It is not so true that “prayer changes things” as that prayer changes me and I change things. Prayer is not a question of altering things externally but working wonders in a man’s disposition.
-- Oswald Chambers in
“My Utmost For His Highest,”
a Christian devotional classic
For years, surveys have shown that more than 80% of Americans pray regularly.
They pray in homes, houses of worship and on the Internet. They pray behind the wheel, while walking the dog, standing in line at banks. They pray alone and with others. And they regularly propel books on prayer onto bestseller lists, with millions of copies sold.
The answer, scholars of religion say, reflects not just formal theology but the nature and needs of humankind.
Human beings want to communicate with God, says the Rev. Siang-Yang Tan, a professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
“Prayer is a powerful means to experience God’s presence, God’s peace, God’s grace and God’s wisdom,” said Tan, senior pastor of First Evangelical Church in Glendale who is also a practicing clinical psychologist.
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said the instinct is part of what makes humans human.
“Their prayer may not be liturgically appropriate, and it probably does not come out of thoroughly developed theology, but the instinct to pray is universal and natural for all,” Dorff wrote in “Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable.”
People also pray because faith traditions require it.
Christians are told to “pray without ceasing.” With the start of Advent on Dec. 3, they will offer many prayers in preparation for Christmas. Muslims are commanded to pray five times a day, and Jews three times a day.
It is in prayer that people interact with God “most intensely,” said Dorff, who is also a philosopher and ethicist.
“The regimen of prayer forces us to stop our normal activities and to take a serious look at life, and that alone may enable us to strengthen our moral resolve,” Dorff said.
Like a close friendship, an intimate relationship with God also requires constant communication, the rabbi said.
Muslim scholar Muzammil H. Siddiqi, of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, said, “Prayer is nourishment for the soul.”
The meaning of -- and desire for -- prayer has long intrigued religious figures. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the first philosopher of Christianity and author of “The Confessions,” expresses that longing for the divine in the Christian context. “You awaken us to delight in your praises,” he wrote, “for you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it reposes in you.”
But what do people pray for?
Gratitude is the most common expression of prayer, and not just during the Thanksgiving season. Ninety-five percent of the time people are thanking God, according to a survey done in the 1990s by the Barna Group, an independent Ventura-based marketing research firm that has tracked trends related to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984.
People also ask for forgiveness (76% of the time), acknowledge God’s unique and superior attributes (67%) and make requests (61%).
In the Christian context, prayers generally fall under the acronym ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.
Supplication has two components: praying for oneself (prayer of petition) and for others (intercessory prayer).
Though ACTS is a Christian guideline for prayer, it can be “generalized” to non-Christian religions too, Tan said, because they also adore and worship God, confess their sins and seek forgiveness, thank God for his blessings and pray for themselves and others.
Muslims have two types of prayer: salat and du’a.
“We make salat to establish our contact with Allah,” said Siddiqi, an expert on comparative religion. “We glorify him, praise him and express our obedience to him. When we make du’a, we call upon our Lord and ask him for health, healing, protection, prosperity, love, mercy and many of his gifts for ourselves, our families, friends and others.”
People also pray to mark holy days, marriages and births. And they pray for the dying and the dead.
Kaddish is the Jewish mourner’s prayer, but it is all about God -- not a word is mentioned about the dead.
“Let God’s name be made great and holy in the world that was created as God willed,” it begins. Kaddish ends with adoration, “May the one who created harmony above make peace for us and for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. And say: Amen.”
The method of prayer is as diverse as the intent. Prayers are spoken, sung, written and silent -- what Catholics call “interior prayer.” The aim in interior prayer is simply to rest in the presence of God.
Since the 1980s, there has been a surge of interest, especially among Protestants, on such meditative prayer -- learning to sit quietly and go deep into the silence.
Since prayer can be a dialogue with God, another form involves both speaking and listening.
At the St. Andrew’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Valyermo, monks practice lectio divina, an ancient technique of a slow contemplative praying by reading of the Scriptures.
The technique allows the faithful, as St. Benedict said, to hear with the “ear of our hearts.”
The abbot of St. Andrew’s, Father Luke Dysinger, writes that such prayer “enables the Bible to become a means of union with God.”
Worshipers turn to Scriptures “to listen to the voice of God, which often speaks very softly,” according to Dysinger. When a monk finds a word or passage that speaks to his heart, he will pause and “ruminate” on it.
Sister Karen Wilhelmy, administrator of the retreat center at Valyermo, said she practices lectio divina throughout the day.
When she is stuck in traffic or waiting in a line at the supermarket, she will reflect on a word or phrase from the Scripture, she said.
“Prayer is essentially man standing before his God in wonder, awe and humility; man made in the image of God, responding to his maker,” wrote George Appleton, an Anglican bishop and editor of “The Oxford Book of Prayer.” “It is in man’s attitude of openness -- looking, listening and waiting -- which prepares him to receive whatever God may give, and to obey.”
Prayer is also the means by which language becomes “honest, true and personal in response to God,” said theologian Eugene Peterson, the bestselling author of “The Message,” a rendering of the Bible in contemporary English.
Prayer need not be fancy or long.
“A little bit will do it,” said F. Dale Bruner, a professor emeritus of religion at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., an authority on the Gospel of Matthew. “Prayer is not an intelligence briefing for God.”
To the devout, God hears prayers and responds to them, even if the response isn’t always what’s expected or hoped for.
“God responds to our prayers not only with ‘Yes,’ ‘No’ or ‘Wait’, but also ‘Yes, with pleasure,’ ‘Yes, there is a lot more good stuff coming,’ ‘No, not yet,’ and ‘No, because I love you too much,’ ” Tan said.
“God’s ‘noes’ are as powerful as his ‘yeses,’ because God is sovereign, and he loves us tremendously.”