“To pray for particular favors is to dictate to Divine Wisdom, and savors of presumption; and to intercede for other individuals or for nations, is to presume that their happiness depends upon our choice, and that the prosperity of communities hangs upon our interest.” – William Paley
I’ve been thinking a bit about prayer recently. It’s always confused me, frankly. What is it for?
Let me explain. Suppose you believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God; and suppose you want something from this God — say, a new car, or (if you’re less materialistic) strength, or a sign, or serenity, or more time, or even just general blessings. But isn’t it the case that God already knows what you want? And if he knows what you want, and you still don’t have it, doesn’t that mean God probably doesn’t want you to have it? In other words: why do you think praying will change God’s mind?
Or suppose you want deliverance from something — from stress, from unemployment, from a disease, whatever it is. Again: why do you think praying will change God’s mind?
Or maybe you’re not praying for yourself, but for a friend, a relative, a stranger. Suppose someone you love is terribly sick, and you pray to God that He will save them. But God is all-powerful, isn’t He? Isn’t He the cause of the disease, really? Couldn’t He have already cured them, if He wanted? If God has decided someone should suffer, why should He care what you think? Aren’t you really saying, “Please, God! Don’t hurt my loved one any more!”? And doesn’t that imply that God is less merciful and forgiving than you are?…
I’m not saying God is evil (although the problem of why evil exists is very serious). I’m just saying that I doubt prayer works like that. God, omnipotent or not, existent or not, isn’t Santa Claus. If He’s all-knowing and all-powerful, then He already knows what you want, He’s already got the universe set up the way He wants it, and your prayers can’t change anything. (Statistical studies bear this out, by and large.)
What Prayer is Really For
The word pray has a pretty straightforward origin. It comes from Proto Indo European prek, “ask, request, entreat”, which was the root of the noun prex “prayer, request, entreaty” in Latin, converted back to a verb as precari “ask earnestly, beg”, and then came into French as preiere, and English as prayer. Phonosemantically it carries the sense of broadening, widening, opening, moving out from a point.
As simple as these facts are, though, perhaps they can give us a clue to what prayer is really for — what it’s really doing.
Because prayer isn’t useless. Prayer, of one form or another, is a staple of almost every religious tradition, regardless of how many gods and spirits there are, and regardless of how powerful they are or whether they already know your desires before you pray a word. Prayer is for something. What?
Consider this. If you ask for something, if you entreat or beg, you are displaying your vulnerability; and by doing so, you’re emotionally breaking down barriers between yourself and Spirit. You’re inviting Spirit to reach into your life and intervene — to change your life, to change your circumstances, to change your self.
Perhaps it’s the invitation that’s really what’s important here. After all, if you truly have free will, then no god or spirit can just mess around with your life without your permission. They might mess around with your circumstances — showering you with good luck or misfortune — but they can’t mess around with you. That’s what free will means.
But if you say a prayer — if you ask for intercession — you’re explicitly setting aside your free will (for a while). You’re saying, “You know what? I can’t do this by myself. Could you take the wheel a bit?”
A prayer isn’t so much supplication as it is permission: permission given by you to the Powers that Be to give you a hand, if they would be so kind. And it is understood that you will take control again when you are ready, no questions asked.
A Recognition of Union
In many of the more mystical religious traditions, my own included, there is no sharp line between the self and the spirit. Prayer, in this view, is a way of breaking a barrier that is itself already an illusion, allowing the truth of interconnection to be seen. The breaking of the illusion allows the way to be seen clearly, and allows the suffering to pass. And so the prayer works: the serenity and the strength is granted; the sign is given.
What if you’re praying for someone else, though? You can’t set aside someone else’s free will. A good question! In my view, praying for other people has no effect unless you break down the spiritual and emotional barriers between yourself and them. If you pray from your deepest heart, where you and they are One, then you can effectively give Spirit permission to intercede on their behalf.
Because we really are all one. And we join together both on the edges and in the center. We merge on the edge where our thoughts march in parallel — if we have similar ideas, similar ways of thinking, similar hobbies and interests. And we merge in the center where our hearts beat to the same rhythms, are quickened by the same images and sounds, are moved by the same pities and yearnings. In these places where we are One, we can intercede for each other, and we can speak for each other.
On that note, dear readers, I offer a prayer for us both.
A Prayer for the New Year
May you spread out, so that you may return to the source.
May you be generous, so that you may gain the world.
May you strike a decisive blow, and then stop.
May your victories bring you no pride.
May you overcome your enemies, but not dominate them:
for the strong always weaken with time.
May you know others, so that you may be intelligent;
know yourself, so that you may be truly wise;
know you have enough, so that you may be truly wealthy;
persist, so that you will reach your goal.
May you embrace death, so that you will not perish, but have life everlasting.
May you be soft and pliable, so that you can overcome the hard and inflexible.
May you know the light in the darkness,
know the advance in the retreat,
know the ease in the rough path,
know the fullness in the emptiness,
know the purity in the tarnished,
know the sufficiency of true virtue.
May you taste the purity of the polluted,
feel the softness of the thorns,
see the light of the darkness,
hear the mightiest words of the silence.
May you find the Way in the Unnamed,
and be nourished and fulfilled.