Why pray? Does God even hear you? If you’re a good person, why not just enjoy life and forget about archaic religious demands?
In a 2012 Pew survey, a third of those under 30 reported to be religiously unaffiliated1. Those in this growing category of “nones,” often describe themselves as “spiritual,” but not “religious.”2 That is, though they usually believe in God, they do not make religious activity a central part of their lives.3 To many people in our society, then, prayer and other traditional religious behaviors can seem outmoded and even pointless. With these criticisms in mind, it is important to explore prayer as the central component of the Christian life. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate something of the difference between Christianity and modern attitudes toward spirituality.
Prayer is a subject as vast as the human soul, so let us begin from the foundation and follow some consequences.
If God exists, prayer cannot be a trivial matter. Indeed, prayer is at the center of Christian cosmology; it is the crux to understanding human existence and to comprehending the bond between God and humans. As Christians, we believe God to be present everywhere, within and around us, closer than our own breath. We, however, are rarely cognizant of the immediacy of God and our presence in Him. By praying, we continually recall that God is an ever-present Creator, and that, in reality, our purpose is to love and be loved by God. Prayer knits the soul’s life together with God’s existence, acknowledging that human identity is ultimately fulfilled only in relation to its Creator. Here, the human soul is called not only to be good, but also to be united with God, to experience God as personal and loving, filling every part of existence. Good behavior is not the end goal of religious life, but rather only one facet of gaining a deeper knowledge and participation in God’s existence. This is the foundation and the goal of the Christian life. Prayer is the means of reaching this goal.
To this end, prayer may take several forms. Personal, private prayer should be a continuing conversation between the soul and God, in which we withdraw into our own heart to show God our thoughts and hopes. It is often best in its simplest or even wordless form. As the theologian Olivier Clement put it, “it may be silent listening, a cry of distress, a celebration; it may also be Job’s plaintive challenge.”4 Prayer can happen anywhere, at any time, and all the time but should also be practiced as a regular, continuing discipline. 5 Accordingly, many Christians establish patterns of regular, dedicated prayer, extending beyond cursory requests for help. For instance, denominations that follow ancient prayer practices formalize a cycle of communal and personal prayer that lasts continually through every day and year. This high standard for a Christian’s participation in prayer should be a reminder that God is meant to pervade all of our existence.
Communal prayer is equally central to the Christian life. By engaging with a community in petitions and glorification of God, a Christian acknowledges that he or she is part of a body of believers extending through time and space, participating together in God’s presence and grace. Thus, our bond to our fellow human beings is consequently grounded in shared unity with God.
Whether communal or personal, prayer is a conversation. Without conversation, relationships are never begun, and without concentrated conversation, a relationship remains undeveloped. As an analogy, let’s say a fascinating, but rather mysterious person sits across from you at a party. Do you simply speculate about them, or do you walk over and initiate a conversation? Often, our relationship with God continues as speculation because we do not start the conversation. Both initiating and sustaining a good relationship take effort and sometimes frustration, but the rewards of dedication are boundless. While speculation about God may be safer and may be easier, His reality is far greater and more beautiful than conjecture, and deserves the effort and dedication on our part to experience it in our own lives.
Ultimately, prayer is about relationship with God. It is a recognition that in God alone is the soul’s life and ultimate purpose. Because Christians seek a God who knows them intimately and powerfully, they participate in the conversation that is prayer. Describing this search for God, the Orthodox Christian writer Tito Colliander observed, “[W]ithout prayer you can never expect to find what you are seeking. Prayer is the beginning and the basis of all striving towards God.” For, “prayer gives the first hints of what you are seeking, and it awakens and sustains the desire to go further.”6 Thus, our life of prayer actively engages us in a continually growing connection with a very real and loving God. You alone, however, have the responsibility of starting the conversation.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “’Nones’ on the Rise.” http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.
See Putnam, Robert and David E Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Shuster.
Clement, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1995. 181.
Some Christian traditions see literally continual prayer as the ideal for which one should strive. Practices such as monasticism and the Jesus prayer in the Orthodox tradition aim to prepare for the state of continuous prayer expected in heaven. For the most commonly cited passage of Scripture to this effect, see 1 Thess 5:16-18, ESV “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks
in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Colliander, Tito. The Way of the Ascetics. San Francisco: Harper Row, 1982. 56.
Margaret Eichner ’14 is a History concentrator in Winthrop House.
Image: Woman Praying by Vincent Van Gogh, from WikiPaintings.Tags: Christianity, community, friendship, God, love, Pew, prayer, religion, spirituality, Tito Colliander