the 1960s, her father, the legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar, became a spiritual and musical guru to Western seekers, most famously the Beatles. Anoushka herself was raised mostly in London and California. Her life might be said to epitomize the modern flow of spiritual ideas from East to West and back again. I interviewed her in 2003, while she was on a tour with her father. Their first project together, when she was 15 in 1997, was a CD called Chants of India. It’s a collection of traditional Hindu Sanskrit prayers, which her father set to music and which Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison produced. It includes several prayers that Anoushka Shankar recited in her childhood.

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. SHANKAR: My mom would chant Sanskrit prayers with me every night in order to have me learn them, and I think there were about nine or 10 of them that we used to say together every night before I went to bed. And that stopped as I got older because she figured it was more up to me whether I wanted to pray or not. A lot of what they teach kids in Hindu mythology and history is to do with stories, which makes it a lot more fun, I think. And so I grew up with all the big epics and the stories and through them all there’s always a moral in the story, whether it’s about animals or kings or gods and goddesses or whatever. And it’s more about a way of life, really. It’s more about, you know, the morals and the way one should be the best one can be. And karma is a very important part of it, of course.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. SHANKAR: It was never about, you know, this is what you have to do. It was always this is why this is better and more about teaching you how to think.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s say someone in a theistic tradition is praying to God.

MS. SHANKAR: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Where are your prayers going? What are they doing?

MS. SHANKAR: I’d almost say Hinduism is very tribal in a way because it’s still very much connected to nature. Most of our gods are connected to certain elements. You know, we have a fire god, and he represents, you know, certain types of strength. The goddess of the water, she’s wisdom. You know, it connects to the idea of water and what it does, that type of power. In that way, we have thousands and thousands of gods and you pray to the type of thing that you’re looking for, I suppose. Beyond all of those mini-gods, of course, we have the trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. And they all, of course, symbolize different things. Their wives are different things, their children. But I think what I find really fascinating about Sanskrit prayers is that it’s very much about the sound as well. If you look at the whole language of Sanskrit, I think it’s the only language in the world maybe apart from Latin where, like, the vibration of the way the words sound is equally as important as what you’re saying. And so when you’re chanting you don’t even have to always know what the prayer means, because the vibrations do produce a sort of element in you, you know. I’ll feel peaceful, I’ll feel strong, I’ll feel energetic with different prayers. And they are meant to evoke those things and that’s what I find really special.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, that’s so interesting. I’ve heard that also of Muslims talking about Qur’anic Arabic.

MS. SHANKAR: Hmm. Hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: I think Sanskrit is the oldest language in the world.

MS. SHANKAR: It is. It is. It is.

MS. TIPPETT: But you also were raised in England and America. You know, how do you think about the way you relate to that ancient language?

MS. SHANKAR: Well, I don’t claim to know it at all, but you do feel it. I mean, in a way I feel like English has too many words sometimes. I mean, I love it, because it’s creative and you can really express your thoughts and your feelings, but I think not everything can really be explained in a mathematical way. You can’t always find the right word. And in Sanskrit they have the feeling. You know, it’s really about vibrations and patterns. And that’s what I remember from growing up, because I did move away from the idea of ‘I don’t want to just be praying all the time’ and ‘I don’t know these words so it’s not relevant to me.’ And that was when I was probably a teenager. But, yeah, I just found that you don’t have to know. Like, you just say them again and again, and it brings so much peace. It really, really does. It’s amazing.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s also a lot of repetition in mantra. Is that part of just the sensation, the way these things sink into you …

MS. SHANKAR: It depends on …

MS. TIPPETT: … and express themselves?

MS. SHANKAR: … what they are. Some mantras have a specific amount of times that they’re supposed to be said to produce the effect. Some you just say the more, the better. It goes deeper into you, I think, and the chant just sort of puts you into that state of meditation where you’re focused on what you’re saying and you tune out other things.

MS. TIPPETT: And there’s also this primordial sacred sound, Om.


MS. TIPPETT: Is that right?



MS. SHANKAR: Absolutely. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about that. What does that mean for you?

