I woke up this morning and felt the urge to pray. Only I realized I don’t really know how to do that anymore.

Prayer is what we do, right? When things seem to be beyond our control? When the frayed end of the rope is right there, in front of our faces? When there seems to be nothing left to do?

As a kid, prayer meant another event to go to. Prayer meetings. Prayer breakfasts. Twenty-four hour prayer rallies. Healing extravaganzas and intercessory cavalcades. And within the tradition in which I was raised, regardless of the confines, it meant lots of unintelligible whooping and some occasional jumping around and running up and down the aisles.

People took their troubles to the Lord and would up with Holy Ghost Hyperventilation.

After many years of this, both as a supplicant and spectator, I came to view prayer as nothing more than a God-ordained pity party. A woe-is-me pleading that felt good at the moment, cathartic and wet, but in the end led only to a handing over of control to the God who resided just inside the ceiling tiles.

Surely this is not what was intended.

In her book Encountering God, Diana Eck describes prayer as engaging in the practice of paying attention: “What are we practicing for? The goal of this practice is not to get to some other place, some lofty dazzling experience, but truly to recognize the place where we already are.” For Eck, prayer looks a lot like meditation, and leads to mindfulness of not only the subtle rhythms of our bodies but also to the chaotic and often indiscernible rhythm of God. Prayer for Eck isn’t something we do, but is something we live. It is a way to engage the Sacred even as the Sacred slips through our fingers.

This is the problem with being reverently agnostic, being willing to engage both sides of the question but unwilling to settle down on either one. In Life of Pi, the main character struggles with this question and comes to a conclusion – the same one that sits upon the back burner of my mind . . .

It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

And at no point does being undecided spiritually feel more uncomfortable, more immobile, than when one feels the need to pray.

A question:

Do you pray? Regardless of your religious beliefs – for all are welcome here – what does prayer mean to you? I’m looking forward to your response . . .

[Flickr photo is by theogeo and is protected]


32 thoughts on “Prayer

  1. funny I see prayer as a personal talk with God – just this morning I thanked him for the glorious look of the countryside under a thick hoar frost.

    I pray for assistance and strength too of course, but like all relationships, I try to keep it balanced.

  2. Yeah, tell me about the excited rituals of religious life. (Eleven years of Catholic school, seven of which began with daily Mass.)

    I believe in God, but not in religion. I respect anything anyone wants to believe in or however they choose to worship and appreciate it a lot when they take the biblical advice of “judging not” upon hearing that I no longer practice religion.

    I think I was 19 or 20 when I decided with finality that I no longer needed a “middleman” to get to God. When I pray, it’s very conversational. (If God is the patriarchal image we’re told, what could be more natural than talking to your dad? Of course, that would be unnatural for me. Maybe that’s why I relish this concept. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

    I try not to ask for things or for specific causes (but often do), generally ask for a blessing and for the wisdom to keep doing the “right” things, whatever they may be. And I say thanks. A lot. Even when it’s hard to be grateful for circumstances.

  3. The traditions of various religions provide structure for prayer. I too find that structure appealing and comforting, but I feel like a phony professing my membership in any religion right now. I pray though. Like you, I’m floundering a bit. I still give thanks first, and say “amen” at the end, but it’s an odd conversation in the middle. I feel this need to stand on something solid, but every time I seek that experience, wear it for a while, give it my all, I want to run away shouting, “Am I THE ONLY ONE who’s having trouble with some of this schtuff?!” [No offense intended to any of your readers who are firmly rooted in their faiths. I respect and admire those who are so certain… and faithful.]

    This topic fascinates me, Brian. Always has. I end up in circular logic loops that make me want to reach for a drink and a cigarette. Care to join me?

  4. Prayer for me is a time set aside to forget about self wants and think about the needs of others. I do not personally believe that prayer in and of itself works, I believe all that is going to be is already in the works, however, it gives one time to reflect and realize what IS going on around us. It reminds us to look for resolutions that are happening right in front of our eyes. If we didn’t take a moment to pray, meditate, just stop for a moment and look around, we would miss out on all the good things that are happing…perhaps only seeing the shitty things in life.

  5. Are you familiar with the concept of the Jesus Prayer, also known as a breath prayer? It’s a simple statement said in the rhythm of your breath…a meditative practice. When I do it with no distractions and good intentions, it is definitely calming and peace-giving.

    Did you ever read Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger? The tattered book Franny was carrying around was The Way of A Pilgrim written by a Russian monk in the 19th century. That’s the book that most fully describes the Jesus Prayer.

