What is Prayer?
What is prayer? This is not an everyday question, but I do think it is a real question for many. And for many more of us, it not an issue at all. There are two kinds of people for whom it is not an issue. There is the large group of atheists---the non-believers---who think prayer is something between a quaint idiosyncrasy and utter nonsense. And then, there is the other end of that spectrum which entails the believers who are very sure about prayer---both what it is and how one does it.
Many of us find ourselves somewhere in between. We are not as clear as the non-believer. We know there is some kind of God or “Other” in our world. Or we have a sense there is a Divinity, but we are not at all clear how to connect with this entity.
These thoughts were prompted recently when I read some comments in my graduate school alma mater’s newsletter. It is written by Susan Abraham, a young professor of Ministry Studies. In a lucid answer to the question, what is prayer, she offers these words. “It is a practice, a desire, a force, a power of truth that embraces paradox.” Let’s look at each of these descriptions of prayer.
The first description of prayer---a practice---is right on the mark, I am convinced. Every major religious tradition has some time-honored practices. Certainly, for the Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, prayer is one such practice. It makes sense to say that prayer is a form of practicing our communication with the Divinity. Of course, there are many different ways we can practice prayer. And you do have to practice it, just like one has to practice medicine or law or basketball.
The next description is one I very much like, but it would not be as obvious to many of us. Abraham calls prayer a desire. Every person knows a great deal about desire. We have all sorts of desires. Some desires take us in good directions and other desires lead us into temptation! Prayer is the desire to connect with God and to act on that desire. Think about someone in your life whom you really desired to have in your presence. That is what prayer as desire is like. It has an alluring quality.
In the third place she says prayer is a force. This one is probably the trickiest one for me. A force seems stronger than desire. A force is capable of pushing me into something, while desire leads me into the same thing. I am not sure I have experienced prayer as force yet, so this is something to which I can look forward to having in my experience.
Finally, Abraham says that prayer is a power of truth, a power of truth that embraces paradox. Admittedly, this sounds the most like a professor! She is not content simply to say prayer is the power of truth, but goes on to say a power to embrace paradox. I can understand this because my experience of God is often paradoxical. A paradox is something that is true, but seems contrary to the normal view or to common sense. God fits this description of a paradox for me.
Prayer of this sort pushes us beyond or beneath common sense and connects us with that elusive Reality we call God. You cannot call God on your cell phone, but paradoxically you can call on God. That’s prayer.
This reflection helps me see the various ways to describe prayer and implement it in my life. It gives me alternatives when I get bored with my traditional version.
Most of all, it provokes me to think and explore. Thank God.