MS. SHANKAR: Well, like you said, it’s the primordial sound. It’s supposed to contain, like, the whole power of the universe in that word. The three letters are “ah,” “oo,” and “mm.” One thing I notice when people are chanting commonly that there’s a slight mispronunciation in the word, because one of the deepest powers of that word is the vibration you get from the “m” sound. When you really hold your lips shut and you say that, that produces a sort of vibration in your body. And most people tend to chant with this big, like, “Aaaaoooo” and then just shut their mouth on the “m” for a second. But it’s really supposed to be like “Ommmmm.” And that’s supposed to get louder for as long as you can hold that breath. And it increases your breath control. Your lungs get cleaned by it, and it’s supposed to have a really great spiritual effect.

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. TIPPETT: I notice on the Chants of India CD I think these prayers tend to begin and end with Om.

MS. SHANKAR: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that right?

MS. SHANKAR: Oh, yes. MS. TIPPETT: Is that true of all Hindu prayers?

MS. SHANKAR: Almost always. It may not be written in the prayer all the time, but it is how people tend to start and end, very often with Om and then the word shanti three times, which means “peace.” That’s a very common way of ending as well.

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. TIPPETT: Musician Anoushka Shankar. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re approaching the nature of prayer in different lives. Anoushka Shankar has experienced prayer most of her life through music. I asked her to recite a favorite prayer from her CD Chants of India that she created with her father, Ravi Shankar. This prayer is addressed to one of the most popular Hindu gods, Ganesha, who is visualized with the head of an elephant and the pot-bellied body of a human being. Ganesha is the Hindu lord of success and the destroyer of evils and obstacles. He’s also worshipped for inspiring education and intelligence.

MS. SHANKAR: I’m not singing it, but the way you chant it would be “Vakratunda Mahaakaaya Suryakoti Samaprabha. Nirvighnam Kuru Me Deva Sarvakaaryeshu Sarvadaa.” And it’s just a very basic prayer to Lord Ganesha. You tend to always start auspiciously, beginning anything with a prayer to him. So in that case, the album starts with a prayer to him. And the translation is “Oh, Lord Ganesha of the curved trunk and massive body, the one whose splendor is equal to millions of suns, please bless me so that I do not face any obstacles in my endeavors.” And the reason he’s always first is because he is known as the remover of obstacles.


MS. SHANKAR: So at the beginning of a dance performance, people always start with a prayer to him. At the beginning of any venture, opening an office building, whatever, he’s the one that people tend to pray to, to make everything go smoothly.

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. SHANKAR: The Sahanaa Vavatu is another one that I grew up saying a lot, and it goes “Saha Naavavatu Saha Nau Bhunaktu Saha Veeryam Karavaavahai Tejasvi Naavadheetamastu Maa Vidvishaa Vihai.”

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. SHANKAR: And it’s a general prayer to the Lord to make us strong and protect us.

MS. TIPPETT: I like that. Would you read the English translation?

MS. SHANKAR: Sure. “May the Lord protect us together. May he nourish us together. May we work together uniting our strength for the good of humanity. May our learning be luminous and purposeful. May we never hate one another. May there be peace, peace, and perfect peace.”

MS. TIPPETT: So, again, you know, when you say the Lord, now that’s the English word that’s used there, who are you thinking of? Who’s in your imagination?

MS. SHANKAR: At that point, it depends person to person. My mother, for instance, is a very big Krishna worshipper. She’s always, from the beginning, when she was a child, loved Krishna. And so everything she does is in relation to him in her head. She prays to him. When she says general prayers, she’s picturing him. She has conversations with him. I mean, it’s bizarre. And then my dad is a little more leaning towards Ganesha, the elephant god. And for me, I grew up initially probably with Krishna, because I grew up with my mom having that influence on me. But I think I’ve distanced myself from a lot of the imagery of Hinduism, and I really do see what they explain it as, which is just sort of this sacred energy, this primordial, the Om, the center of the universe, whatever you want to call it. But it is just a universal energy, really, that we pray to, and people have to put different images on it to make it easier, I think.

MS. TIPPETT: As you grow older and grow as a musician, does this sense of the spiritual in the music and in your playing of it change and develop in different ways?

