There is much confusion surrounding the nature and function of prayer. I think most people would agree that God is not Santa Claus, and that there is no point in praying for a new red bicycle. Oddly, though, most people would pray for peace in Afghanistan (or wherever the current war is), for the homeless, and for Aunt Millicent’s speedy recovery. Is this based on the belief that the war in Afghanistan escaped God’s attention until we thoughtfully pointed him to it? Or is it based on the belief that God would normally not worry about Aunt Millicent’s suffering, but since we asked so nicely he will be inclined to fix her up? This is not the purpose or effect of prayer.
Prayer is part of the process of aligning yourself with God.
There is only one thing that it makes sense to pray for, and that is the personal faith, resolve, and wisdom to behave in a virtuous manner. It makes sense to pray for the spirit of caring and empathy that will help you to do something to help stop the war in Afghanistan or to help relieve its victims. It makes sense to pray for the wisdom and resolve that will enable you to go out and personally help the homeless. It makes sense to pray that you will be sensitive enough to Aunt Millicent’s plight that you will visit her and help make her feel better. It does not make sense to go to church, ask God to take care of those problems, and then go home to watch television and forget about it. God is not the errand boy of any petitioner, preacher or congregation, nor is he a human king who grants petitions to suit his own vanity and earn the gratitude of commoners. He is a generous father who seeks to give us what we need, but like children we must be willing to accept what is given before it can help us.
In prayer, you are taking time out to firm up your faith by focusing on the things that you should do or avoid doing. Prayer is not a process of chanting magic words or putting on a show to impress your fellow churchgoers. It is, properly, a quiet but fairly intense process of concentrating your mind and opening up your feelings. You must concentrate your mind to clear away confusion and find the path of action that you truly believe to be correct. You must open up your feelings to shake off the numbness that we all build up around ourselves as protection against the demands that the world makes upon us. We cannot individually cure all of the horrible ills that exist in the world, so we to a greater or lesser extent screen our feelings from them, learning not to think too much about the latest crime victim in the news or the poor people in other countries. To some extent, we have to do this to stay sane. Yet if we allow ourselves to become too numb, then we will not cure as much as we can. In prayer we must open up our feelings on the selected subjects that we are praying over. If I am praying for the sensitivity to go and visit sick Aunt Millicent, then I must strip away my numbness towards her suffering.
How does prayer work? Does God in heaven hear your request and send down a magical bolt to fix you up? Again, that does not make intuitive sense. If what you needed was for God to give you something, then would God hold back until you asked politely? The image of God as a vain monarch that gives favors only when underlings ask him in an appropriately humble way does not fit the God of the Christian religion. If your boss at work knew that you needed something but refrained from giving it to you until you went in and said “pretty please”, you would think he was a jerk. Do you have lower expectations of God than you do of your boss? If not, then we must assume that he does not wait for us to ask in prayer before granting us something that is within his power to grant. If we receive something in prayer, it must be a thing that God cannot just give us at will. We must receive it not because we ask, but rather through the process of asking.
What’s the difference? If I ask you for a coin and you give it to me, then you have given it to me because I asked. If I ask “why do I feel bad?” and figure out the answer, then I receive something (the knowledge as to why I feel bad) through the process of asking. Prayer works the same way. For example, if you are afraid to do something you know is right, you might pray for the courage to do it. In praying, you will think about the thing to be done, and think about your fears, and think about the fact that you want to do the right thing despite the dangers that make you afraid. Doing this will help you to realize that you truly believe that the virtue of doing right is worth the risk, and your doubts and hesitations will fade. You will find the courage of your convictions. Thus, in praying for bravery you unleash the courage within yourself. You did not need a new gift; you just needed to find the gift that you had already been given. God cannot give us what we pray for in the absence of the prayer because we already have it within us. Prayer is a process of choosing to follow your sense of virtue, of using your free will to choose to do good despite the difficulties involved in that choice. As a creature with free will the process of making that choice is something that only you can do. God cannot do it for you.
This description of prayer may not sound very familiar. We are used to ritual prayers, such as grace at mealtime or the various formal prayers recited in church. These are not really meaningful prayer, and it is important to recognize the difference between such ritual prayers and meaningful prayer. Ritual prayers serve the useful purpose of reminding us to stop and think about religious issues. They are popular because the ritual can be imposed upon you by a pastor or by parents, people trying to help you to develop the habit of thinking about religion and virtue. However, meaningful prayer cannot be imposed by anyone other than yourself. Properly understood, then, ritual prayer is helpful. On the other hand, if it is mistaken for meaningful prayer, then it can serve instead to confuse the worshipper and cause him to develop a misguided view of God.
We need to understand that a prayer of thanks at mealtime is not required because God will otherwise think that we are ingrates and get mad at us. Only humans are so vain and petty that they demand a show of gratitude for the gifts they give, and even the average human parent would be satisfied (perhaps overjoyed!) if her children simply refrained from voicing complaints about the dinner they had been given. The mealtime prayer is instead meant to be a reminder to be appreciative of the good things in life so that we may guide ourselves to contribute towards those good things. When we remind ourselves not to take basic things like food for granted, but rather to feel lucky to receive them, then we help to protect ourselves against the material obsession that flows from feeling that whatever you’ve gotten isn’t enough. We must understand that a ritual prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer, where we ask God to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, is not a magical charm that keeps an otherwise mischievous God from leading us into temptation. Rather is a reminder to ourselves to be aware of temptation and, through meaningful prayer, to seek to lead ourselves away from it. Likewise, the child who prays:
“Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take”
should not be given to believe that this prayer will determine the fate of her soul if she in fact dies in her sleep. She should instead be led to understand that she is using that moment of prayer at bedtime to shake off the things that disturbed her spirit during the day, and bring herself back to a feeling of peace and happiness, so that her soul is with God even as she sleeps. Such understanding will help ritual prayer to grow into meaningful prayer, leading the petitioner to God, rather than letting the ritual take the place of meaningful prayer, leading the ritual participant simply to feel that the whole process is nonsense. When we substitute the form of prayer for its substance we cast ourselves adrift upon the open sea, losing the greatest tool we have for finding our way to God. The infliction of meaningless ritual prayer upon a child, without a real attempt to help him to progress to meaningful prayer, is worse than useless, for it will surely turn him against a process that an untutored child may well grow into on his own. When a parent helps her child to find the meaning in prayer, on the other hand, she gives him a compass that can guide him safely home no matter how off course the winds of sin may take him. He need only fall back to prayer to find his way out of the fog that the material world has raised up within his mind, for the soul needs only the quiet of prayerful meditation to find the course that it is meant for.
My next article will consider some difficult issues concerning prayer.
In popular culture, the Wizard of Oz teaches us about prayer. Dorothy, the scarecrow, the tin man and the lion each think they need a gift from the wizard, but all had what they sought all along, and just needed to find it within themselves.
The Serenity Prayer is a good example of the proper object of prayer.
Saint Francis provides a good example of a person raised for wealth who found, through prayer and contemplation, his road to love and humility