    1. Diana Eck mentions The Way of a Pilgrim in the book I linked to in my post. And so now I might have to go and find it . . .

  6. No, i don’t prey. Nor have I ever as far as I can tell.

    I do occasionally mess about on the ukulele however, and I’ve heard it said that playing an instrument is a form of prayer. I like the idea of that, so I’m sticking with it.

  7. Great post, makes me very glad to be now removed from charismatic Christianity.

    Bring reverently agnostic has not made me uncomfortable with regard to personal prayer. I feel as though I receive the same insight through reflective mediation without prayer that I once received through reflective meditation with prayer, so I’m content to leave it at that, and remain happily reverently agnostic at the same time.

    Public prayer though, that’s uncomfortable. Since I can’t go through other people’s motions without being hypocritical it kind of messes up the concept of public prayer. Basically I avoid it if at all possible.

    And I love the Jesus Prayer dialog from Franny and Zooey, but I’ve never learned anything about it or practiced it.

  8. Faith is one thing. Religion is another.

  9. Simple conversations.

    There was a time that I would have told you I prayed “deeply” as I think it’s called. I guess I was in a better place spiritually then. Or different. Those prayers don’t feel appropriate now given the status of my relationship. So I speak to God where I am, trusting that over time the relationship will grow. As the relationship grows I assume the conversations will become more substantive. It’s a process.

    By the way–as much as I disliked Pi–I actually copied that line into a little notebook I keep while I was reading the book. That was good stuff.

  10. I like what Jess said: “Prayer for me is a time set aside to forget about self wants and think about the needs of others.” I rarely pray, but when I do, it’s usually along these lines.

    Prayer has always felt like one great big ‘Dear Santa’ list to God…a litany of all the things I want/need, even if it’s for others.

    The ideas of presence, mindfulness, and service make much more sense to me. Whenever I do resort to the “bedtime prayer” ritual (out of habit), I almost always fall asleep three seconds into it. Which, come to think of it, probably explains why I never got that pony for my brother. 😉

  11. Heh. Define “prayer.” To me, it’s affirmation: thanks, praise, exultation in the here and now. One big YES! Rather than personifying a Creator, I bubble over with gratitude for the Creation/Intelligent Design/Metamorphosism. And I try to recognize that what feels like darkness and pain is also part of the good things. But is that prayer?

    I’m with Ed – I didn’t care for Life of Pi, but that particular passage hit home.

  12. Jesus, according to one or other of the Gospels (ok, I’ll Google it – actually, it’s Revelations 3:16) reckoned that you had to be one of three states – hot, cold or lukewarm. And if you were lukewarm, he would SPIT YOU OUT OF HIS MOUTH!

    Leaving aside what exactly you would be doing in his mouth in the first place, I’d have to put myself in the ‘cold’ category. I don’t pray. Who would I pray to? Doesn’t mean I’m not mindful but that’s another issue entirely.

    Though that does put me in the odd category of refusing to believe in God on principle.

    Great post. I need to think a little more about this.

  13. Yes. I do. But you know what? I’m not a hugely religious person.

  14. Great post. The answer for me is yes. I see the relationship as Patriarchal, so it feels like a natural thing for me. I don’t think that the purpose is to change the will of God, but rather to seek what he is already willing to give to us and others if we but ask. Sometimes it is private, but aloud and more formal. Other times it is more of a prayer in my heart and mind.

    I think prayer and meditation go hand in hand. I like the following quote from Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green Was My Valley”: “That [prayer] is the first and greatest gift. Use the gift of prayer. Ask for strength of mind, and a clear vision. … Use your sense. Not all of us are born for greatness, but all of us have sense. Make use of it. Think. Think long and well.”

    I also like the following from Victor Hugo: “Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when, whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.”

  15. I pray. A LOT. All day. Praying is conversateing with God, just like I would my closest family and friends. I wake and thank Him for another day and I ask Him to be with my family and friends. Then I ask Him to heal my dad’s illness, if that be His Will. Then I thank Him fervently for water heaters and coffee. I ask Him for focus and a way to make it through the latest familial budget crunch. When I get in the car I ask that it be a safe ride. When I have an encounter with a rude stranger, I ask God to give that person an extra dose of comfort and happiness today because they need it terribly. I thank God for a roof over my head, food on my table, my husband’s job and His Son Jesus. I ask him for what I need and want…the desires of my heart.