MS. SHANKAR: It’s always been quite important to me, but for different reasons. I mean, you grow up with whatever your parents teach you, and you don’t think about it too much. So even though I probably prayed more as a kid, because my parents are more actively Hindu than I am, it might not have been as genuine, because it was just what I was supposed to do. And then I went through that whole teenage phase of really distancing myself from it, in a way, to think about what I really thought of the whole thing. And now I’ve ended up coming back to it in maybe a slightly more subtle way. Like I said earlier, I’m not very actively Hindu. But all the tenets of Hinduism, all the main core points, are just so beautiful that they have a very important part in my life. And that probably comes across in my music, too. I think for the first few years that I was performing, I was always focused more on how fast I could play and how much I could impress the audience with the virtuosity of the instrument. And now I’ve realized the more important part of it is to really be able to move them. And that was hard for me at first, to be able to get up on stage and let go in that way, because it is a very personal thing. And to do it in front of people is kind of difficult at times, but I’m getting more comfortable with it now.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And, I mean, especially this music that is prayer. I mean, there’s something so intimate about that, just about reading it now, I can imagine being on a stage and performing it.

MS. SHANKAR: Yeah. Absolutely. Yes, it’s a very — part of yourself that you’re sharing, I guess. Especially in the slower parts, it really is like a meditation.

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India])

MS. SHANKAR: One big difference I find between, say, playing a composed piece or improvising — and you can do both at the same time, so even if I’m playing a line that’s composed and then going to a line that’s improvised, in that composed part, sometimes it can be such a beautiful piece that I’m completely involved, but when you’re playing something that you’ve known and you’ve done already, at least for me, my mind is completely free to wander. You know, I can be playing onstage for people, and my head will still be somewhere else. You know, ‘Did I cut my toenails today?’ or something as ridiculous as that can actually come into your head. But when you’re improvising, it completely forces you to be in the moment, and every bit of your mind and your heart has to be involved with nothing but the melody that you’re playing, the time cycle you’re playing, and what’s happening with your musicians. And that being in the moment is, I think, one of the most important things you can possibly do, whether it’s through meditation or music or studying religion. And that’s always the goal of any meditator is to be in the moment always and not to have your head stuck in the future or stuck in the past. And when you’re able to do that, that’s the whole idea of Zen, I think, as well. And so that’s really beautiful.

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. TIPPETT: The interviews in this program were recorded in 2002. So we’ve had to go back pretty far in our archives to surface the original unedited interviews. Hear what our early production days sounded like by downloading my entire conversation with Anoushka Shankar for free through our Web site and podcast. Also, listen to musical renditions of Sanskrit chants alongside their written English translations. Look for links to these features at speakingoffaith.org.

[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, we’ll explore the connection between prayer and poetry, and the idea of nonreligious prayer with translator Stephen Mitchell. Also, theologian Roberta Bondi on learning to pray with the desert fathers and mothers.

I’m Krista Tippet. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


[Music excerpt from “Chants of India”]

MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we’re opening up the vast subject of prayer. We’re exploring creative and generous approaches to prayer, both religious and nonreligious, in three very different lives.

Here is a free-form translation of a Psalm IV composed by my next guest, Stephen Mitchell. The Psalms are the prayer book of the Hebrew Bible, used by Jews and also by Christians. They invite the full range of human emotion into the presence of God, from celebration to grief, from envy to rage.

READER: “Even in the midst of great pain, Lord, I praise you for that which is. I will not refuse this grief or close myself to this anguish. Let shallow men pray for ease: ‘Comfort us; shield us from sorrow.’ I pray for whatever you send me, and I ask to receive it as your gift. You have put a joy in my heart greater than all the world’s riches. I lie down trusting the darkness, for I know that even now you are here.”

MS. TIPPETT: Stephen Mitchell is a writer and translator who’s spent his life immersed in great spiritual writings. He studied Hebrew because he wanted to read the Bible, and he learned German to read the works of the 20th-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Over the past two decades, he’s translated those works and a range of other religious texts from other languages. Among them, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Chinese Tao Te Ching.

