The Prayer Spiral: A Practice for Looking Outward

I am not a morning person, and generally when I wake up my initial thoughts are about one thing: me. I don’t want to get up. It’s so cold and dark! But I’m also hungry. Well, maybe five more minutes won’t hurt…

For this reason, I’m really thankful for my commute. I’m able to walk to my current workplace, which allows me 20 to 30 minutes of time to wake up, breathe the fresh air, and try to get my head on straight for the day. My commute used to be just another time to reflect on the same endless loop of fears and hopes. And now sometimes it still is, but I’ve gotten smart and consciously started a habit of praying in the morning.

I start out slow, by reciting the two greatest commandments to myself. This is good and simple for my sleepy brain, and like Pavlov’s dog, I now start doing it instantly when I leave the house. I follow it up with the Lord’s Prayer, another easy one. The hard part here is not just saying the words by rote, but really trying to concentrate on the meaning behind them. Sometimes I manage this better than other times, but at the very least, these two prayers are the stretching and warmup part of my morning spiritual workout.

Then I pray the Prayer Spiral, which is one of the best ways I’ve found of getting my morning brain to think about something other than me, me, me. As far as I know, this prayer was developed by one Sr. Shirley, who came to give workshops on Centering Prayer to my church community and threw this in as well. Sr. Shirley, if you ever read this, thank you for the wonderful gifts you gave us, and I hope you don’t mind me sharing my version here!

Sr. Shirley told us that once, someone told her to imagine the love of God as a set of concentric circles rippling out and out and out. She said she saw what they were getting at, but she still didn’t like the mental image of circles because they were “too closed.”  So she developed the Prayer Spiral, something that was completely open-ended. She even made her own set of prayer beads for the Spiral, giving each stop on the outward journey a tangible symbol for her to hold and touch, threaded on a light coil of wire, something to hold in her hand so she could hold on to the prayer better in her mind. If I was crafty like that I’d probably have done it too, but since I’m not, you’ll have to settle for the prayer itself without any cute, colorful prayer beads tutorial. Sorry!

Step 1: Pray for yourself. Sr. Shirley said she knew many of us would probably be shocked by this, and as a nun she took some time to get used to it herself. Yet she emphasized that the more she did it, the more important she found it was. For me, it makes sense, just like putting your own oxygen mask before assisting others, or taking the stick out of your own eye before you try to help someone with the speck in theirs.

Step 2: Special requests and other urgent situations. This is the time to pray for the co-worker who asked for your prayers on this particular day, your grandma’s surgery, a friend of a friend who is obviously having a hard time, the injustices in the world that keep you up at night, etc.

Step 3: Pray for your family and friends. Pretty self-explanatory.

Step 4: Pray for any groups you belong to. Your church or other spiritual community is an obvious one. Others might include the people with whom you work or volunteer, your book group, your high school class, whoever comes to mind. I also like to ask for good leadership and followership within these groups. (As a side note, I just love that the new Pope asked for the prayers of the faithful first thing, because I think we should be praying for our leaders constantly and they need our prayers.)

Step 5: Pray for your nation. Personally, I think it’s best to be a) humble and b) a little bit vague on this one. That is to say, I try not to assume I know what God would consider the perfect solution to any situation in my country and pray for that outcome. Also, while praying for blessings on my country, I also pray for mercy and grace for our mistakes.

Step 6: Pray for all nations, anything that caught your attention in the global headlines this morning, world peace… I’m sure we can all think of quite a few things for this category.

Step 7: Pray for the Earth. I have so much growing to do in this area. As someone who was raised without much consciousness of the cycles of the Earth, much less respect for her, I struggle to see the plants, animals, and land around me as my brothers and sisters in creation, and in fact older brothers and sisters if you go by Genesis. I also like to reflect on the many Psalms that describe the natural world rejoicing with us. What if we took those things seriously?

Step 8: Pray for the Universe. This is the last, unbounded prayer in thanksgiving for God’s great creativity. I pray for the things God has created about whom I have no knowledge whatsoever, whether deep sea creatures that have never seen the sun or possible intelligent life on other planets.

All of these prayers have a value of their own, of course, and they have the added bonus of countering my self-centeredness, reminding me of the interrelatedness of all creation, and maybe even inspiring me to take action and help make my prayers come true. I hope that, if you faithfully practice it, the Prayer Spiral will take you on a similar journey!


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