|Prayer and Meditation
roots of prayer undoubtedly extend far beyond the boundaries of history
into the recesses of human origins. The most ancient civilisations -
those of Egypt and South America - without exception record prayers to
their gods, usually in pictographic form.
The earliest known example of written
prayer comes from the Shang dynasty in China (1766-1122
BCE). Inscriptions on "oracle
bones" record petitions made to ancestors for favours in wars or
If we guess at what sort of prayer
preceded the earliest records, only the customs of hunter-gatherer
people give any clues. So, for example, tribes of North America appear
to have prayed to the spirits of the animals they hunted and killed.
James Frazer tells how the men of the Bear Clan in the Ottawa tribe
addressed the carcass of a slain bear first with praise for the animal's
strength and grace and then by begging its pardon:
"Don't bear a grudge because we have
killed you. You have sense: you see that our children are hungry. They
love you and wish to take you into their bodies. Isn't it glorious to
be eaten by the children of a chief?"
In many parts of the world prayer has been directed at ancestors, and
still is today. But intercession has usually been made to the gods who
create and control the world. In monotheist religions the gods are
replaced by a single God who orders all things in absolute power. It is
not going too far to assert that wherever humans acknowledge a deity,
prayer is always part of their lives.
The Odyssey by Homer, for example, draws on Greek mythology
dating back in all probability to sources some two thousand years
BCE. Prayer is taken for granted every step of the way. Indeed,
even the lesser gods pray to the greater as Pallas Athene does to
Poseidon, the "girdler of the earth". "Everyone has need of the gods,"
Then as now, prayer was the subject of fierce debate. People wondered
what it was proper to pray for. Many Greeks thought it presumptuous of
people to pray for goodness since it is the responsibility of each of us
to attain that for ourselves. The Roman Stoics - who influenced
Christianity deeply - thought that only spiritual things should be
prayed for. The early Christian theologian and commentator Origen
(185-254) thought the same, though Clement of Alexandria suggested that
prayer is good only if it is a means of "talking to the gods". Augustine
of Hippo cleared things up for most people when he asserted that it is
good to pray for anything which is lawful.
The roots of Christian prayer, however, owe more to the Hebrew
religion than to the Greek. The Hebrew Bible refers to silent prayer or
"prayer from the heart" in Genesis 24.45 so it can be taken that God was
thought of as (to use a modern metaphor) reading a person's thoughts.
But prayer was also spoken out loud in public worship. The Second
Book of Chronicles presents Solomon's long dedication prayer for the new
Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they
pray towards this place; may you hear from heaven your dwelling place;
hear and forgive.
(2 Chronicles 6.21)
An important thread in Hebrew prayer concerns spoken words and
gestures. Hebrews prayed to God with raised or clasped hands, postures
which remain to this day in Christian prayer. Other postures in prayer
were kneeling (Luke 22.41) and prostration (Matthew 26.39). Both these
portray submission - witness ancient pictures and carvings which depict
conquered peoples submitting themselves to their new masters. The former
remains common in Christianity and the latter is usually reserved for
the occasions of ordination and the taking of vows by monks and nuns.
Today we tend to think of prayer as communicating with God, much as
one would commune with a good friend or trusted mentor. But this is a
comparatively recent way of regarding prayer. Until about four hundred
years ago in the West, prayer was almost exclusively thought of as
intercession. The Hebrew psalms make this clear, for they are full of
petitions for good harvests, health, wealth, happiness and forgiveness.
Perhaps as a result of influence from Buddhist countries, many
eastern Christians took up a view of prayer as "wordless". While it was
right and proper to intercede for one's benefit, the best of prayer is
contemplative. Evagrius Ponticus (346-399) taught that the person
praying should ideally eliminate all thought from the mind. One way of
doing this is reminiscent of repetitive Buddhist chants - the "Jesus
Prayer" in which the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy
on me" is recited continually. (An interesting modern treatment of this
prayer can be found in J D Salinger's Franny and Zooey.)
By the 12th century in Europe, prayer had become much more formulaic
than before. Just as medieval society was highly stratified and
compartmentalised, so also was prayer partitioned into categories.