One reviewer has said that Stephen Mitchell translates God into English. I wanted to hear from Stephen Mitchell about qualities of prayer he’s discerned in his intimacy with the world’s sacred texts. Stephen Mitchell insists, as it turns out, that prayer does not need to be religious. But he begins our conversation by recalling a personal crisis early in his life when he discovered the Book of Job, the epic poem that many take as the Bible’s primary reflection on human suffering.

MR. MITCHELL: And over the next few months, I was drawn to the Book of Job because I felt something resonating inside the end of the Book of Job that seemed to me a true encounter with human suffering. So I felt that if I could somehow understand what was going on at the end of the Book of Job, I would have reached that place of insight and breaking through into something else.

MS. TIPPETT: And when you’re talking about the end of Job, are you speaking about when God speaks back to Job?

MR. MITCHELL: Exactly. The voice from the whirlwind, yeah, which is a magnificent and a notoriously enigmatic passage — images of animals, of the freedom of the natural world, of the hugeness of the world beyond good and evil, to point to Job that there’s something that he is not understanding even when he is at his most brilliantly persuasive and moral and admirable. There’s something much vaster at issue.

MS. TIPPETT: A reading from the Book of Job. “Where were you when I planned the earth? Tell me, if you are so wise. Do you know who took its dimensions, measuring its length with a cord? What were its pillars built on? Who laid down the cornerstone while the morning stars burst out singing and the angels shouted for joy? Were you there when I stopped the waters, as they issued gushing from the womb? When I wrapped the ocean in clouds and swaddled the sea in shadows? When I closed it in with barriers and set its boundaries, saying, ‘Here you may come, but no farther; here shall your proud waves break.’ Have you ever commanded morning or guided dawn to its place, to hold the corners of the sky and shake off the last few stars? All things are touched with color; the whole world is changed.”

MR. MITCHELL: For me that text was what you would call in the Zen tradition a koan, a koan in that it was a spiritual riddle or conundrum that I was gnawing at like a dog on a bone. So if working on a koan in Zen tradition is a form of prayer, which you could argue both ways, then it was certainly a prayer for me.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. Well, then, I’d like to follow what you said about if you can consider Zen meditation a form of prayer. What would that say about prayer? And, I mean, the simpler question would be what is the relationship, what are the parallels between meditation and what you knew from your Jewish upbringing as prayer?

MR. MITCHELL: Well, what I knew when I was a child was something very unattractive. It was rote, and it wasn’t ever real to me. When I was involved with things Jewish later on in my early 20s, I was intensely involved in the Jewish tradition in many forms. I lived in Jerusalem for a year as well and went to pray with a Hasidic community in Brooklyn very often with friends of mine. And so what attracted me at that point was the fervor and the wholeheartedness of the experience. It was a social experience, too, which was quite wonderful. Later, when I began to experience the texts of Hinduism — I guess that was what came first, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads — my whole sense of God blew to smithereens. There was something much vaster than what I had thought that I was praying to. And at the beginning, in the rare spaces when the cloud cover of my thoughts lifted, I could sense the answer to Job, very vaguely and distantly, but it was there. I knew that it was somewhere inside me and that there was some kind of access to it eventually if I persisted long and deeply enough.

MS. TIPPETT: I was interested when I looked at your anthology of sacred prose, The Enlightened Mind


MS. TIPPETT: … that the very final words are of the French philosopher Simone Weil. She wrote, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

MR. MITCHELL: Well, that’s a marvelous definition. I love that. I think that could be as close as someone can get to a wonderful definition of prayer. In that sense, prayer has nothing religious about it. A mathematician working at a problem or a little kid trying to pick out scales on the piano is a person at prayer.

MS. TIPPETT: How’s that? Say something about that.

MR. MITCHELL: Well, you know, with complete, absolute unmixed attention. She’s not saying prayer is absolute unmixed attention; it’s the other way. The attention itself is the quality that she wants to call prayer. So whatever context you’re putting it in, whether it’s inside a church or, you know, inside a toy box, that’s the quality that is the sacred one, where there’s nothing else in the world but that little girl’s attempt to draw a red circle or that physicist’s attempt to make sense out of apparently messy facts.

