How we talk to God
People pray for everything from the divine to the selfish and profane
Let us pray.
It is a line uttered, with variations, by many religions, in many languages, as an invitation to begin a special communication with a divine being. And indeed, many accept the invitation. Prayer is, as Baylor University sociology Prof. Rodney Stark observes, "one of the most common and unacknowledged activities on the planet." But with all this prayer, the obvious question is rarely asked: What do people actually pray about when they bow their heads, close their eyes, and begin to share their most personal thoughts, worries, desires, yearnings, adoration, and gratitude?
The importance of prayer in all religions through many millenniums has been well established. U.S. News teamed up with Beliefnet , the leading multifaith Internet site on religion, to create an online survey about how these prayers are focused. While social science researchers would not view this survey as being statistically valid, the more than 5,600 responses that it received nonetheless reveal a rich and often colorful anecdotal peek into the wildly varied reasons people say that they pray.
Health and cash. The short answer, it seems, is that they pray about nearly everything. A cancer cure. Divine inspiration. One person "asks him/her to dazzle me." Another says, "My prayers are always based on blessing God and thanking God for things. I am not asking for anything, but by talking to God I feel . . . I can find the answers." Frequently, someone needed help to pay bills, and answered prayers came in the form of cash. Someone else "suffered from severe depression, and without prayer for strength to go on, I would not have made it." Another person "often asked Allah to put me and my family in the right places at the right times, and he always does." People pray for wisdom and healing and for a closer relationship with God. They pray to express love and gratitude to God for the cosmic and for the banal. One woman prayed for her pet chicken after a dog mauled it, and the chicken lived. Another for a car that constantly overheated, and the car never overheated again. From the perspective of the believer, these are all answered prayers that provide concrete evidence of a higher power's patient involvement in the most quotidian details of each life.
The responses also reveal a vision of a supreme being, not as strict moral arbiter but rather as source of wisdom, strength, and comfort. Indeed, of those who took the survey, more than 1 in 3 said that the most important purpose of prayer was "intimacy with God." Another 28 percent said that the most important purpose of prayer was "to seek God's guidance." The key here, says Robert Orsi, the chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, is that prayer may be many things, but the unifying theme is that it's "about relationships between a particular person and a religiously significant other. And once we think of prayer as a relationship, it has all the valences and complexities of all relationships. People express anger, frustration, hopes, and fears. Prayer again and again reflects all the complexities of an individual's life." Orsi's expertise is Roman Catholicism, but Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, makes the same point. Islam requires prayer five times a day. It's called salat, which "literally means supplication, but it is also at its heart a relationship. It is assumed that if you keep that chain of communication with God in good order, then all good things will come into your life. Once you have done your prayers with a great deal of sincerity, concentration, and fulfillment, you get God's attention."