The Power of Prayer
For the meek and mighty, saint and scoundrel, an undeniable urge to reach out to a greater being
In the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as a teacher and exemplar of prayer. While he observes the traditional Jewish custom of praying at the Temple and the synagogue, he prays intimately and often at other important occasions: at his baptism, at the calling of his disciples, in the garden of Gethsemane, and at his Crucifixion. He instructs his followers to avoid ostentatious prayer ("Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them"), to pray confidently ("Ask, and it will be given you" ), and to desire God's will ahead of their own ("Thy kingdom come, thy will be done" ).
In Islam, prayer is considered foremost an act of adoration to be incorporated into the daily routines of life through the salat , a ritual prayer recited five times a day while facing Mecca. Prayers of personal supplication, called du'a, are deemed secondary. Likewise, in Hinduism, daily liturgical prayers are emphasized over personal petition and are spelled out in the Vedas, a collection of ancient hymns. And in some forms of Buddhism, monastic prayers are practiced morning, noon, and night to the sound of a small bell.
Christianity, too, has strong traditions of "fixed hour" prayer in some venues of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. The first Christians were said to have recited the Lord's Prayer three times a day. They also followed Jesus Christ's custom as a devout Jew of praying at meals.
Despite the apparent similarities, historic differences in prayer practices have sparked some intractable religious disagreements. Within Christianity alone, bitter arguments over the proper content, structure, and posture of prayer continue to divide. Most Protestants, for example, part company with Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians over the propriety of praying to saints and to the Virgin Mary. Some Christians argue that prayers should not be addressed to Jesus but only to the Father (they cite Jesus's example in the Lord's Prayer). And a Southern Baptist leader was widely rebuked in 1980 for declaring that "God Almighty doesn't hear the prayer of a Jew."
Yet, as Moore notes, "while dogma, ritual, and religious history have divided individuals, prayer has always had the power to unify." Nowhere was that more evident than at Washington's National Cathedral, at Yankee Stadium, and in hundreds of houses of worship around the country where Christians, Jews, and Muslims gathered to pray in the aftermath of 9/11. "While tragedy, grief, and disbelief brought diverse people together during those difficult days," writes Moore, "prayer, combined with patriotism, raised the country's nobler sights and allowed Americans to acknowledge yet again their relationship to God and to one another."
As devoted to prayer as Americans may be, many continue to wrestle with vexing questions: Why are some prayers answered and others not? If prayer is a dialogue, why does God remain silent? C. S. Lewis, the 20th-century British author and Christian apologist, once wrote that prayer "is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person." More important to Lewis than whether or how God answers prayer was the realization that "in [prayer] God shows himself to us." That Jesus's own prayer in the garden ("Let this cup pass from me") was not granted, Lewis continued, suggests that the notion of prayer as "a sort of infallible gimmick" may be dismissed.
So if there are no guarantees that our prayers will be answered, why do we continue to pray? Perhaps it is as William James, the renowned American philosopher, responded a century ago: "The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying." We continue to be drawn to what Spoto calls a "universal language" that we are "always just beginning to fathom." And it is in learning and speaking the language of prayer that we discover the depth and breadth of what it means to be human.