    The prayer of Jabez (a wonderful afternoon read by Bruce Wilkinson) is about us asking God to bless…US! I never feel guilty asking Him for my own blessings..because I know He wants me live a happy and fulfilled life.

    Prayer is a VERY personal thing. And no two people pray alike because no two people have the same relationship with God. The most important thing, I’ve found, about prayer is what you do after you pray….do you listen and watch for a response from the Spirit? God always responds, always. If you don’t understand how to listen and watch for His response then ask Him to help you with that as well. This little prayer always does the trick for me…”God, please give me the ears to hear what You need me to hear, the eyes to see what You need me to see and the mouth to say what You need me to say.”

    I was raised Episcopalian…for those unfamiliar, Episcopalian is watered-down Catholic…but I’m not as much knowledgeable about my denomination as I am about my God, His Son and the Holy Spirit. Having a church home is good for nurturing your relationship with God but it certainly will never define it if you don’t want it to. I feel that different churches and denominations are what they are because people are so different. We aren’t all going to be comfortable nurturing and exploring our faith in the same environment. My husband is Catholic; I chose not to convert. I’m not as comfortable with a Catholic Church environment as I am an Episcopalian Church environment or Non-denominational Church environment. And that’s ok. We both still believe in the same God, we take turns going to each other’s church and we make sure we work together to let our marriage grow under the influence of God and God alone.

    Sorry this was so long…I just feel very passionately about prayer and the difference it can really make in everyone’s lives.

  16. I do. I wrestle with G-d on a semi consistent basis. It has been the source of a lot of thought and something I have blogged about.

    It is sort of an evolutionary process. What I believe today is different from what I used to.

  17. Yes, but to a god of my understanding.

  18. Brian

    This one is from my daughter and I to you.

    We will win
    We’ll tell you why
    Because we have faith, courage and enthuiasm.
    Thank you for this day,
    Bless our mothers and fathers and all our loved ones.
    And help us have another wonderful day tomorrow.

  19. I see prayer as utterly pointless.

    If I need help I’ll ask someone in my life who can help me. Or I’ll do what I can to better my situation. If the situation is out of my control then it helps me to just talk to the people in my life I’m close to just to vent.

    But as a non-believer, I think asking an invisible deity for help is useless, not to mention vain because if there really was some all powerful being in the universe then it has more important things to deal with than my ramblings.

  20. I pray daily. In the morning I say a prayer of thanksgiving, paying particular attention to any ways I have felt God in my life. Then I do some reading and journaling, and then end the session with another prayer in which I ask for whatever blessings I feel I or my loved ones need.

    At the end of the day I also say a prayer.

    I do believe there is help from above when we seek it. It has happened for me on many occasions.

  21. Gave up prayer when I was a kid. Felt fake. 30 years pass and now I meditate. I look forward to my time on my cushion. What will come up today? I’m starting to feel lighter after I sit now. Like I’ve noticed what was bothering me and have let it drift on by.

    I’m starting to get it, I think.

    There’s the doubt. Always close at hand. Buddhism has this concept called hindrances. There are five. They are things that we do to ourselves that keep us from seeing clearly. Ways of thinking. They hinder right?

    Craving for pleasure to the senses
    Anger or ill-will

    The biggest thing for me is learning how these are not things that happen to me. I bring them up by the way I think (and the actions that follow). But, it’s not about self-blame. Bad me. I’ve come upon these habits naturally. I’m human.

    It’ll take a while.

  22. I like to think of myself as “praying without ceasing” which seems the definition of mindfulness.

  23. My wife & I have set as a routine with our toddler to say a thankful prayer before meals. It provides a cohesive feeling to sitting down for a meal – gives even a hot dog & chips something of a formal feeling. And yet now as I’m typing this, that seems kinda odd. Still, in my own home or at church, prayer feels like the right thing to do.

    However, my manager at work likes to call for a volunteer to say a prayer before our monthly department meetings at work and that feels out of place and disingenuous.

    I have to admit that I have a real problem with the verbiage slathered forth by many of the common Christian denominations. For whatever reason, they love to liberally pepper their prayers with the word “just” and that grates on me each and every time. There’s something about the word “just” in this context that immediately translates to “simply” or “only” to me – which runs completely opposite to the mindset that I have when I pray. I don’t want to be “simply” thankful for my blessings – that has a slight undertone of arrogance to me. Rather, I am humbly, but fully, overtly thankful for the myriad of blessings for which I am continually unworthy of.