MS. TIPPETT: And yet you have devoted your life to translating and making accessible these writings that come from sacred traditions, which are keepers of religious insights.

MR. MITCHELL: I wouldn’t say that I’ve devoted my life to them. I have fallen in love over the years with a number of texts like the poet Rilke. My desire has been to enter a state of intimacy with them, so I spend six months or a year or 17 years, as with the Book of Job. And, at the same time, I realize that, you know, their finger is pointing at the moon, in an old Buddhist metaphor. If you look at the finger, you’re not going to see the moon. So it’s not the text itself, but what it’s directing your attention to that the text feels is important. And it’s what shines through the words that I really care about.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, a lot of things you’ve worked with are, strictly speaking, poetry. I mean, the Book of Job is a poem.


MS. TIPPETT: And I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t always get out of it what we should is that we’re not reading it as poetry.

MR. MITCHELL: Mm-hmm. I agree.

MS. TIPPETT: How do you think about the relationship between these forms of language, poetry, and sacred prose? And what is, for you, most important about the idea of prayer?

MR. MITCHELL: Well, about poetry, my experience of Rilke was of reading him when I was in my teens. I think I was 19. I was in Paris, and it was just an incredibly powerful experience for me. And he was really my first experience of a teacher. And so I remember something that the great 20th-century Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva said, writing to Rilke, she said, “You are poetry itself.” But I think also, and it’s not only the formal beauty of those poems, it’s also that Rilke was writing from a depth of experience that communicates something to a lot of people who don’t feel open to, quote-unquote, “religious texts,” or “spiritual texts.” It’s much more a sense of praise.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Translator Stephen Mitchell. Here’s a reading from a collection of Rilke’s most religious poetry, translated here by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

READER: “I love you, gentlest of Ways, who ripened us as we wrestled with you. You, the great homesickness we could never shake off; you, the forest that always surrounded us; you, the song we sang in every silence; you, dark net threading through us. On the day you made us, you created yourself, and we grew sturdy in your sunlight. Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.”

MR. MITCHELL: You could say praise is another mode of prayer. It doesn’t have to do with longing; it has to do with being totally concentrated, in Simone Weil’s phrase, concentration in the present and appreciation of everything in the present from a piece of fruit to a horse in the meadow to a human being. And so you could say that in Western terms that might even be the highest form of verbalized prayer.

MS. TIPPETT: Sylvia Boorstein, I believe, is a friend of yours …


MS. TIPPETT: … who writes about being a faithful Jew and a passionate Buddhist. And she’s written that, for her, there’s a connection between praying and falling in love with life.

MR. MITCHELL: Well, that’s a lovely way of saying it. I think her sense of prayer would probably be very close to the sense of praise that I was just talking about.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MITCHELL: In this larger sense of prayer, there don’t have to be words to it. It can be just everything that you do from moment to moment is an expression of your gratitude. And you’re just expressing life as it comes with such clarity, with such open arms, that there’s nothing left but prayer.

MS. TIPPETT: I just want to say, you know, a sort of irony that strikes me as I think about your work and started thinking about today is that you have worked so intensively with words, but I sense that your real passion is for experience and the traditions that you’re most drawn to maybe personally have more to do with silence. Is that fair?

MR. MITCHELL: Well, from the beginning I think that’s where you end up in the Book of Job, in this vast open-hearted silence. And I think that’s where all of the most profound and beautiful words lead, Rilke’s included. He would sometimes talk about what lies on the edge of words. And I think you’re right. Any words that penetrate deep enough know that there’s something much more important than words. And the most they can do is speak with a kind of beauty and depth that will point beyond themselves.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Translator Stephen Mitchell. Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver that echoes his ideas about prayer.

READER: “The Summer Day”: Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean. The one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down, who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Approaching Prayer” in three very different lives and traditions.

[Music excerpt from “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” performed by the Spanish Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos]

MS. TIPPETT: This is an eighth-century prayer in Latin, “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” “Come, Holy Spirit,” sung by the Spanish monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. Monastics, monks and nuns, pray ritually many times each day for the world, they say, for all the rest of us. And many in the West are increasingly drawn to ancient contemplative practices.

