The examination of prayer captures perfectly the complications of studying religion at a time when there are no longer assumptions of normativity, no prevailing biases that there is a right way to practice or believe from which other ways are mere divergences. For prayer is—or can be—all things to all people. It is the contemplative silence of a Carthusian convent as much as it is the clanging gongs of a Tibetan monastery. It is at once the metronomic davening of Hasidim in Brooklyn, and the ecstatic naked fire dancing of pagans in Kansas. It is found at isolated, extreme, “Jesus, take the wheel” moments no less than in the mundane minute-by-minute reality of those who follow the Orthodox suggestion to “pray without ceasing.” Simply stated, prayer is in the eyes of both the beholder and the performer. It is global yet local. It is at once external and internal. It is communal and individual. It is sometimes obviously real (depending on what we mean by “real”) and sometimes obviously fake (depending on what we mean by “fake”).
To find new directions for the study of prayer, we must first ask ourselves if what we talk about when we talk about prayer is always the same thing, or is it actually many different things which we stubbornly persist in describing with a single term. Moreover, we should remember that prayer itself comes to us from the Latin word for “to beg or to ask”; does this history make it a term fraught with implications truly relevant to only certain cultures among many? In any case, those who would study the subject (or subjects) of prayer would do well to keep in mind that the stories we tell about prayer are usually also stories about people who pray. Just as we cannot hope to account for or describe the differences between one individual and the next, we may not be able to capture adequately the endless differences within the category of prayer. Yet to study prayer at all is—or should be—to remain open to varieties of experience. Taking a cue from the etymology of the word, we might proceed with the study of prayer with the assumption that the best questions about it have yet to be asked.