Prayer is undoubtedly at the center of a relationship with God for the observant. Though part of the cluster of observance including ritual, study and moral living, the nature of a prayer conversation is extremely varied. In contrast to proscribed communal prayers, solitary prayers are conversations with God, often done in silence, a time to pour out one’s fears, hopes and emotions directly and personally. How and when this happens is the question.
Most of the participants in my ‘Talking with God’ project have a practice. Some, especially the more conservative, have a daily practice while others often aspire to more regularity. The Orthodox Jews and Muslims follow the prescribed three- or five-daily prayer regimen, respectively. This proves generally rewarding, even if sometimes done by rote. One participant, Bradley, is a long-time Anglican, and he and his wife have a lovely evening practice that helps them connect with God and one another. They start by reviewing what has happened in the day and what is coming up, then he will say prayers for their concerns and she will add anything missed. “We begin with something by way of praise, then we usually move on to requests, and then we look to things that we can thank God for.” Unfortunately, busy or disjointed schedules are frequent challenges, foiling the best intentions to have a daily routine. Fatima, a young Muslim, admitted sheepishly: “I’m not very proud of this, but I don’t pray five times a day. It’s been a while since I’ve done that.” Yet others fall somewhere in between, using traditional times of rising, meals and bedtime as natural prompts for gratitude, if not always expressed in traditional words.
Even within a committed practice, a few Christians mentioned using the Rosary or acronyms to structure their prayers, a practical and effective response to our tendency towards distraction or towards praying only with requests. One acronym that some people use is PRAY, meaning Praise, Repentance, Ask and Yield. Another is ACT, meaning Adoration, Contrition and Thanksgiving. Outside of such structures are more eclectic approaches, with practices developed over the years. Lydia, an American Seventh-day Adventist, commented that she’s become less structured. “I used to pray a lot more formally, and with an agenda – and for many years a huge part of that agenda was for my marriage to heal.” When her marriage ended in divorce, her belief in prayer shifted, along with her stance towards the church’s conservative views on marriage. “Real life is messier.”
Spontaneous prayer can happen anywhere, anytime – while exercising, being in nature, or sitting in the kitchen or a café – in response to the day’s events. “[Prayer] is a very fluid activity for me”, Susan commented about her internal dialogue. Similarly, though more publicly, Ilsa talked about praying with people at her favorite ice cream parlor, or if praying with them seemed inappropriate, gathering their pain and praying for them at home. This interweaving of prayer into the day is not the case for all. Natalie uses her commute, as it is the only time she is alone. The 30-minute drive between family and hospital is precious time for reflection and sorting through the day.
Peggy, an American Born-Again Christian, sends ‘arrow prayers’ to God as needed. She describes her practice in this way:
In one of the Epistles in the New Testament [1 Thessalonians 5:17], there’s a verse that says ‘pray without ceasing’. It’s about being aware that God is there. When I read Scripture, hear a great teaching, or as I sing, gratitude often wells up in me. Sometimes I become overwhelmed by God’s character or His love for me, which then leads me to prayers of praise, adoration, repentance or surrender, as well as intercessions for people.
Maintaining an ongoing dialogue with God is common, though some do not think of it as prayer. For Harold, an observant Jew, it is a meditation, while Julie, a Reform Jew, is less sure: “I don’t think I pray. I think and I hope, and I direct some of that hope and thought to places and people that need some of that energy, or who are hurting in some emotional or physical way. I don’t know, is that praying?” Similarly, a Muslim college student from Somaliland, remarked: “I feel like in the English language, a lot of things are meant in the name of prayer, so in that definition, [I’m] praying every night. But in ours, I’m not since I’m saying the informal Dua not the obligatory Salat.”
An aspect of this flow that touched me was the sense of God’s immediacy and accessibility that some people feel. Marina, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, compared personal prayers to calling a friend on the telephone. She added that, although God is the Almighty, He is always available and you don’t need to make an appointment. Another Christian feels similarly towards Christ: “Jesus is my friend and I can talk with Him as I would to a friend.” This influences her speech as well, choosing personal language rather than reading formulated words. In contrast, a Jew and Muslim each noted the value of using their holy language. For Carolyn, the language of prayer is a divine language and using the ancient honed language is best.
Amongst all the practices, the sheer range of experience and evolution of practice stands out. However settled someone’s prayer practice might be now, each is unique and the product of experimentation and change. The striving towards nearness to God is an ongoing process.
This post was originally posted on the State of Formation website on 6 Nov. 2018. It was written as part of their Blogging Fellowship program. Names have been changed to protect their privacy, but all quotes are given with permission.