[Music excerpt from “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” performed by the Spanish Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos]

MS. TIPPETT: My next guest, theologian Roberta Bondi, is part of this movement. A professor emeritus at Emory University, she’s written beloved, practical books about how she learned to pray when she discovered the writings of the earliest Christian monastics.

PROF. BONDI: Sometimes it seems when I’m talking to people about prayer that one of the main points I have to keep making over and over is there is no right way. The important thing is to find your way, and this was something that I learned from the Abbas and Ammas of the ancient desert.

MS. TIPPETT: Abbas and Ammas were Christians from all walks of life who, around the fifth and sixth centuries, retreated from a church which they felt had been corrupted by its own power. They went into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to pray. Politicians, generals, and peasants sought their advice on matters both spiritual and secular. Abba and Amma are Semitic words for father and mother, and their insights were collected by their followers and passed down across centuries as the sayings of the fathers and mothers. The theology of the desert transformed Roberta Bondi’s image of God. The Abbas and Ammas imagined a God more understanding, more compassionate than human beings ever are towards each other or towards themselves. They were Christianity’s first mystics and psychotherapists rolled into one. Their eccentric, earthy sayings changed Roberta Bondi’s way of thinking about religion. Still, she held prayer itself at a scholarly distance until a crisis of confidence early in her marriage to her husband, Richard. One day, as often, he was late coming home.

PROF. BONDI: I was sitting there on the couch and all of a sudden the Abbas from the ancient desert started saying to me, “Roberta, Roberta, we have something to say to you.” And I said, “Shut up and leave me alone. I’m worrying.” And they said, “Oh, oh, no. Come on, now. Come on, listen.” “Shh, shh, I’m worrying. Leave me alone.” And finally I said, “All right. All right. What do you have to say?” And they said to me, “Well, now, you know that the main thing we’re doing out here in the desert is prayer, and you have spent a lot of time studying us and working on us, and you might consider whether this might be something for you.” And I said to them, “Oh, come on, now. Look, I am a rational, reasonable woman, and I’m an academic, and this is, what you’re suggesting, just is not really for me.” And the answer to that was, “Ho, ho, ho, you might also consider as part of this that you have put Richard into the place of God for you. You know how we say that no one or no thing can fill that hole in your life except God, that your identity rests only in God, and that all other loves come out of that, and that no human being can ever fill that. Of course you feel the way you do.” So I was very embarrassed, because I knew, of course, instantly that they were right. So I said, “OK. All right. All right. I’ll try it.”

So, well, first, I let Richard come home and then yelled at him a little bit. And then I went out and got a book that had a pattern of prayer in it that was similar to what was used in the early church, and that was what started me on my discipline of prayer. And I can say several things that I learned out of that, that I like to share with others, and one of the things is you don’t need any kind of noble reason or highfalutin or serious reason. Any reason to begin a pattern of prayer is a good reason because prayer is about everyday life. It isn’t the great spiritual, the mystery that is too high and lofty for the likes of us.

MS. TIPPETT: You often talk about the importance of just showing up for prayer.

PROF. BONDI: We often have a kind of notion as part of this highfalutin, noble picture of ourselves as pray-ers that when we pray we need to be completely attentive and we need to be fully engaged and we need to be concentrating and we need to be focused. But the fact is, if prayer is our end of a relationship with God, that’s not the way we are with the people we love a large portion of the time. We simply are in their presence. We’re going about our lives at the same time in each other’s presence, aware and sustained by each other, but not much more than that.

Well, let me tell you a story about when I first started teaching in the seminary. And I would just find when I came home at the end of the day, I would be so exhausted that I could hardly contain myself. And I would be met at the car, usually, pulling into the driveway by my two children and my husband, who would all come out to tell me all the things that had gone wrong in the day, like the washing machine had overflowed and the rug in the dining room was soaking wet. And I would think, ‘Oh, I just want to go back to school.’ I would come into the house, and Richard and I would fix supper, and then we would sit down and eat and I would fall asleep with my head in the mashed potatoes. But the fact is that I knew all along that, however it was, it was better that I was there than that I wasn’t there, that my family needed me, that being part of a family means showing up for meals. And prayer is like that. However we are, however we think we ought to be in prayer, the fact is we just need to show up and do the best we can do. It’s like being in a family.

