What Is Prayer?

Theologians and worshipers through the ages have come up with different ideas about what prayer is. That could have been a lovely thing, bringing more forms of prayer into the common domain and giving us more avenues to being close to God. But that’s not what happened.

Unfortunately the old temptation to claim that there is a Right way and a Wrong way to pray – everyone claiming that theirs was the Right one or the best one – found a toehold. C.S. Lewis’ senior demon, Screwtape, would have been pleased at all the effort we put into fighting with each other instead of actually praying!

So when we ask what prayer is, I think it is important to ask first who gets to do the defining. Throughout the millennia, one of the biggest discussions was over whether prayer with sensory components (often referred to as kataphatic) or without sensory components (apophatic) was superior. Since prayer increasingly became the domain of people who prayed professionally who retreated from the world of farming, manual labor, and hands-on interaction with people and went into a realm of books and solitary prayer in a cell without adornment – guess which form of prayer gained ascendance?

I am oversimplifying, of course. The battle was never decisively won, many of the monastic orders maintained manual labor for their monks and nuns, and some of the greatest opulence grew forth in adornment of churches and in liturgy. Still, labor was generally seen as a way to chastise the flesh. Showing magnificence was seen as something befitting God’s stature, but creating beauty wasn’t seen as an act of worship intrinsic to human nature. The invisible, spiritual, otherworldly was seen as good, and anything that was created in physical form was considered inferior. 

Why does this matter?

It matters because, with the understanding of “formlessness” as the “best” way to pray, many of us have inadvertently put our spirituality and prayer life in prison and thrown away the key. And so, although God is constantly praying within us, we don’t hear God. We think we are bad at praying, and nothing inhibits prayer quite like believing we are unworthy of God’s attention. Screwtape gets to do another little victory dance and exchange high-fives with his fellow demons, who are constantly conspiring to keep us from hearing that we are God’s beloved and living as if we are God’s beloved.

So what is prayer? I think anything can be prayer. Any act or thought that engenders awareness of God or brings forth any of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is prayer – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I would add harmony and creativity to that list. 

Here are some of the ways prayer can be: holding my hands in the dirt of the garden; a sudden awareness of the beauty of the curve of my daughter’s eyelashes; tearfully holding the fragments of what until recently was the mug my grandmother gave me shortly before she died; feeling the warmth of my husband’s embrace; listening to the birds going crazy at dawn; the smell of rosemary in the air after my hands brush the plants’ leaves; giggling with my daughters; the sensation of warm oil being put on my face in anointing; sweating as I liberate a rhododendron from the stranglehold of ivy; complete concentration in learning a new piece of music.

And these things are also prayer: wrapping a blanket around someone; dropping off a donation at the food bank; writing a condolence card; seeking the right words to capture the essence of the man whose funeral I’m planning; the tug I feel to sit quietly with God for a moment; the ecstasy as my soul is lifted up in singing a hymn; writing a check to a charity; learning about the plight of AIDS orphans; the warmth of feeling something that I can only name as being held in God’s loving embrace; the aha moment in a sermon; the sense of being exactly where God wants me to be even as I lament while I sit with a woman who would rather die than be alive.

I am unable to claim one as superior to the other. They are all just among the multitude of ways in which God keeps the promise to be with us – always.

Query for prayerful reflection:

What are some of the ways in which I experience God?

(Curious about my thoughts about Quakerism and prayer? See my other blog.) 

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