What is prayer?

At the end of her March 17 blog post, Pamela asks “Does anyone else have a hard time with prayer?” Yes, I most certainly do.

But as I think about what Pamela wrote, and about the other questions she asked (“…how can I possibly have a methodical way to get back to praying spontaneously without words? And what good is prayer anyway?”), I have been posing another question to myself “What is prayer?”

I once possessed a book entitled, simply, Prayer. It was recommended to me by any number of keen Christians. But, I was never able to read it with any satisfaction or any sense that the author’s experience was similar to mine.

One partial answer to my question is, perhaps, that “prayer” means something different for each of us. And maybe I have a hard time with prayer because, too often, I try to replicate what other people mean when they talk about their praying.

As I wondered “What is prayer?” I went to another (none too recent) book, The Oxford Book of Prayer (1985) edited by an Anglican bishop named George Appleton. Here are a few things that jumped out at me (they may sound a bit awkward because I have edited them in an attempt to use gender-neutral language).

Prayer is essentially a person standing before her/his God in wonder, awe, and humility; a person, made in the image of God, responding to her/his maker. In Christian terms, this is the Holy Spirit acting within a person.

I like that emphasis on God’s action rather than my action in prayer. Here is another example of that understanding:

God can and does break in upon a person at any moment and in any circumstances. It is a person’s attitude of openness – looking, listening and waiting – that prepares that person to receive whatever God may give, and to obey.

…prayer is a relationship in which God speaks and we are ready to hear because we listen.

And the book includes the following quote (again, clumsily gender-neutralized by me) from the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Kierkegaard:

The “immediate” person thinks and imagines that when she/he prays, the important thing, the thing she/he must concentrate upon, is that God should hear what she/he is praying for. Yet in the true, eternal sense it is just the reverse; the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until she/he is the one who hears, who hears what God wills. The “immediate” person, therefore … makes demands in her/his prayers; the true person of prayer only attends.

I hope I will find that fresh (albeit partial) perspective helpful.

Andrew Brockett


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