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MS. TIPPETT: Theologian Roberta Bondi. Here’s a saying of the desert father Abba Zeno.

READER: “If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action, God will hear everything that he asks.”

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PROF. BONDI: Now, one of the Abbas was asked one time which was the most difficult virtue to acquire, and he went through the whole list of one virtue after another, and then he concluded by saying, “But prayer is the hardest of the virtues, because prayer is warfare to the last breath.” In prayer, we are likely, and it’s certainly what we want, to see ourselves as we really are. We can’t expect that we are going to be healed of the deep wounds of our heart without seeing what those wounds are. It’s also not a peaceful activity when we discover or come face to face with the reality of the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Talk about some of those images you find in scripture that it’s all right for us to struggle and even fight with God and even nag and demand things that feel important to us.

PROF. BONDI: Well, one of my favorite images from scripture since the time I was a child was always Jacob wrestling with the angel.

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READER: “That same night Jacob arose and took his two wives and his two maids and his 11 children and crossed the ford at the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and, likewise, everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh, and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with man and have prevailed,’ and there he blessed him.”

PROF. BONDI: This is, I think, my very favorite, because it has all the elements of real prayer: God sneaking up on Jacob, you know, because it’s really God, this angel is, sneaking up on Jacob unexpectedly in the night, which is often when God comes to us with anxiety-producing information about ourselves or about our situation. Jacob’s absolute persistence in saying, ‘Look, all right, you started this. I’m not letting you go.’ And his absolute, steadfast commitment to the fact that if he hung in there, there would be a blessing in it, which is my experience over and over and over. But wrestling is the way it is a lot of the time.

I have a friend who plays in the Atlanta Symphony, and someone asked him once what it was like to play piccolo in a great symphony like the Atlanta Symphony, and he said, “Well, it’s actually long stretches of boredom interspersed with short periods of pure terror.” And I wouldn’t say it quite like that, that prayer is like that, but I would say that prayer is long periods of ordinary shared life together with intense periods of wrestling with really serious stuff that can scare us to death, but can also bring us into real life with God and real life with ourselves in a way that we can’t otherwise have it.

MS. TIPPETT: Roberta Bondi is Professor Emeritus of Church History at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. Her books include Memories of God and To Pray and to Love.

To end this hour, we have a reading on prayer taken from the writings of poet and memoirist Patricia Hampl.

READER: What is prayer?
I make a list:
Begging/pleading/cutting deals
Fruitless whining and puling

There the list breaks off; I had found my word. Prayer only looks like an act of language; fundamentally it is a position, a placement of oneself. Focus. Get there, and all that’s left to say is the words. They come: from ancient times … from the surprisingly eloquent heart … from the gush and chatter of the day’s detail longing to be rendered.

So what is silence?

Silence speaks, the contemplatives say. But really, I think, silence sorts. An ordering instinct sends people into the hush where the voice can be heard. This is the sorting intelligence of poetry, marked by the unbroken certainty of rhythm, perfect pitch, the placing of things in right order as in metrical form. Not rigid categories, but the recognition of a shape always there but ordinarily obscured by — by what? By noise, which is ourselves trying to do the sorting in an order that may be a heroic effort but is bound to be a fantasy.

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MS. TIPPETT: From Patricia Hampl’s book Virgin Time.

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MS. TIPPETT: The many poems and readings in this program are featured on our Web site. Many of you have requested that we post Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” and we have. Look for it at speakingoffaith.org, and while you are there listen to my complete unedited interviews with Anoushka Shankar, Stephen Mitchell, and Roberta Bondi. Save MP3s of all these conversations to your desktop or mobile device for free through our Web site or podcast. Discover all of this and much more at speakingoffaith.org.

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MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our technical director is Chris Heagle. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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