Prayer is a practice often seen in different religious spheres.
Five times a day, Muslim prayers can be heard echoing from the loud speakers of brightly-colored mosques as men stand barefoot facing the direction of Al-Ka’bah and praying to Allah. Meanwhile, the missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rise before the sun to pray before their daily evangelism duties. A Catholic will thread red rosary beads through his fingers reciting “Hail Mary, full of grace” while the grace of Jesus overwhelms a non-denominational Christian during their time of worship.
Prayer is a unifying practice within different religions, but it is also great for self-reflection and expressing gratitude for those who don’t identify with any particular religious group.
What is prayer?
Prayer is simply the connection between a person and his or her truth. This truth might be God, Allah, Buddha, Mother Nature, a forgiving universe, astrological signs, or predestination; whatever the truth, everyone has one. While meditation is all about reflection and solitude, prayer is about connection and communication. It’s about expressing gratitude, seeking help, and processing emotions. It’s about asking and receiving so long as one believes fully in his or her heart that their request is worth asking and their truth is worth believing.
Essentially, prayer is a tool. A hammer can be used to pound a nail into a wall, remove rusty nails from old planks, defend oneself from an aggressive intruder, or be an extremely thoughtful gift for a carpenter in need; the user would simply have to know why they’re using it and how to use it for their desired purpose. Prayer is the same way. Anyone can pray, but prayer without understanding is futile. If you enter your time of prayer hesitantly and convinced that it will be in vain, then you likely aren’t convinced in your own heart of your truth.
For individuals who hold a strong religious belief, prayer is used to communicate and connect with their known God or higher power, their truth. Prayer can bring an immense sense of peace and hope, especially in this world that is so often broken and constantly changing. It brings a sense of steadiness, closeness with one’s god, and hope for the future.
For individuals who don’t necessarily hold a religious belief, prayer is still highly beneficial. It can be a means of externally or internally processing certain situations and steadying one’s thoughts long enough to access deeper emotions. It can keep the individual “centered and hopeful” while they focus their minds solely on healing from a past physical or emotional trauma. If prayer is woven into a busy schedule, it can assure that a person sets aside some time to process and express gratitude for the day they have been given.
For everyone, whether religious or not, prayer can be extremely connecting. Sometimes, when a person is going through a difficult situation – the death of a loved one, a life-altering diagnosis, heartbreak, job loss, identity crisis, etc. – they just need to hear someone else speak the words they are thinking. It affirms that their request is worth asking and their truth is worth believing. American rabbi Abrahama Joshua Heschel put it like this: “The focus of prayer is not the self…it is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns” (Fitsche).
Humans naturally have a difficult time asking for help, and prayer is one of the ways help can be sought after and found. When someone cries out asking for help, or even expressing joy and gratitude, on behalf of another, it connects those individuals on a deeper level. It establishes camaraderie and unity, not just between a person and their known truth, but also between the people.
How to pray?
The “how to” of prayer has been a huge dividing factor between different religions and even denominations of the same religion. The Christian church, for example, has been divided into Eastern and Western theology with several branches of each and even more divisions within those branches. This has caused a considerable amount of debates over minor, disputable matters, one of those matters being how to pray. The Bible encourages people to pray; it even provides an example prayer from Jesus Himself (Matthew 6:9-13). It instructs people to make their requests known to God by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6-7). For someone of the Christian faith, prayer itself is non-disputable; they know they need it. It is the matter of how exactly a person is supposed to pray that is disputable and dividing.
Should we sit, stand, kneel, bow? Should our hands be folded or raised to the Heavens? Should we pray alone or with other people? Should we pray in the morning, at night, five times a day, or without ceasing?
The powerful thing about prayer is that it is individualized and can be tailored to a person’s desires, needs, religious or non-religious beliefs, and situations. A busy college student can easily say a prayer in her car on the way to class to start her day off with an attitude of thanksgiving. An individual who has more access to nature might find it appealing to pray without ceasing as he hikes to his favorite peak for sunset. Prayer and meditation pair beautifully together, so a city dweller might need to listen to music and engage in relaxing meditation to clear his mind of the bustle of the city before diving into a prayer. Some people might need to follow a stricter prayer routine based on their religious practice, but these habits can bring unity within a particular religious group and bring a sense of belonging and purpose to the individual praying.
People of differing religious and non-religious beliefs will pray with various motives and different understanding of the truth. It establishes that we are human, that we all have a truth, and that we are all capable of gaining something from prayer. One might pray for religious practice, one for protection, and one for comfort, but the heart behind all of these prayers comes from their understanding of the truth. If someone gains a unifying bond with religious brothers, a sense of safety, a feeling of peace, or a time of gratitude, then who’s to say those prayers weren’t completely worth praying.
Sources: Fritsche, Sally. “An Atheist’s Prayer.” Harvard Divinity School, 17 July 2017, https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2017/07/17/sally-fritche-atheist%E2%80%99s-prayer.
Health Fitness Revolution. “Top 10 Health Benefits of Praying.” Health Fitness Revolution, 21 Mar. 2016, https://www.healthfitnessrevolution.com/top-10-health-benefits-praying/.