People in the major religious traditions of the world, with the possible exception of Buddhism, believe in and practice some form of prayer. Christians pray to God---classically understood as God the Father. In my own devotional life, I am just as content to pray to God the Mother. In fact, I like having both parental images. One gets different content with each image.
Most of us have had a father and a mother. Even if we came from a single-parent family, many of our friends would have had both parents. If you think about fathers, then you begin to get a sense of the “content” of the image of God the Father. In my case, my father---Dad---was a hard-working farmer. So that image is tinged with all sorts of agricultural images, too. He cultivated the land; he took care of animals. So the father image has connotations of someone who cares and is careful. If your dad worked in a factory or taught school, likely your “content” is different than my content.
The same goes with the image of God the Mother. For many people this is a bit strange to hear. Probably most people who grew up within the church seldom or never heard people use that phrase, God the Mother. It is a biblical and historical image, but no one ever told me that either! Again, there are fairly predictable things associated with the image of mother. Typically she is more tender than father. Usually images of nurturer and comforter come with that image.
As Christians when we pray, we are normally dealing with that kind of God. Jews have a prayer life that is similar to Christians, but it is not the same. When I am with the Jewish community, I get a more powerful sense of the group than I typically get in Christian congregations. It seems Jews see God, first of all, as the God of a people. Only secondarily do Jews have that sense of individuality. To be a Jew is to belong to a people---a people called together and bound in a covenant with God and with each other. To that end, prayer feels more corporate.
When Muslims turn to Allah in prayer, I usually feel like God has become more mighty and more awesome. Just watching the devout Muslim pray five times a day ups the ante in my book. And they assume a posture that clearly humbles the believer in the face of that God, Allah. The Muslim gets on bended knew and prostrates herself or himself on the floor. It is a clear sign of humility to place your forehead on the floor below yourself. It makes me feel like a wimp just to sit in my chair and close my eyes.
I suppose most of us---if we pray at all---tend to do it on the run. We give a momentary nod in the direction of the Divinity and get on with the business of the day. Of course, some people are more dedicated and disciplined than that, but I suspect my description covers the bulk of the people. I know my own life of prayer too often is a quick hello to God, a petition for something to come my way, and an adios to God on my way to my own affairs. I have done my duty, but have I been dutiful?
What would it be to take prayer seriously? Immediately, my mind went to that Pauline idea of prayer unceasingly. That passage occurs in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (5:17) There Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Some translations say to “pray constantly.” It certainly depends on how you define prayer whether praying constantly is possible.
For example, if prayer is a matter of uttering holy words, then it seems clear to me you cannot pray unceasingly. I don’t utter holy words during sleep, etc. But if prayer is more like an attitude or perspective, then it is conceivable to see prayer as a constant. I was helped to think about this second option by a short article I recently read. David Brattston writes that “As long as we speak and act in accordance with the divine will…we are praying.”
I like the basic idea that prayer is somehow being in accordance with the divine will. That makes prayer different than simply uttering holy words, although that counts, too. It’s a broader understanding of prayer. It makes prayer an action, as well as speaking words. To put it another way, prayer can be my verbal articulation or prayer could be my life in action.