In my lifetime, I’ve explored many kinds of prayers, meditations, mantras, mindfulness techniques and awareness exercises. I’ve used them to help me on my personal journey, to occupy myself at night when I can’t sleep, to center myself before walking into difficult situations, and to share them with others in classes and retreats. One ancient prayer I keep coming back to is the “Serene Light” prayer. Some of you may already know it. I want to share it and include some personal comments.
This prayer arose in the Eastern Orthodox tradition centuries ago. In the simplest sense, it uses light as a metaphor of the divine presence – light in darkness being one of the most common metaphors in global spiritual traditions. It’s not dependent on you believing any specific religious doctrines, but only on a simple desire for a spiritual connection.
Like many prayers, its effectiveness depends on our intention — the way in which we recite it.
A writing teacher once said that the difference between prose and poetry is that good prose keeps you moving from one idea to the next, speeding up as you go along. Good poetry – and prayers — are different. They invite you to slow down, pause and think about what each phrase means, letting it linger and speak. It’s like putting flower petals on water one by one and watching each one float before you add the next one. Or sipping a good glass of wine instead of gulping it down. The “savoring” approach lets each image or thought take shape and sink in; our sense of time slows down, which eases us into a more reflective state of awareness.
So, here’s the prayer, followed by some of my comments on each phrase:
shining in the ground of my being,
draw me to yourself.
Draw me past the snares of the senses,
out of the mazes of the mind.
Free me from symbols, from words,
that I may discover the signified,
the word unspoken,
in the darkness,
which veils the ground of my being
- “Serene light” – the light I seek is not glaring or flashing, but calm and quiet. It radiates peace and strength. It is unaffected by my fears and anxiety. In the mystical traditions this light is at the heart of all creation.
- “shining in the ground of my being” – In one way, this light is beyond the busy-me that chatters all day. But in another way, it lies deep within me, at my center. It shines, and in so doing offers me a focus, a goal, and a presence. I imagine it shining within me.
- “Draw me to yourself” – Like a thirsty animal seeking water during a drought, I affirm my desire to come closer to this light. I am not asking to abandon my own sense of self or avoid my responsibilities. But I want some help, some aid, some infusion of peace as I face what is before me. I trust the light will help me.
- “Draw me past the snares of the senses” – We are wired to have our attention react quickly to many kinds of stimuli. If I see something move, my eyes immediately evaluate what it is. If I hear a sound, my brain is compelled to analyze the source. The same is true of all my senses. I can spend every minute of the day being subject to these distractions, becoming “ensnared” in the constant flow of information. But in this moment, I want to slow down, reduce the mental static, and not give in to distractions. I am choosing instead to seek the light.
- “…Out of the mazes of my mind.” Just as my senses can keep me constantly distracted, so my mind is in the habit of jumping from one thought to the next, creating strategies and scripts to protect or promote myself. But right now, I want to ascend above the clouds to see a greater horizon; I want to rise above the “mazes”.
- “Free me from symbols, from words…” Most moments of awareness are dependent on ordinary things and familiar concepts, but we can reach beyond them. In this prayer, I am using symbols and words like “light” and “mazes”, but those are not my goal. Beyond my cluttered, ordinary thinking is something greater I can sense when I am still.
- “…that I may discover the signified, the Word unspoken.” There are endless names for the divine; Islam alone offers 99. Each word suggests a specific spiritual experience and relationship, but all are limited to a specific aspect of our understanding. In saying this prayer, I want to go beyond all language and move closer to the “serene light.” Ultimately, I seek the source of the light, which I cannot fully know. But I don’t need to “know” it in an ordinary sense — I only need to draw close to it.
- “…in the darkness which veils the ground of my being.” The darkness is not a forbidding or dangerous darkness — it’s “dark” because I can’t ever “see” the “ground of my being” as I can an everyday object. It’s the mysterious dimension in which our souls exist.
It’s ideal to memorize the prayer so it’s available whenever we want it. And it’s important to know that we don’t have to look for immediate results to experience its power. Sometimes it’s enough to have taken the time to live within the prayer for a set time, and the effects may be experienced later in the day. If you do have specific concerns on your mind, you can add those requests after you’ve taken the time to dwell in the prayer; coming from a more peaceful inner space helps us focus what it is we seek.
The “Serene Light” prayer is a gem that I’ve turned to again and again and have always been grateful for where it leads me. Perhaps it can also be useful to you.
Image: Spika Star, New Forest Observatory