Prayer in Under 5 Minutes

The past few weeks have been a blur of activity, from academic article-writing to running an internal conference at my workplace to managing an annual meeting for the local chapter of my professional association.

However busy I am, I carve out time for praying, but it wasn’t always that way. Especially now, with the pandemic and the new year (with resolutions, yes?) coming up, I thought that talking about some of that could be useful for anyone seeking something even more basic than the 10-15 minute ritual outline I put together on this blog.

In my preteens and during most of my teens, I always had time for ritual, and I loved doing it. There were days when I would be in ritual for over an hour, usually some kind of journaling/meditation/divination/prayer combo. Then college happened and, despite putting up a small shrine in my dorm room, it collected dust more often than not because I struggled to figure out how to place doing spiritual things alongside the mountains of homework. Things shifted in my early 20s when I started to turn that around. It was difficult to get into a routine for more than a few days or weeks at a time, and the open possibilities of prayer required a lot of thought that just added to the anxiety whirling around my head. Looking back, there was plenty of time to do ritual — it’s just that circumstances made it seem daunting. Of course, I’m in a different headspace now, and where I was then led me to where I am now.

One of the first things I did with some success during those frantic years involved drawing lots. It meant not having to make a choice, for one; it also gave me a way to pray to exactly one God each day other than Hestia.

Drawing a God by lot was very easy for me because, in 2008, I had made a batch of what I referred to as “God-sticks” when I was a college student — popsicle sticks inscribed with the Gods’ names in marker, some with ornamentation, for shrine use. (I’ve thought about commissioning a gainfully employed adult version of them because the marker I used was not waterproof, and years of libations have given the sticks a certain inkbleed charm.) Originally, I had set them all out on my shrine, where I made offerings to the Gods in college and grad school.

The original batch of God-sticks. I have added more since then.

The idea behind these was that they performed the function of inscribing a name on a sacrificial altar, an idea I picked up from J. Mikalson’s Ancient Greek Religion. Here, he is describing how a site might be constructed for a shrine to Poseidon. First, he goes into open-air needs so the Olympians receive the offerings (bad news for those of us offering incense indoors, I guess?), and then he describes the creation of the altar:

The altar will be the first element of our sanctuary of Poseidon. Let us make it a block of stone. In other cities we might well use limestone, but in Athens, with its mountains of marble, we can make it of this beautiful and durable stone. Let us make it of Pentelic marble, about 1¼ meters high and wide, two meters long, and with a molding around the top edge. We are obliged to carve Poseidon’s name on it, so that both the god and visitors know it is his. Each altar is so designated with the god’s name or with the name of a specific group of gods because there were no “common” altars to serve all the gods. If one wished to make an offering to Athena, one must offer on her altar. If, as in our case, the offering is to Poseidon, it must be made on his altar. An offering to Poseidon on an altar of Athena would be received by and would influence neither deity. Our altar is of stone because it must endure the elements. On occasion we will want to burn offerings on it, and then we will put on the altar a metal pan to protect its surface from the fire and ashes. We will orient our altar, as always, to the east, but, by chance, in our sanctuary at Sunium it will appropriately also face the open sea. We have inscribed on it Poseidon’s name in large letters, perhaps painted for ease of reading.

Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion, p. 31. Bold emphasis mine.

In 2012, when I moved to my current city for work, my shrine looked like this:

When I wrote that post about having a minimalist shrine and being able to do ritual with almost nothing, I was not kidding. Incense bowl, God-sticks, lighter, incense. That’s it. What isn’t pictured are the two statues I’ve had since entering the library profession of Hermes and Athene.

It was far more minimalist than the shrine I had had before, as I was in a single-room sublet for the first few months of my time living in this city. Here’s what I wrote early on during my draw-a-God-from-the-jar years, in July 2012:

It’s interesting to think about trends in who receives offerings. Today, it was Hephaistos, but I have drawn Persephone’s more often than not on some days. While there is an equal chance of picking any stick, I like to think she deserves more honors because it is her season now. Summer is a time for Persephone, Demeter, Dionysos and all of the other Athanatoi responsible for the generative processes of the Earth. Of course, I also have a specific incense scent, violet, that I offer to Persephone and no other.

For a while in my mid- to late 20s, the routine involved setting the kettle to boil and doing five minutes of prayer in the time it took for the water to heat by lighting incense and reading from either the Orphic or Homeric Hymns. At the tail end of my 20s, I started having more bandwidth to do 15-minute rituals, and now my rituals are about 30-45 minutes long every morning. I still use the God-sticks to denote who is receiving prayers and have one for most Gods I worship.

Putting together a minimalist ritual space and minimal devotional practice takes only a few steps — some kind of representation of the Gods, like the homemade God-sticks or something that you print out or purchase; a collection of short hymns and poems to read, often achievable in anthologies like this one coming out at the end of April 2021; and whichever vessel(s) you are using for offerings.

Think five-minute prayer, not fifteen-minute prayer, easily achievable in the quiet moments before a kettle boils or when you have a few minutes before a Zoom call. Wash your hands and face, use a randomizer to pick a God, and pray.

📿

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