    Further, I take issue with the sermon-like prayers often blathered by many preachers, pastors, etc. These lack any conversational tone for me. And often they don’t even feel especially sincere to me. Oh, all the right, reverent words are used, but they feel staged and hollow.

    Ultimately though, like others have said here, I view prayer as a personal talk with God. I try to be mindful to pray not only when I’m down or needing guidance but also when I’m feeling blessed and having a wonderful day.

  24. Wow you…way to pull the deep question.

    Yes, I pray. I pray when I’m desperate for the comfort that only the spirit can give me and I pray when I’m happy and thankful for what I have.

    Prayer to me centers me on a daily basis. I start my day out with prayer because then I am reminded for what purpose I am here on this earth and to help remind me that each moment each event passed that day that I do more good then I do bad or wrong or not at all.

    For me our Father in Heaven is real and in order for me to know him like any other person in my life I must do my part…prayer helps me to KNOW him and to retain a relationship with him.

    Great post as always 🙂

  25. I don’t pray, anymore. I said prayers by the side of my bed when I was small, until my dad decided not to push it anymore, and then I stopped. In my early 20’s, I had just started up again, when a friend committed suicide. And I stopped, because why would I talk to a god who could let that happen?

    I say I don’t pray, but when I hit a patch of black ice, and manage to drive my way out of it, or one of my kids starts to choke, but then works it out, the first thing I feel is an immediate flood of thanks, to….I’m not sure whom. Maybe I’m praying on a cellular level.

  26. I try to pray every night. I hit the mainstays- Hail Mary, Our Father, Act of Contrition- then I try to think of people and things. At some point I nod off.

  27. I started to write a rather lengthy comment, but decided to turn it into a post instead. So thanks for the inspiration! Suffice it to say for the purposes of this comment here, I don’t pray anymore.

  28. Y’know, there’s something else that really sticks in my craw about the way that prayer is handled in many churches…

    I suppose this may be more targeted at the youth groups, but I really, really can’t abide by the term or concepts of “prayer warriors.” The whole notion of mixing aggressiveness, battle, or violence into a solemn, humble conversation with God, just irks me royally. I understand that these churches probably approach “warrior” from a definition somewhat closer to “vigilant,” but I associate “warrior” with it’s root word “war.”

    Am I just nit-picking or is this term troublesome to others as well?

  29. The whole notion of mixing aggressiveness, battle, or violence into a solemn, humble conversation with God, just irks me royally.

    Yes, that irks me too. Maybe just a part of evangelicalism, the tension between old and new testaments? Maybe a certain amount of picking and choosing (adopting and adapting as Scot McKnight says) needs to take place in Christianity.

  30. Lila, I really really like this: “I also like the following from Victor Hugo: “Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when, whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.” ”

    My aunt’s husband just died suddenly last month and she spent Christmas with me. At one point we ended up in a conversation about God… I told her I became a Christian when I hit a point when I realized that there is no other deity out there (that I’m aware of) that actually gives a crap about what happens to me. He does. Not in a fluffy bunny make my world happy kind of way, but in a parental “I truly want what’s best for you.” kind of way.

    I’ve prayed “formally”, conversationally, with song, with gut wrenching need, with regret, with thankfulness, with one word, with repetition, by the occasional thought and with reluctance. Sometimes, I’ve ‘prayed’ a verse, and I’m seeking comfort or a reminder. Telling God his own words is for my own sake, not His. I’ve asked for help, I’ve asked for guidance, I’ve asked for forgiveness for things for which I could not forgive myself. I’ve been grateful, but I try not to make ‘bargains’, since the only thing I have to offer is myself anyway.

    Metaphorically speaking, prayer is me telling God, “I really really really want to eat that entire box of cookies instead of dinner.”
    And God telling me, “Seriously? Yeah, I don’t think so. That’s a really bad idea.”
    And then me… deciding, Do I really believe that He wants what is best for me or do I think he’s just trying to make my life boring or is He just being mean?

    The hardest part comes when I say, “Seriously, you want me to do What?!… WHY?” and his answer seems to be, “What is best is not always what is easiest.” Or, “Not everything is about you.”

    Maybe that is simplifying it too much. He loves me, and I love Him, but we don’t always see eye to eye.

  31. Ah damn. What I would give for a few hours at a coffee shop to chat with you. Way too much to type here. I definitely prayer. Daily and in multiples. I find most of my prayers are ones of gratitude, thanking for whatever peril my children have just avoided. And I mean it. Sometimes it is just a “thank god” but it is usually heartfelt and coming from a place of utter sincerity.

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