My interest in prayer has to do with what prayer can or cannot do. Mine is the quest of the doubter who would believe. I want to know what efficacy there is in prayer.
Can our prayers change the outer world? I suspect not, but I’m interested in stories that claim otherwise. Once a woman, whose beliefs I’d challenged, told me that she needed a swimsuit so that she could go into a medicinal spring that would help ease her back pain. She told me that she would pray for a swimsuit, and God would provide one that was within her rather meager budget. We were on a trip and in a hotel. So off she went to the hotel gift store. They had swimsuits, but all were far too expensive. A woman had overheard us talking, however, and followed my friend to the store. She offered to lend my friend a swimsuit and did. My friend returned to me triumphant. I protested that the woman had eavesdropped and thus her offer couldn’t be counted as an act of God. But my friend only laughed and said that I couldn’t restrict how God answered.
Many people in my family believe that God hears their prayers and intervenes to heal minor illnesses and to remedy daily difficulties in their lives. They find such a God reassuring. I find a God who would heal my sprained ankle while doing nothing to stop rape, torture, and starvation to be horrifying. But I don’t tell them that. I like it that they can believe. It helps them. And we all need help.
I’m more inclined to believe that prayer can change us. I’m interested in how. And why. And whether some forms of prayer change us more deeply than other forms.
The easy answer is that, of course, prayer can and does change the person who is praying. Anything we say, especially things we repeat, changes us. Perhaps. If our attitude is right. But what is the right attitude? Sincerity. Spontaneity. Concentration. Yearning. Fervor. Humility. Expectation? Would expectation wreck the deal or show great faith?
I was raised in a tradition with few written prayers. Spontaneous prayer was considered the best and most truly felt prayer, except for The Lord’s Prayer, of course. That was the one repeated prayer that had great power. Other kinds of written and repeated prayers were considered rote and therefore suspect. That seemed right to me. Chants, we found especially meaningless. Later I found out that the Hare Krishnas believe that their chants, which repeat the name of God, bring the Deity among us. Good trick if you can do it. Do I believe they can? Why not? It’s a nice thought. It helps me.
I am not sure that God responds to prayer, but he might. I am fairly sure that the unconscious mind responds, which makes me wary. At one time, I made it a habit to pray each day that God would live through me. I was frightened to pray that way, afraid that I would find myself compelled to do something foolhardy, such as give all my money to the poor. That didn’t happen. But I did find myself less and less willing to gossip. I became so unwilling to say anything negative or judgmental or even especially penetrating about anyone else, that one of my friends complained I’d become completely boring.
One of my first experiences with prayer was when I was a child sitting with my grandmother in her darkened house in Oklahoma City. She liked having the lights off so that anyone who came to the door wouldn’t know that we were there. No one came to the door usually. Maybe we should have been praying for some company, but we weren’t. She sat on a low red couch. I sat on the floor. As we listened to sirens shriek across the city, she would croon, “Lord, help us. Lord, help us.” I believed she was thinking of her children who were somewhere in the city doing we didn’t know what. She never said so. Maybe her prayers comforted her. Maybe she believed they protected her children. But they didn’t do that for me. They made me feel lonely, afraid, and little.
But here’s what most interests me. Now whenever I feel lonely, afraid and little, I pray her prayer and I feel better.