|Why bother to pray?
Those of us who spend a lot of time hanging
around churches may easily forget just how odd religion must seem to
anyone who never goes near one. Baptisms, weddings and funerals are a bit
like this. Many of the people who turn up look extremely uncomfortable, as
we would if we were in what seemed an alien environment.
Perhaps the oddest thing of all in the service is when people close
their eyes and pray. What are they actually doing?
It might seem to someone who just happened to wander into a church
during the prayers that here was a group of people who had taken leave of
their senses. This shows just what an odd thing prayer actually is. It
appears to be one side of a conversation with an invisible person whose
replies, if any, are inaudible. We've all come across people who wander
along the street talking to no-one in particular, and we find such a
spectacle very sad. But this must be how we all look when we're praying.
Young children tend to join in with what grownups do and may quite
happily copy their parents if they are in the habit of praying. The
children put their hands together, close their eyes, and say the
appropriate words. But what's going on inside their heads when they do
this? Do they think that they're talking to someone a bit like the
Invisible Man? Or perhaps it's someone like Father Christmas, who
obviously is not invisible. We've seen enough pictures of him to know
that, but he is nevertheless so far away that communication has to be
rather different from normal. Perhaps God is thought of as a Father
Christmas figure with very acute hearing - so acute that he can hear even
when the prayers are only thought rather than said.
It's all very mysterious, but then prayer is very mysterious. It's also
very troubling, in that lots of churchgoers feel like failures because
they find prayer hard. Probably the main reason for this difficulty is
that they wonder whether anything is actually happening when they pray. Or
are they simply talking to themselves?
The way you understand prayer depends on the way you understand God.
Perhaps you are a "theist" - that is, someone who thinks of God as a
separate being existing in some sense independently of the world. Then you
will probably think of prayer as a sort of conversation.
Or you may be a "non-theist", someone who thinks of God in a very
different way - perhaps as the "Ground of our Being", or as the "sum of
our values", or as the creative and healing power of love. In that case,
prayer may be more like an exploration into the mystery at the heart of
Some people draw a rather unkind distinction between prayer and
meditation on the grounds that the former is talking to someone else,
while the latter is talking to oneself. In fact, unless someone is a
theist, there is no need to make a distinction between them.
Many will find the idea that prayer does not have to be thought of as
an internal conversation with an external but invisible person to be
puzzling, even offensive. Many others, however, may find it supremely
liberating, perhaps because they can make no sense of the idea of such a
There is no "correct way" to pray. Part of the problem of prayer is that
people feel the need to try to do something that works for others but not
for them. It has been well said that we should "pray as we can, not as we
can't". In any congregation there are probably as many ways of
understanding prayer as there are people.
Prayer clearly "works", but not in the sense of bringing measurable
results. We hear about the few miraculous cures in response to prayer, but
we hear nothing about the majority of times when no such result is
forthcoming. Prayer works in the sense of helping people to find some sort
of inner peace.
We live in a superficial, sound-bite age, when people's attention spans
are supposedly at an all-time low, and getting lower. There has never been
a greater need for times of reflection, when we can try to find a sense of
perspective and sort out what matters from what doesn't. Prayer is a way
of paying attention to life, a way of reverencing life, a way of enhancing
life, a way of exploring life. It is so important that it's almost
criminal that vast numbers of people feel unable to engage in it because
they are unable, rather than unwilling, to adopt a theistic view of God.
Conservative religion is in danger of closing down and excluding
people, rather than encouraging them to explore and grow. Trivial concerns
can all too easily clog up our lives. Prayer can help us to see past the
trivia and get a glimpse of the things that really matter.
Prayer is about being open to new possibilities, so that our souls grow
wings like the wild geese who visit our skies. Lives without prayer
condemn us to remain forever earthbound, unable to imagine doing or being
anything else, grubbing around in the dirt rather than streaming down the