Meditation and contemplative prayer began to merge into a single type of
prayer so that today they are generally thought of as identical.
Church teaching identified discursive prayer (talking to God) and
affective prayer (in which feelings are stressed). Prayer is also
sometimes split into praise, thanksgiving and confession as well as into
stages (purging prayer, illuminating prayer, and prayer which unifies us
with God). Likewise, various famous Christians produced their own prayer
methods. The most well-known of these today is Ignatian spirituality.
Just as ancient religions prayed to many gods, so also the Church has
evolved prayer which addresses not only God but also Jesus, Mary and the
many thousands of saints. But traditional teaching is careful to stress
that in praying to Mary and the saints, people intercede through
them and not to them. That is, they are asked to pray on our
behalf because they are as it were closer to the Godhead in heaven than
we are on earth.
It goes without saying that various Christian groups are at
loggerheads with each other about prayer, as about many other matters.
So, for example, Protestant churches generally say that praying through
the saints and Mary is not legitimate. African churches find no problems
with praying to their ancestors as a matter of Christian obligation.
Others suggest that prayer is by its nature never private. Alan
Richardson writes that
Christian prayer is always corporate in character, even when we
enter into our private chamber to pray. Even then it is the Church, in
heaven and on earth, praying through us 
an approach which would not find favour with many traditional
Of all the forms and modes of prayer, petitionary prayer suffers from
the greatest philosophical problems. The monotheistic religions
(Christianity, Judaism and Islam) all define God as all-powerful and
therefore in theory able to grant any request.
God is also entirely loving in nature. A problem arises in
understanding why a loving God should fail to grant a reasonable, loving
request which does not violate the natural order. And what if petitions
conflict, such as when opposing sides in a war both ask God for victory?
Eleonore Stump thinks that
... the objection supposes that the only way to respond
appropriately to a petitionary prayer is to grant it ... as
politicians know, there are many ways to deal with conflicting
petitions, short of granting them all. 
God is traditionally defined as knowing everything. But if that is
true, then God knows what we want before we know it ourselves. There is
no point in telling God what is already known. So why intercede? Some
suggest that God is outside time. There is a sense in which God is
eternally responding to prayer. It is we who, being limited in this
respect, can't recognise the divine response in the same way that we
recognise other events in time.
Increasingly, though, those who think about the meaning of prayer are
wondering if this class of difficulty is created not by the concept of
prayer, but by the way we define God. Is it true that we have to think
of God as all-powerful? Isn't it possible that God is all-powerful but
that the divine limits itself with respect to the workings of the
universe. God may be all-knowing, but perhaps space/time has been
created such that it is impossible for even God to know the future.
And why should we suppose that to be loving demands our safety and
comfort in this life? For if we examine the way the world actually
works, it is plain that suffering, uncertainty, risk and death are all
essential components in the dance of life. In other words, love is much,
much more than rescuing the unfortunate.
At any rate, if we accept the universe as it is, there is
every reason to suspect that God has designed life to include all the
difficult and unpleasant things we experience as we live. We may pray
that we be relieved of the tough parts of living. But a truly loving
God, having set up this particular expression of love, isn't less loving
because the world is allowed to work as it was intended to work,
unpleasant aspects and all.
As humanity has begun to understand more about how the world
operates, so have the frontiers of the unknown been relentlessly pushed
back. What was once thought the subject of God's constant intervention
in nature - like weather or earthquakes, for example - is now known to
derive from the workings of a complex natural system.
One result has been an ever-increasing difficulty amongst ordinary
people to believe that God intervenes in the world at all, prayers or no
prayers. The world clearly carries on as a functioning system regardless
of any interventions by us. And if God intervenes in that system, then
everything by definition becomes unpredictable. Only if a system
functions as it should can we know more or less what to expect. The
complex dance of nature cannot operate if an external force is
constantly intervening in it.
Having said all this, there remains what seems to be an ineradicable
need for people to pray. There are probably as many ways to pray and
concepts of prayer as there are people doing it. Whatever sense we give
to prayer and meditation, almost all of us do it at some time or
another. Some do it better than others and some do it more often.
But everybody does it.
 The Golden Bough, Wordsworth Reference, 1993
 In The New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
 A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1999