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.
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.
This story appears in the December 20, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.