The Power of Prayer
For the meek and mighty, saint and scoundrel, an undeniable urge to reach out to a greater being
A pierced and tattooed man quietly bows his head at a noisy lunch counter. A child in pink pajamas kneels at her bedside and recites a familiar blessing. A baseball player crosses himself as he steps to the plate on national television. A white-haired woman lights a candle and weeps silently into her handkerchief for her dying husband. A dark-suited minister prays for peace on Earth, and the congregation in one voice cries out, "Amen."
Prayer has become familiar terrain in modern America. It is woven into the daily rhythms of life, its ethos embedded in the public and private experiences of millions. Indeed, a recent Roper poll found that nearly half of all Americans said that they pray or meditate every day--far more than those who regularly participate in religious services.
Over the centuries, its practitioners have included saints and scoundrels, skeptics and believers, the meek and the mighty--people of every creed and culture and of every station in life who, whether out of pious faith or primal fear, have reached out to a reality greater than themselves.
Prayer has been called "the native language" of the soul--the universal expression of an innate human desire to make contact with the divine. The 16th-century Christian mystic St. Teresa of Avila described prayer in its sublimity as "an intimate friendship, a frequent conversation held alone with the Beloved." An Islamic proverb states that to pray and to be Muslim are synonymous. And in Hinduism, devotion to prayer is seen as a route to ecstasy.
And yet while religious traditions throughout history have sought to define, categorize, and systematize it, prayer is hardly the private domain or even the product of organized religion. As James P. Moore observes in his forthcoming book, One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America : "Long before Moses parted the Red Sea, before Buddha described the path toward nirvana, before Christ died on the cross, and before Mohammed revealed the message of the Koran, there was prayer."
Prayer in some primitive form has almost certainly existed since humankind first acquired language. The earliest recorded prayers, experts say, are found in 4,500-year-old Sumerian inscriptions from Mesopotamia. Yet even those may be predated by prehistoric cave drawings that some believe were intended to invoke unknown gods for help in the hunt. Centuries before religion arrived on the scene, Donald Spoto explains in his new book, In Silence: Why We Pray , there was "a sense of the Beyond that seems to have been as instinctive as breathing, sleeping, and eating. Conscious of their connection to that Beyond, and evidently aware that a relationship could be established with it, people expressed their needs, wishes, and reverence."
Intimate dialogues. Regardless of the precise nature of its origins, prayer has long been an irreducible feature of virtually every living religion. In Judaism and Christianity, prayer is rooted in a biblical understanding of God as a personal being who hears and responds to his people. The earliest prayers in the Bible are intimate dialogues: Adam, conversing with God "in the cool of the day" in the Garden of Eden; the elderly patriarch Abram (Abraham), boldly expressing puzzlement over God's promise that he would father a great nation ("O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?"); and Moses, responding in awe ("Here I am!" ) to the voice of God in the burning bush and then obeying God's call to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage.