What does it mean to pray?
This piece first appeared in Crosslight.
Every morning, about 9am, Rev. Dennis Cousens walks out the front door, dog in tow, headed for the local milk bar. Depending on which route he takes it’s either a two or four kilometre stroll with the sole purpose of getting the morning paper.
Or at least that’s how it seems. Dennis is actually multi-tasking. Yes, he’s getting some exercise, yes the dog is getting some too, yes he’s getting the newspaper, yes he’s talking to all and sundry – but he’s also in deep conversation with something else entirely. God.
And it’s the only time of the day he’s guaranteed to do it.
“I probably pray about a half dozen times a day, but my first prayer each day is on that walk,” Dennis, a Patrol Minister of the Midlands Glamorgan remote area ministry in Tasmania, says.
“I’ll start the prayer as I leave and I often get interrupted by people wanting a chat or to pat the dog so I get distracted and sometimes it gets to the end of the day and I realise I haven’t finished it.”
Prayer is synonymous with almost every religion (Buddhists have a slightly different take on it) but all faiths have their own customs. Muslims, for example, must pray at five exact times of the day, always facing in the one direction.
Christians aren’t that strict, in fact no denomination stipulates when, where or even how, lay people should pray. They don’t even stipulate that you have to pray at all, you’re just encouraged to.
But why? What exactly is prayer? Is it a conversation? A one-way consultation, a direct line to God? Is it a celestial chat room? Does it even need to be spoken? Could it just be a wordless, spiritual association?
Truth is, depending on who you ask, it can be any and all of the above.
Rev. Carlynne Nunn, minister at Ballarat South, says prayer “is a name we give to our attempts to connect with, and be aligned to, God”.
“A lot of people see prayer as having a direct line to God, which implies we have a God that is in tune with everything we do and I believe that’s true, whether we are praying or not praying,” she says.
“There is all this communication and connection with God. Some of it is deliberate and some of it isn’t, and prayer would be what you would call deliberate communion with God.
“Not all prayer is verbal though. It’s the stillness, the listening to God and trying to align ourselves with God’s heart.”
Rev. Geoff Barker, the minister in placement at Warrnambool, says prayer is “putting ourselves in the flow of God’s life”.
“It’s about sharing what’s in our hearts and listening for what God is saying,” he says. “It allows us to get in touch with our inner self and, in that way, with God.
“Prayer is a deeper thing than ‘I’ll make a request and it gets answered’. It’s about being in touch with God and being shaped towards God. It’s not about talking God into stuff that God doesn’t want to do.”
Rev. (Deacon) Jeanne Beale, Presbytery Minister of Port Phillip West, says prayer comes in many forms and does not need to be verbal.
“Prayer is communion with God,” she says. “It ranges from a conversation where I expect to get answers – and I do get answers – going through to hearing or feeling that harmonious moment in singing or communing with nature.
“Prayer is not strictly verbal because God is not strictly verbal. It can be kinesthetic, a touch, a feeling, a warm presence. Prayer is a power beyond our understanding.”
When asked to explain prayer, Dennis Cousens pauses and recounts a passage from a book he read many years ago, Ludmila, by Paul Gallico. Dennis says it describes prayer as well as anything else he’s read.
“I have photocopies of it everywhere,” he says. “It’s been very helpful to me, especially when people complain they didn’t get the bike they prayed for.
“Gallico writes: ‘A prayer need not be a rhetorical address, or an itemised petition, or lips moved soundlessly inside a cathedral, or even words spoken into the air.
‘A prayer may be a wordless inner longing, a sudden outpouring of love, a yearning within the soul to be for the moment united with the infinite and the good, a humbleness that needs no abasement or speech to express a cry in the darkness for help when all seems lost.
‘A song, a poem, a kind deed, a reaching for beauty or the strong quiet inner reaffirmation of faith. A prayer in fact can be anything that is created of God that turns to God’.”
Many of us are taught to pray from an early age. Often it is used as an introduction to God, a means of planting the seed that we live and breathe in the presence of a higher being. It is also used as a means to express gratitude – to give thanks for the day or, in the case of saying Grace, recognising not everyone sits down each day with a full plate of food in front of them.
These are our first prayers but, as we get older, our prayers expand. We pray for different things and, in many cases, we pray more than once each day.
“I pray about my worries,” Carlynne says. “I’m just trying to be conscious about the presence of God. I pray a few times a day – more if I’m stressed.”
Geoff says he prays for people he knows, world peace, reconciliation with our First Peoples and action on climate change.
“There is a woman I pray for regularly,” he says. “She seems to have one terrible drama after another, but I think the answer to my prayer is that she is the most resilient and inspiring person, despite everything she is experiencing.”
Not a shopping list
Prayers can sometimes resemble a shopping list. Dear God, please help A, B, C and D and, while you’re at it, could you do this and that. Some ministers embrace this kind of prayer, others not so much.
“I try to avoid the shopping list of prayers,” Jeanne says, “but I often offer to pray for people, not because I think God isn’t aware of the situation, but so that person or group knows God is present and God and I care about what is happening.”
Carlynne says she doesn’t have a list per se, but there are things she commonly prays about, such as her community and her personal worries.
Dennis, on the other hand, says there is nothing wrong with a shopping list. He sees it as a “discipline” and mentally takes one with him on his morning walks.
“It’s not a wishlist or something you put under your pillow on Christmas Eve for Santa,” he says. “I have people who ask me to pray for them or I will tell them I will say a prayer for them. I don’t feel bad if I forget because the prayer has already begun just by me saying I will do it.”
Shopping lists can often contain all manner of items, some of which many would regard as trivial, such as “please God let my football team win”. Is it OK to pray for things like this? And does God even listen to them?
“Sometimes I’ve heard people praying for a new car and I don’t think that’s what prayer is for,” Jeanne says.
“We shouldn’t confuse what we want with what we need.”
Geoff believes God probably greets some prayers with a wry smile. “It’s like that story of the 600,000 people that prayed for the Tattslotto numbers and in the end God decided to grant them their wish so they all won $1 each,” he says.
Carlynne thinks God doesn’t mind receiving even the most frivolous of shopping lists because those items reveal something about the person praying – and that is what God is most interested in.
“You’re tempted to say it’s not OK to ask God to help you find a car park, but I think God is interested in the desires of our heart so perhaps it’s about a balance,” she says.
Dennis believes what is trivial to one person may be meaningful to another, which God would recognise.
“Is praying someone has a safe journey as important as wishing someone in Syria gets a glass of water?” he asks. “It’s really about what’s on your mind.”
Does God answer prayers?
All of the ministers we spoke to believe God hears every one of their prayers, but they each acknowledge their strike rate is less than 100 percent. And, importantly, that doesn’t mean prayer doesn’t work.
“God doesn’t necessarily answer all my prayers,” Jeanne says, “but I view prayer as an ongoing conversation.”
Geoff agrees: “I think all my prayers are heard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I get everything I ask for. God acts through the quiet voice within us so even if nothing happens, except that I am in touch with my concerns for somebody, then it works.”
Carlynne says asking if prayer “works” can be problematic because “we can get into thinking perhaps you didn’t pray hard enough or you don’t have enough faith”.
“And that’s a huge problem because God isn’t penalising us for our level of faith or the amount of time we are spending on our knees,” she says.
“But, yes, prayer works, depending on what we are looking for. If we’re looking for God to be our genie in a bottle rather than be with us in our suffering, or help us to be in communion with other people, then it’s not going to work because I don’t think that’s what God is.”
Prayer is everywhere – in church, at home, work, in hospitals, prisons, playgrounds, on roads, in planes, atop skyscrapers, down mineshafts … anywhere you can think of will have hosted many a prayer. How does God possibly hear them all?
“I don’t know,” Dennis says simply. “For me to think that, I’d have to see God as a person with a long beard sitting there with a pen and paper and I don’t see it that way. I just see God as something that is with me at all times.”
Geoff agrees: “It depends on how you picture God. Is he a computer in the sky? I see God as a presence of life in us and all things. We are not talking to an ‘out there’ God, we are talking to an ‘in here’ God.”
Carlynne says she doesn’t know how God is “mystically capable of it, but God is listening to everything we are and everything we long for”.
Prayer is older than Christianity itself and remains as meaningful today as it did when the first one was uttered. The most common prayer is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer and it is one many people turn to either out of habit, or custom, or just plain comfort. Significantly, it’s also the prayer parliament – state and federal – turns to at the start of each sitting.
Dennis says he uses the Lord’s Prayer regularly, as well as the Prayer of St Francis. “I bring it out at least once a week,” he says of the latter.
“I find that prayer really helpful when I’m dealing with people who are struggling in relationships or who have suddenly lost a loved one and said some harsh words before they died.
“A friend once said to me the Prayer of St Francis is just like a Bex tablet – it cures everything.
“I’ve given a copy of it to many people over the years and so many of them have told me it’s just what they needed.”
Carlynne says she often says the Lord’s Prayer, but, apart from that, she doesn’t have a common prayer. “Unless it’s a 90s rap song I’m not great at remembering things,” she says.
Geoff has a prayer that he has recited every morning for the past four years. It begins: “I give thanks for the gift of this day and all that it brings” and is about 15 lines.
“I usually pray about things that are coming up or people I’m concerned about,” he says. “That sets me up for being in touch with God throughout the day.”
Jeanne doesn’t have a common prayer per se, “but I have a tongue”.
“It’s like a chorus that God has put in my heart that just comes out,” she says.
“The words and sounds are always the same, but they are not words I know. It brings peace.”
And, at the end of the day, that’s primarily what prayer is for: peace.
Unfortunately, you won’t find much of that in your morning newspaper.
Prayer and the Bible
- The Bible contains 650 listed prayers.
- There are about 450 recorded answers to prayer.
- The first time prayer is mentioned is Genesis 4:26.
- Jesus prays on 25 different occasions.
- Paul mentions prayer 41 times.
- At least nine main types of prayer are listed: Prayer of faith, prayer of agreement, prayer of request, prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of worship, prayer of consecration, prayer of intercession, prayer of imprecation, and praying in the Spirit.