The comedian Emo Philips once said, "When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me."
A joke, yes, but a good description of two types of prayer that are uttered by the millions each day: requests for things we want (God as Santa Claus), and pleas for mercy (God as appellate court judge). If that was all prayer consisted of, it might not have endured through the centuries, and it would not remain a central feature of every religious tradition, whether primitive or sophisticated, authoritarian or permissive, theistic or nontheistic. That people still pray, even in our secular, skeptical age, suggests that the practice has something going for it.
One benefit is measurable: medical research indicates that people who pray regularly tend to have better than average health outcomes. Exactly how prayer promotes healing—whether by reducing stress and fear, or by divine intervention or some other mechanism—is open for debate. (Studies suggest that intercessory prayer, in which volunteers pray for sick people who don’t know they’re being prayed for, also works, but that’s a mystery too complex to tackle here.) In any case, like meditation, prayer seems to have a positive effect on various measures of wellness.
Prayer comes in a number of forms other than the familiar one of asking a higher power for favors. Each type is rooted in certain mental and emotional conditions. Here is a partial list:
- petitioning – desire, need, dependency
- asking for a miracle – desperation, helplessness
- bargaining – resignation, manipulation
- confessing – remorse, contrition
- asking for forgiveness – guilt, fear, shame
- ranting – anger, blame, rage
- asking for guidance – confusion, uncertainty
- asking for the welfare of others – caring, concern, compassion
- offering to serve – kindness, charity, reverence
- thanksgiving – gratitude, fullness, contentment
- praising – awe, wonder, appreciation
- adoring – love, devotion
- communing – oneness, unity, surrender
For prayer to rise to its highest spiritual potential, it should be a sacred and personal practice, not just a routine obligation. Remember Jesus’s warning not to imitate those who pray only in public so they will be seen as devout, or those who think that the more they say the more likely it is that they’ll be heard. Standardized prayers can be a magnificent and inspiring resource, but they no doubt lose power when recited in a rote or indifferent manner. Prayer at its best is sincere and direct from the heart, whether you use traditional text or your own spontaneous words.
And why not include some listening time as well? Prayer is often described as speaking to the divine, but if you quiet down and enter the silent chambers of the heart, you can access a higher intelligence, a cosmic Google so to speak. Whether you think of it as a message from a personal God, the product of a collective unconscious or the subtle voice of your own intuition, you might just hear the whisper of wisdom. Your prayer might not bring you exactly what you want when you want it, but if you’re open and attentive, you might receive something even more valuable, such as guidance, or an important life lesson or the answer to a question you didn’t even know you were asking.
Some spiritual teachers say that what matters more than the language of a prayer is the intention that drives it and the feeling tone that underlies it. Qualities such as reverence, humility and selflessness get the ego out of the way and open us to the deepest, least corrupted parts of ourselves, where we are likely to encounter grace. Indeed, the practical benefits of prayer may depend in large part on the depth of quietude that the practice elicits. When seen in this light, prayer becomes similar to meditation.
You may find that as you pray you're inclined to verbalize less and less. You may find that you want to whisper, not speak. You may want to stop your lips entirely, and speak only in thought. You may want to stop forming sentences altogether, as your attention sinks from your mind and tongue to the level of feeling—to fear, or sorrow or pain; or to joy, or gratitude or love. You might forget entirely the original purpose of your prayer and settle into the stillness of pure being. Many resist such urges, thinking that prayer ought to be articulated loudly and clearly. If, however, you allow the process to unfold, you might find that your awareness is drawn to deeper and deeper levels of silence, closer and closer to the doorstep of the Infinite.
At this subterranean level, where prayer and meditation come together like underground streams, the question of whether prayers are answered becomes as laughable as the New Yorker cartoon in which a man, kneeling at his bedside, looks up and sees a flashing sign: "Access denied." At the core of being, access to the Sacred is so intimate that it transcends communication and becomes perfect communion. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described this as a “shift in the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender,” in which we “see the world in the mirror of the holy.”
My prayer is for each of us to be blessed with such a transformation.