What Is Prayer?
Discovering that something really happens when we pray
Posted July 7, 2016
When asked why he seemed to be wasting his time living in a monastery, the exceptional twentieth century Christian monk and writer, Thomas Merton, replied simply, “Because I believe in prayer."
Most people pray. Even atheists may pray sometimes, perhaps silently… or at least curse. Because, to invoke a higher power in any way at all represents some form of prayer. Understanding better what prayer is about helps us to engage more skilfully in this most essential spiritual practice with potentially trans-formative results.
There are different types of prayer. The best known might be ‘petition’, when we ask for something. The question I want to touch on first is, ‘Who are we asking?’ The ‘higher power’ I have already mentioned is, of course, often called ‘God’. The thing is, what do each of us know about God? To what extent is each person spiritually aware, conscious of any profound and meaningful relationship with the divine, with God as the Christian Trinity, as the Great Spirit of the Universe, or in some other formulation? These questions raise the concept of spiritual maturity. How do we become increasingly spiritually mature? One way is through regular and disciplined prayer.
So it is kind of circular… To get to know the God you pray to, you have to pray consistently to God. Asking for things that are unlikely to happen, may not be the best way to start.
One of the keys to prayer is repetition. Learn a short prayer and repeat it over and over. ‘Our Father…’, ‘Hail Mary…’, ‘Lord have mercy…’ These are Christian prayers which people use and repeat many, many times. To the uninitiated, it can seem rather dull and pointless. Even more dull and pointless may seem the practice of silent prayer or ‘meditation’, but the centuries old tradition of this method among people of different world religions argues strongly in its favour. Let us try and understand what is happening.
During silent prayer we keep our bodies relatively still, surrounding ourselves with silence. This allows our minds to quieten and focus inwardly, to ‘simply be’. Other methods – the repetitive use of a sacred word or phrase (a ‘mantra’), chanting, and other forms of meditation – similarly encourage this focusing of awareness, which is all-important. At first there are distractions, but eventually it is a peaceful experience, and certainly not boring, even though nothing much appears to be happening. (Boredom can itself become the focus of awareness as we watch it ebb and flow, observing the frustration and irritation it conceals, based on the desire for things to be other than they are, rather than going with the flow and accepting whatever unfolds.)
The truth is that something really happens during silent prayer. At the biological level, our brain waves change and the two sides of our brain – the verbal, ego-driven, rational, materialistic left hemisphere and the silent, altruistic, poetic, intuitive right hemisphere – communicate more harmoniously with one another. Emotional blockages get subtly and gradually worn away, promoting protection from anxiety, healing from loss, and growth towards joy and inner peace. There may be a sudden breakthrough, but the process is more often gradual, perhaps almost imperceptible, which is why perseverance in the practice is advised.
Gradually, attuning ourselves to the infinite, we come to experience something majestic and divine at work in our universe, and a deep sense of being cared for and loved. We become aware too of a great kinship with each other, with the entirety of humanity without discrimination, and also with our planet and the magnificent realm of nature. There are no barriers to these seamless connections between God, people and creation. You can think this intellectually, but it can only become a truly real, lived experience through the kind of spiritual awareness that is derived from contemplation, prayer and other forms of spiritual practice.
All forms of verbal prayer depend on this profound level of awareness and connection with the divine. Let’s take a look at the different types. In her book ‘For God Alone’, Christian writer Bonnie Thurston lists the following:
Invocation: this means ‘to call upon’, or perhaps rather to recognize the constant presence of the divine, reminding us to pay attention inwardly to that presence. (The readily-used exclamatory phrase ‘O My God’ is, for example, a rudimentary kind of invocation.)
Confession and penitence: involve recognizing that we hold a harmful attitude or have made a destructive mistake – actively or through neglect – while aiming deliberately to atone and amend our ways in future.
Adoration and praise: this is worship (‘worth-ship’) plain and simple, the spontaneous utterance of deep love and respect for a God whose mercy and majesty we have experienced directly.
Thanksgiving: is similarly called naturally forth from deep within on truly humble recognition and appreciation of the great gift of life bestowed upon us, and the many individual blessings we receive.
Petition and intercession: Petition is when we ask God for something for ourselves. Intercession is when we ask something for others. Both types recognize human weaknesses and limitations. We all need guidance, help, hope, courage and strength sometimes, not only to endure adversity but also to grow through it. Prayer and reflection enable us to connect with the most reliable spiritual source of wisdom, compassion, nurture and love that is God.
Lamentation: is the expression of grief and sorrow in the face of great danger and threat and following losses such as bereavement. There may be anger, too, in the mix of emotions. This is a natural and healthy response, but grieving is not a static outcome. It is a process in which the pain often acts as the medicine. The difficult emotions need to be experienced and allowed to play out as they gradually weaken while we heal. Sorrow transforms into joy. Anxiety mutates softly into harmony and peace. Prayers of lamentation imply a readiness eventually to accept the inevitability of loss as part of natural law and God’s will. This accepting attitude then permits us to benefit from divine assistance while living and growing through suffering.
Oblation: is not only about recognizing gifts and blessings, but also about feeling a need to give something back – to God, to other people, and to Creation, nature. It is about dedicating one’s life in the sacred service of others.
Prayer then involves foremost a particular kind of attention, a quiet inner-awareness of the flow of our emotions, thoughts, impulses, and the sense perceptions (like hearing, vision, smell and touch) that return our inward focus back outward to our surroundings in the ever-present here-and-now, and from there back into our thoughts and feelings as they gradually settle down. Finally, when the mind is still and clear, the spiritual connection appears as we become receptive to the creative insights, intuitions, promptings and guidance that seem gifted from heaven – answers to our unspoken prayers. The next step involves learning to carry over this exquisite spiritual sensitivity into everyday life. Another twentieth century spiritual writer, Michel Quoist, said it like this: “If we knew how to listen to God, if we knew how to look around us, our whole life would become prayer."
Let us pray ‘Amen’ to that.
Copyright Larry Culliford