The power of prayer

Monday, 6 March (2006), is World Day of Prayer.  For most people, I suspect, it will be business as usual.  Those who regularly pray will do so; those who pray only when pushed, will probably not.  Yet prayer remains a fascinating phenomenon.

Certainly it is one of the most significant acts that links human beings. Yet what is most remarkable about prayer is not just how consistently it has been part of human history and experience, but what it says about our need for a sacred dimension to our lives, and a relationship with a spiritual force or power beyond ourselves.

In theistic religions, this power is called God. In Islam prayer five times a day shapes the lives of believers.  Observant Jews pray three times a day.  And most practising Christians at least begin and end their days with prayer. But non-theists like Buddhists also pray, often with great devotion.  The famous Metta prayer of loving kindness  (“May we all be well and happy”) spreads compassion.  And even total non-believers cry out to God in heated moments.  Or blame the God in whom they do not believe when their cries are apparently unheard. Praying – and maybe cursing – is in our bones. But is there any point to it?

Undoubtedly how people pray – as well as what they pray for –  reflects their internal image of God.  Shared prayer – especially between people of differing beliefs – can be palpably moving and harmonising.  Yet, just like individual prayer, it can also vary greatly.  Divorced from any real sense of the sacred, prayer is empty of meaning. It can also be used to shore up prejudice and self-righteousness. But when it is released from the mundane and the ideological, prayer – whether spoken, sung or silent – can be a profound and infinitely tender experience of intimacy, trust, comfort and surrender.

Developing a mature prayer life is challenging. It absolutely mirrors how we see ourselves as well as what we expect God to be. The child within us often goes on believing in a heavenly father who can or should direct the human traffic long after our rational minds have moved on.  We may also continue to believe that terrible things shouldn’t happen to good people.  Or that a loving God ought to intervene directly in human affairs in the ways we read about in ancient scriptures.

In fact, my sense is that prayer is frequently answered, though rarely in predictable ways. But that isn’t the point.  “Divine intervention” is always a mystery. I now believe that God neither causes the suffering that so deeply disturbs us nor prevents it, but is there with us. I have also discovered how vital silent listening and waiting are. And that receiving what prayer itself gives matters much more than asking.  Although I do still ask.

I am also convinced that when prayer is answered, human action is part of it. Whatever someone’s framework of belief, prayer has been shown to be an energy that changes those who pray as well as those for whom they pray.  And maybe that’s another sweet reward that a care for prayer can bring. Believers or not, we can be the answer to others’ prayers. However variously God is understood, it’s safe to assume that on World Day of Prayer, people everywhere will be praying for much the same experiences of peace, health, harmony and love – needs which can be met through human choices and decisions.

In one of the most beautiful and famous prayers of all, Saint Francis seems to affirm this: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy; where there is darkness, light.  O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive.  It is in pardoning that we pardon.  It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  

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