Prayer, the simplest of activities, can be a complicated matter when we think about its many manifestations. We pray for such a wide range of things, in such varied ways, and in so many different states of mind (and heart). Prayer – like the Holy – is available to all people, regardless of doctrinal position (or lack thereof), church membership, prior life experiences, political and ethical values, or belief in prayer‚s usefulness. Here are some thoughts on the power and grace of this spiritual discipline and divine gift.
Petitionary prayer (the “help” prayer): Any time we pray to receive something (whether it is mercy, guidance, forgiveness, peace, personal growth, or a new partner, job, car or home), we are using petitionary prayer. In this form of prayer, we are the focus of the prayer; more precisely, our needs and wants are the focus of the prayer. Whoever said that all prayer begins with desire was thinking of petitionary prayer. We may have heard that this kind of prayer is bad because it turns the universe or the Holy into a cosmic Santa Claus. We may have heard that it is selfish, self-indulgent and greedy, a “gimme, gimme” approach, and it clearly has the potential to become a kind of manipulative wish list. However, petitionary prayer may well be dear to us for several reasons. First, we come to it in times of stress or difficulty. Second, it is probably the most basic form of prayer any of us ever pray. Third, virtually all of us pray it at one time or another. (The phrase, “there are no atheists in foxholes” describes petitionary prayer.) Sometimes the only kind of prayer we are capable of offering is a prayer to get something, and sometimes petitionary prayer is in fact profoundly surrendered and trusting, especially when we pray to be healed of difficulties that we are unable or unwilling to give up on our own.
Petitionary prayer is particularly deepening because it points us to our dependence on God, and it is particularly honest because we bring our whole selves to it, selfish motives and all. Spiritual directors have pointed out that God (however we understand God) doesn’t need to be told this stuff about us in order to know it, but that we ourselves learn what we want and need in the process of praying.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Prayers of Praise (the “wow” prayer): Many different life experiences can evoke this kind of prayer, which we may not even recognize as a prayer (if we think that prayers are only about asking for things). For me, beautiful nature scenes, exquisite music, art and drama, and intense, emotional sex have frequently led to prayers of praise. This kind of prayer is not necessarily the same as a prayer of thanksgiving, though it may lead into one; it stops at awe and amazement. Prayers of praise are likely to be spontaneous outpourings from the heart. Some spiritual thinkers relate the prayer of praise to the prayer of adoration, in which God is blessed by the human spirit, not for that which God has done, but for that which God is.
Praise with elation, praise every morning God‚s re-creation of the new day.
(Eleanor Farjean, popularized in the hymn and Cat Stevens song “Morning has Broken.”)
Prayers of Gratitude/Thanksgiving: This prayer may follow or supplant the “wow” prayer; often the same kinds of experiences evoke it. The first warm and sunny day of Spring never fails to elicit prayers of gratitude >from me, nor does my first day of feeling really healthy after being sick for an extended period. I’ve had the good fortune to have experienced many grace-filled moments as an adult meriting this kind of prayer, but I suspect that everyone has many experiences to which the appropriate response is “thanks, God.”
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, so thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love. I really wanna thank you Lord.
(Steven Schwartz‚ reworking of the Protestant hymn All Good Gifts, from his musical Godspell)
Praying with “Scripture”: This kind of prayer may or may not involve using the Bible; I prefer a modified version of Gary Comstock’s definition of scripture as “literature that is considered sacred or special because it has a vital function, purpose, or application in our lives” (Comstock 1993: 105-106). I see no reason to stop at literature; art, music, nature and non-Biblical spiritual writings (which themselves may range from daily meditation books to the Upanishads to Allen Ginsburg’s poetry and beyond) may serve as scripture for us. Praying with scripture involves incorporating whatever “texts” move us most profoundly into our prayer lives, whether than means meditating on a sentence, a melody or a picture, or actually bringing the material into our spoken or unspoken prayer.
Day by day, day by day, oh dear Lord, three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly day by day. (Steven Schwartz‚ song “Day by Day,” also from the musical Godspell)
Intercessory Prayer: Praying for the well-being of others, or indeed of the world, has led me at times to experiences of quiet, deep surrender. Some people wonder why anyone would practice intercessory prayer, and assume it can‚t do any good, and some further argue that in fact it distracts those involved from doing “real” work to change the world. Whether or not intercessory prayer actually, technically helps sick people and people in pain (and in some cases it certainly does seem to), it has a profound effect upon those of us who use it. Intercessory prayer can open our hearts and change us so that we can go out and change the world. (Whoever said that “prayer doesn’t change things; it changes people and people change things,” seems to have been talking about intercessory prayer.) I’ve found that praying for my “enemies” (people who have wronged me, people I need to forgive, including those whom I used to date in cases where the relationship ended badly) has had a profoundly liberating effect on me. I’ve been able to get over completely overwhelming crushes on unavailable friends by praying for the well-being of the relationships they were in at the time. I have become less able to hate people for whose well-being I am genuinely praying over time. When I pray for an “enemy,” their grip on me loosens, and when I pray for a friend, that friend is with me in the prayer and some part of each of us touches the other. When I pray for “strangers,” in some way they become less strange to me.
