Contains discussion of religious traditions.
Few aspects of religious practice are as frequently misunderstood as prayer. Perhaps the most common misconception is that prayer is equivalent to making a wish when one blows out the candles on a birthday cake – but this is, at best, a child's conception of prayer, equivalent to the child's conception of God as “an old man in the clouds”. In this piece, I look at prayer in both the Dharmic and Abrahamic traditions, and ask the question: is the goal of prayer to entreat the divine to act in specific ways, or to commune with the divine in order that we should live a certain way?
The child's conception of prayer has a long history, and indeed the practice of sacrificial offerings to appease the Gods in ancient Greece and elsewhere has more in common with this perspective than the practice of prayer in most modern religions. Similar rituals can be found in tribal religious practices – ceremonies intended to entreat certain outcomes. This form of prayer borders on magic – the attempt to influence reality with thought – and indeed Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism popular among non-Jewish celebrities) retains this aspect. All such practices can reasonably be considered forms of prayer, and modern religious observers of various traditions do indulge in prayers of petition, but to consider the totality of prayer to be encapsulated in this idea is both narrow-minded and naïve.
To fully appreciate prayer in all its forms, it is important to recognise the relationship between prayer and meditation. While there are certainly secular forms of meditation, it was originally a religious practice and remains so for many people today. Buddhists of various sects do indeed pray, and for them prayer is considered a form of meditation, but more generally Buddhist meditations are concerned with awakening one's inner capabilities and compassion, although this too overlaps with many forms of prayer. Rita Gross and Terry Muck wrote a quite remarkable book entitled “Christians Talk About Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk About Christian Prayer”, in which Buddhists express admiration of the Christian practice of prayer (viewed as a form of meditation), and Christians express similar views of Buddhist practices. The book recognises the risk of a loss of religious identity if one combines Christian and Buddhist views, but shows one of many parallels between Abrahamic and Dharmic traditions in the world today.
Among the other Dharmic traditions, a similar blurring of the lines between meditation and prayer can be found. Hinduism is so diverse that considering it to be a single religion can be a mistake; the myriad practices it contains include invocation rituals, meditations, prayer rituals and mantras – transformative sounds or words, intended to bring about an attunement with the divine (or some similar transformation of the self). The distinction here between mantra and prayer can be slight, for there are many Hindu prayer rituals which have precisely the same goals as a typical mantra, and bhakti (devotional worship) thoroughly blurs the lines between mantra, prayer and meditation. Similarly, Jain prayer salutes souls that have reached a connection with the divine, with the goal that the praying individual might do the same. As with Buddhism, the distinctions between meditations and prayers among the Dharmic traditions blur and overlap.
Among the Abrahamic traditions, prayer of petition is perhaps most explicit in Judaism, but even here it is recognised as just one of three kinds of prayer. The other forms, prayers of gratitude and prayers of praise, are arguably more fundamental to Jewish practice. Jewish tradition expects its adherents to pray three times a day, and much as with Dharmic prayer there is a hope that the prayer will transform. The intention is to pray with one's heart, not one's mind, and to connect one's soul with the divine – thus taking the praying individual into a state of being beyond everyday existence. However, Judaism is perhaps the most explicit of the Abrahamic faiths in allowing for prayer of petition, and there is certainly a common belief in what I have called the child's conception of prayer. There is still a key difference: Jews should never pray for selfish goals, thus “praying as wishing” is not a genuine aspect of Jewish faith.
The youngest of the three main Abrahamic faiths, Islam, holds prayer in high esteem (and has much in common with bhakti in Dharmic faiths). Salah is a highly formalised ritual prayer that Muslims are expected to conduct five times a day (with dispensations when this is difficult to attain). Salah means “supplication”, and this prayer is expressly centred upon submission to God (the meaning of the word “Islam”). The chief purpose of prayer for a Muslim is to be in communion with God, to exist before Allah in thanks and praise, to ask for guidance, and to submit to the will of God. Unlike many other religions, there is an aspect of fear involved – but this is not dread or anxiety, but rather something closer to awe, the recognition of the divine as something infinitely powerful and beyond comprehension. So feeling, the Muslim is expected to attain a degree of restraint in their actions in life, submitting to the will of God, as epitomised in the Arabic term “Insha'Allah”, meaning “if it is God's will”, or “God willing”.
In the case of the Baha'i Faith, it's not clear if this religion should count as an Abrahamic faith or a Dharmic tradition, since (in common with several other religions, such as Sufi Islam) the Baha'i Faith treats all religions as part of a greater whole. According to its writings, the core of faith “is that mystic feeling which unites man with God”, and prayer for those who follow this tradition has precisely this role. Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of the founder of the Baha'i Faith, said: “In the highest prayer, men pray only for the love of God, not because they fear Him or hell, or hope for bounty or heaven... The spiritual man finds no delight in anything save in commemoration of God.” To people of this faith, prayer is the language of love; not the love of the flesh, but of the spirit.
Finally, Christianity is perhaps the locus of most confusion in respect of prayer, and certainly among rural congregations in the United States and elsewhere the child's conception of prayer can often be the dominant understanding. Such an attitude among adults is arguably a gross misrepresentation of what prayer should mean to a follower of Jesus, for the gospels are quite explicit as to how a Christian should pray – and prayer of petition does not form an explicit part of this guideline, except in the general sense of asking for protection from harm, and continuity of sustenance. The Lord's Prayer, part of the Sermon of the Mount, is Jesus' advice on how one should pray, and can be summarised as follows: recognise the divine as sacred; submit to the will of God; ask God to help us subsist, to protect us from harm, to forgive our wrongdoings, to help us forgive those who do us wrong; recognise the divine as eternal and infinite. This prayer encapsulates diverse attitudes that lie scattered among the devotional practices of the great religious traditions of the world.
Prayer, when understood in context, is not a magical telephone hotline but a way for the individual to attempt to move out of the mundane world and into the presence of the divine or transcendent. This may come through an emptying – as in meditation, which requires no concept of God – or through the fullness of the numinous experience of the divine; either way, the individual and their selfish needs are extinguished. This does not mean it is wrong for one to pray, for instance, for a loved one to be well, or for peace – in so doing, one is praying with one's heart, an honest attempt at connection with the spiritual. Still, the purpose of communion with the divine through prayer is not that our will be done, but that one might achieve a unity with the numinous mystery of God. And in this, the change that one is praying for is, inevitably, a transformation of the self.
The opening image is Lights Descent from www.shoshannabauer.com, and is copyright Shoshanna Bauer (All Rights Reserved).