The Oxford English Dictionary defines prayer as "a solemn and humble request to God, or to an object of worship; a supplication, petition, or thanksgiving, usually expressed in words." I would add the adjective "personal" to this description of the request.
So much prayer in church (that is, pastoral prayer) is a bulletin board of catastrophes, worldwide and individual, that need to be addressed by a God who is apparently unaware of events: poverty and hunger, war and politics, and diseases and accidents. God is asked to be with the sick and the suffering, bring an end to war, stop ethnic quarrels, feed the hungry, and house the homeless.
I find this type of prayer to be nonsense, even sacrilege. The assumption is that God does not know or does not care; that we must remind God of problems that have been ignored or are not seen.
Prayer is, for me, exquisitely personal. It gives me a way to reflect on a study of myself in this world of grace and suffering, of unbounded gifts and overwhelming needs, of persisting love and horrifying loneliness, and of overwhelming power and weakness that can conquer.
Help My Unbelief!
The father of the epileptic boy in the gospel of Mark is a constant companion of mine. Jesus assures the father that, for those who believe, who have faith, healing is possible. The father says, as I would, "I believe!" But then he adds, as I would, "Help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24)
Many of us live in a deadlock between belief and unbelief. Underlying an ardent prayer can be the question, "Is anyone listening?" The experiences of our century with its massive blind destruction, suffering, and carnage cast doubt on the concept of a God involved in the welfare of the created universe. And yet, so many of those who died in the Holocaust of World War II died with prayers on their lips and confidence in their hearts and minds. Who was listening to them?
How Do I Pray?
Prayer can be a most difficult and trying task. To whom, or to what, do I address my prayer? What do I seek in my prayers? Am I informing my God of my needs, hoping that they will be satisfied? Am I asking for "peace on earth, good will toward men"? Do I get on my knees and close my eyes, hold beads, chant a mantra, or recite a list of miseries that need relief? Is there a formula that guarantees being heard? How often do I, should I, pray? These questions speak to our common confusions about praying, and the very nature of prayer.
The experience of personal prayer can include a feeling of desperation that occurs when we are not able to pray. There are those moments when prayer seems impossible.
The priest in Georges Bernanos' novel, The Diary of a Country Priest (1937), writes, "Never have I made such efforts to pray, at first calmly and steadily then with a kind of savage, concentrated violence, . . . I persisted, almost desperately in a sheer transport of will which set me shuddering with anguish. Yet -- nothing." The priest goes on to note that, "the wish to pray is a prayer in itself, that God can ask no more than that of us." This idea is closely allied with accounts in the synoptic gospels that describe Jesus' experiences with prayer. For Jesus, prayer is a personal act, done alone, and probably in silence. In fact, His instructions for prayer in the gospel of Matthew that precede what we call the Lord's Prayer are specific:
". . . go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." Matthew 6:6-8 )
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The Power of Prayer
For me, prayer is a private affair. It is a demanding mental and spiritual exercise that forces me to attend to my life at the very moment of my prayer. And my prayers are frequent and brief. As Mother Teresa cautions in her book, No Greater Love (1997),
Let us free our minds. Let's not pray long, drawn-out prayers, but let's pray short ones full of love . . . . Prayer that comes from the mind and heart is called mental prayer . . . . It is only by mental prayer and spiritual reading that we can cultivate the gift of prayer . . . . In vocal prayer we speak to God; in mental prayer He speaks to us.
Prayer empowers me in several ways essential to my daily life:
1. Prayer is a source of courage in my never-ending struggle to live a virtuous life. Prayer is a process that continually realigns me with the values that define my concept of an honorable life lived under the shadow of the source of all value -- God. When the ever-present seven deadly sins become apparent, yet again, it is prayer that can redirect my journey. The companion to courage is, of course, compassion, that feeling toward others that provides the impetus, and gives the strength, to do what must he done. Compassion is a direct gift from God through prayer. My prayers are answered, in part, by the process of praying, which requires that I clarify and define my needs and recall, again, my sources of help.
2. Prayer affirms the significance of all living beings, in particular the value beyond calculation of those, unknown to me, who suffer. In my self-centered life I must be reminded, again and again through prayer, to hold to the certain knowledge that my privileged existence is not my due, but a factor of chance. My prayers focus my sight on the work that I can and must do today as witness to my faith.
3. Prayer is a process by which I review who I am, and what I have, what I do. This process confirms for me, in the several times a day that I pray, that all I am and have -- all that defines me to myself and to others -- is a gift of God. My loves, my family and friends, my work, my health, and my material goods are not of my doing. Whatever has been accomplished has been done with and through the guts given to me of intellect, health, social position, and hope. I could have been the starving baby in the Sudan, the infant thrown into the fire at Auschwitz, or the Spartan infant put out to die. But I am not, and I must take full account of my responsibilities to do what I can with what I have for the God I worship.
4. Prayer is a time of awakening. I, often with a smile, realize that an answer, a question, a promise, a demand, a plea, or a denial present within my unconscious will become obvious to me in my times of praying. Often I am not even sure why I am praying at this moment and not another. But openness to hearing the answer allows that answer to come. Much of the significance of my prayers lies in my awakening to what is already happening around me. Coincidences, or Jungian synchronicities, are important because they provide clues to the answers to our prayers. These answers are usually already present in our mental and spiritual lives. We need to be open to seeing and hearing these "judgings" from the Spirit that push us toward awareness of who we are and what we are to do and be. As the ancient motto of the Benedictine Order states, "To pray is to work, to work is to pray."
The Good Word
In a universe beyond our comprehension we open our heart and minds to what we call the Creator and Sustainer of all, hoping against hope that we shall find guidance in our search for a life of value. Brief as we know it to be, we want that life to have meaning, to be defined by virtue, and to have been -- in that tiny analysis -- worth living. Whatever means we use to fulfill our meaning, it will be a form of prayer, voiced or not.
We need a God worthy of the depth of our prayers, a God who will, finally, through our laying bare our very souls, lead us to peace through our courage and our confidence. Elizabeth Barrett Browning assures us in "Aurora Leigh":
God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers,
And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face,
A gauntlet with a gift in it. Every wish
Is like a prayer . . . with God.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library, Novato, CA 94949. ©1998.
The Power of Prayer
edited by Dale Salwak.
A collection of brief essays and reflections on the the art and power of prayers features the contributions of Jimmy Carter, Neal Donald Walsch, Dale Evans Rogers, Jack Canfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other notable theologians, philosophers, artists, politicians, and writers.
Info/Order this paperback book. Also available in a Kindle edition.
About the Author
Alan C. Mermann, M.D., M.Div., is a chaplain and clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine. He is an ordained minister and associate pastor of the Church of Christ Congregational, United Church of Christ in Norfolk, Connecticut. Dr. Mermann teaches a unique seminar on the experiences and needs of the seriously ill patient for first-year medical students in which each student is paired with a patient who serves as a teacher during the semester. In addition to counseling and teaching, he is the author of To Do No Harm: Learning to Care for the Seriously Ill, Some Chose to Stay: Faith and Ethics in a Time of PlagueThe Renaissance of American Medicine as well as over forty-five articles and reviews for various journals. and magazines.