There are many misconceptions about the nature of religion and faith, born partially from the media's presentation of extremism as though it is normative, from individual experiences with abusive or extremist sects, and from the belief that religion is antithetical to science and reason.
A topic that comes up often as a concern about religion and faith is prayer. In response to a recent article that I wrote, a received an e-mail from a reader asking,
"Have you ever stopped and thought for a moment about how contradictory it is that you live in a representative democracy created by people who started a revolution to throw off the old system of autocratic rule by inherited nobility, and yet every Sunday, you continue to proclaim your allegiance and subservience to a "Lord"? I've never been able to wrap my head around that; maybe one of you can explain it to me."
Indeed, for many, prayer raises several serious concerns:
1. Why would a supposed all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent God want our constant praise and submission, and why would we, as free people, do this? No God worth worshiping would demand such thoughtless action, and no person who values free will and the dignity of humanity would accept such conditions.
2. There is much uncertainty whether prayer is a measurable phenomenon. For example, there is no documented incident of prayer growing a limb back on a religious amputee. If there is no convincing evidence that prayer works -- of sick people actually getting better after being prayed for -- isn't this just magical thinking?
3. Isn't it better to actually do something rather than passively pray about it, especially given no evidence of prayer's efficacy? It seems that prayer alleviates one from feeling the responsibility to take action.
All this being said, why would any rational person pray?
No doubt there are those who think of prayer as submission to a harsh heavenly ruler in order to avoid punishment, as a way to change reality or to get stuff, or as a dismissal of human intervention. This approach to prayer stems from the ego's demand for certainty so that it can feel safe, manifested as the need to control or to be controlled. Whether an extremist who refuses to send his sick child to a doctor because he believes that prayer is the only healer, or one who seeks to be rich, famous and secure by manipulating the Universe's forces of attraction (yes, this is an allusion to "The Secret"), this approach to prayer does need to be challenged because it is not effective and can be destructive. "I prayed to God for healing, and the person died anyway!" one may cry. "Therefore, either there is no God, God does not care, my prayers were not sincere, or the person somehow deserved to die." What terrible choices, leaving one feeling abused, disillusioned, deluded or impotent.
Such a simplistic, literal and, frankly, self-centered view of prayer is not how it has been understood by the great theologians, and many clergy and practitioners -- or by the vast majority of people that I know. For them, prayer can be a deeply satisfying and effective practice to help us become more caring, giving, effective, happy and openhearted human beings. Just as meditation is the way of deep listening, prayer is the way of deep speaking. From this perspective, prayer originates not in the ego but in the True-self -- the soul, or internal presence of Spirit -- and comes from the desire to transcend our perceived limitations and communicate with the Source of creation. This is not a theoretical construct, but is a living reality for millions (billions?) of human beings.
Prayer is a spiritual technology and is divided in to three essential intentionalities: Praise, Petition and Thanks. The first, Praise, contain the recognition that God -- the creative, sustaining and liberating consciousness that animates everything -- was, is and will always be present and acts continually in our lives, although in ways that we can not ever completely grasp. We praise God not in order to appease a deity or reject free will, but to open ourselves to the wonder and unfathomable beauty of creation. Expressing praise deepens our appreciation for our lives, and instead of diminishing our regard for ourselves it in fact ennobles us as we connect to the possibility and power of the present moment. This is the feeling that we get when in front of a breath-taking natural scene or magnificent work of art, in the moment of insight or in the presence of one we deeply love.
The second intention, Petition, is the one most often understood. We are not asking for any physical object of attainment or unnatural miracle. Instead, we ask for courage, wisdom, compassion, patience, freedom, health -- not just for ourselves, but for all people. In Jewish liturgy, for example, prayers are almost always in the plural, including the appeal for forgiveness. Prayer in no way recuses us from action; the opposite is true. Prayer motivates us to act because the very act of prayers deepens our awareness and concern for others. One of the essential Biblical commandments is to visit and care for the sick -- not just pray for them. I do believe, in fact, that highly focused prayer has the potential for bringing remote healing, although we are not yet evolved enough to tap in to this consciously and consistently, and we must let go of attachment to the result.
The third, and perhaps most potent, component of prayer is Thanks, in which we express gratitude for our lives, for the beauty of the world, for our families and for the very ability to experience thankfulness. This is potent because gratitude is the language of Spirit -- it connects us immediately to our True-self, and burns away fear, worry and the need to control. Here we recognize the obvious: that we did not make the trees, the rain, our bodies or the freedom in which we live; other people and other "things" did. When we acknowledge this truth we are expanded and softened as our hearts open. Whether we see life as stemming completely from random events and natural processes, or as the result of a planned design that is unfolding, it is crucial for our happiness and effectiveness that we learn to say "thank you." The refusal to express gratitude comes from the ego's inability to recognize and to give credit to anything but itself. This is one of the darkest of human inclinations, making us bitter, selfish and locked in fear.
Prayer has been called the poetry of the heart; it is the way in which we can pour out our deepest yearnings and communicate with our highest nature. The Talmud teaches that the world stands on three things: on Torah (the exercise of the mind in pursuit of learning), on prayer (the exercise of the heart in gratitude) and on acts of kindness (the exercise of the body in service of others). We need to do all three, and when we kick out one leg of this stool, the world teeters and falls.