This is our cry. This is our prayer: Peace in the world.
(Inscription on the statue of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia following the WWII dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, in the Hiroshima Peace Park; Fred Small’s song “Cranes Over Hiroshima” tells the story nicely)
Prayer of Surrender: All folks recovering in 12-step programs know this one; in its simplest form, it goes, “Alright already, I give up!” This prayer is in direct political, cultural and spiritual opposition to our society, in which we are supposed to be in total control of our lives and to strive for more and more control and more and more security. As such, I find it a potent form of protest as well as a call for help. When I relinquish my attempts to control that which is beyond my control to the best of my ability, I virtually always find good things happening to me. However, this prayer is not easy to say at all, let alone to mean genuinely, because of our cultural training, and because it can be profoundly scary to give up control even to this degree. Seeking guidance means admitting we don’t know it all and can’t do it all. It takes a lot for some of us to get there. Having gotten there, however, a prayer of surrender can be among the most liberating kind of prayer there is. I also find that it frequently leads into a prayer of gratitude.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.
Prayers of Confession and Repentance: Even those of us far removed from traditional Christianity may find these kinds of prayers helpful at times. To be able to say that I’ve made a mistake and wish to repent can enable me to make amends to the person(s) involved and is just generally good for my honesty and humility. We all make mistakes sometimes, and if doing so is very upsetting, the ability to use prayer to acknowledge our faults and change our ways can be extremely healing. Repentance (from the Greek metanoia) can be seen as turning over a new leaf, moving forward into the changing natures of our lives, becoming more fully who we can be. As individuals, we can repent of racial prejudice or materialism or internalized homophobia (or pick your most difficult, most entrenched, most frustrating situation) and strive to live free from it. As communities and societies, we can repent of, and turn from, structural inequality, environmental devastation and the idolatry of money or other “false gods.”
What I need I don’t have. What I have I don’t own. What I own I don’t want. What I want, Lord, I don’t know. (“I Don’t Know,” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass)
Liturgical Prayers: Prayers used collectively during common worship services run the risk of being turned into a spiritually deadening experience when they are merely repeated by rote, or in the face of fear of human or divine punishment. However, when a set of people is gathered for worship that is meaningful to all of them, liturgical prayer can become a beautiful, artistic expression of hallowing both God and the community, and of finding each in the other. Liturgical prayers can help us remember, and they can galvanize us for action on behalf of God’s just and peaceful world.
It is right to give thanks and praise.
Contemplative Prayer/Meditation: Too frequently in life, we talk a lot and say very little; here is a form of prayer in which, by not talking at all, we say a lot. Praying without any words involves taking a huge risk in a culture that does not know what to make of silence. Some prayer authorities say that we pray best when we stop praying and just listen, focusing on being truly present wherever we are. Prayer can be said to be about the communication of developing a relationship; we all know that a relationship where one person does all the talking is a lousy relationship, and that the silent person could probably do better with someone else. Thankfully, the same is not true of God, who does not abandon us just because we won’t shut up. When I am in a petitionary prayer mood, I sometimes ask that my ability to shut up in prayer be increased. It’s amazing what gifts silence can bring.
Graces/Blessings: These include prayers over food, prayers for the well-being of someone arriving or departing, or any kind of prayer that in some way sanctifies or consecrates something or someone. Graces and blessings help us integrate the Sacred into our everyday lives and push against the notion that the world is rigidly divided into sacred and profane realms. Like liturgical prayers, graces and blessings can be mindless and meaningless but they can also enrich our lives significantly if we mean them when we say them. More importantly, our actions, as well as our words, can be blessings. When we attend to someone in pain or despair, we are blessing her, and when we appreciate someone in tangible ways, we are blessing him as well.
May the road rise to meet you, and may God hold you in the palm of Her hand. (Irish Blessing, adapted)
Living Prayerfully: Thus far, we have only considered the use of language, silence or ritual to constitute praying. But why not a walk in the woods? Why not lovemaking? Why not practicing an instrument? Why not doing a job that one loves? Can activities be prayers? Can taking a risk on behalf of a good cause be a kind of prayer? Is there any action that is, of necessity, not a prayer (other than those that cause harm)? While opinions may differ, I suspect that any grateful use of our bodies, minds and spirits is in some sense a prayer, even if the person or people involved would never use such terminology. Any attempt to act in trust, or to help others in need, could perhaps be understood as the embodied version of the prayer forms considered above. And if an activity can be a prayer, a life filled with prayed activities is a life lived prayerfully, a life that could be seen as its own unique prayer.
For this multitude of ways and opportunities to pray I give thanks, and I pray that I may put them all to good use, day by day, in the service of the Great Dance Without End.
A hymnwriter, songwriter, composer, and writer who specializes in music and lyrics for liberal/progressive religious people and communities — including inclusive, social justice-minded Christians, Unitarian Universalists, and other open-hearted religious traditions — Amanda Udis-Kessler maintains the website Queer Sacred Music.