I pray. Regularly.
That probably won’t surprise anyone. I’m a minister, after all. Praying is kind of in my job description.
I’ve observed that there are a lot of misconceptions out about what prayer is and how it “works” (for lack of a better term). When I mention the fact that I pray, I sometimes get funny looks from my skeptical friends who immediately imagine me writing letters to Santa and being good all year so that the new bike I wanted will be under the tree on Christmas morning. They imagine me constructing an argument at least somewhat similar to the following formula: “I follow Religion X and prayed to Deity Y for Event Z to happen. Event Z happened, therefore Deity Y must exist and Religion X must be the one true religion.”
But none of that bears any resemblance to how or why I pray. For me, prayer is not an exercise in crossing items off my wish-list, justifying the exclusive validity of my religious tradition, or proving the existence of a supernatural God. I could have none of those things and still maintain a robust prayer life.
I’m going to borrow a few ideas from others and then add a few of my own in order to express what it is that prayer means to me and why I still do it. My sources will be listed at the end of the post. I hoping to present prayer in terms that are relatable, even to those who do not believe in my concept of God (or any god whatsoever). In order to keep it simple, I will summarize each of the five types of prayer with a single-syllable word. Each new word builds progressively off the last one. The five words are:
Wow, Thanks, Oops, Help, Yes and they correspond roughly to the five traditional types of prayer: Adoration, Thanksgiving, Confession, Petition, and Oblation.
Wow. The prayer of Adoration. This is where prayer begins: with the felt sense of awestruck wonder at life, the universe, and everything. I mean, have you seen this place? It’s amazing. We’ve got protons, nebulae, the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, evolution, trees, mountains, sunsets, sex, Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Mother Teresa, single malt scotch, and the Beatles. If you’re not saying “Wow” to life at some level, then you’re not really paying attention. All of this stuff is really here and it’s connected. The atoms of my body were forged in the furnaces of stars: I am stardust. My DNA shares the same basic structure as the DNA of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, even after 67 million years. I am part of everything that exists within and around me. I wouldn’t be who, what, or where I am today if it hadn’t been for others. Others could say the same about me. We are real, we are here, we are connected, and we are part of each other. We are caught up in the great mystery of existence. We don’t understand how that works or why, but we experience it nonetheless. In the Christian tradition, we personify this all-encompassing, interconnecting mystery and name it “God.” Prayer begins when we step back and take the time to consciously place our little lives in this larger context.
Thanks. The prayer of Thanksgiving (obviously). Reflecting on the experience of awestruck wonder, I feel glad, even privileged, to bear witness and take part in reality. I am here and I am alive. More than that, I am healthy, I have enough food and a place to stay, I have known love. It could have been otherwise. The universe didn’t owe me that much; it is a gift, and for that gift I feel grateful.
Oops. The prayer of Confession. This is where things start to get dicey. I mean, wonder and gratitude are understandable, but sin? Confession? C’mon, are you serious? You might be wondering if we’re back to the image of Santa Claus at the North Pole, making his list and checking it twice, putting coal into the stockings of the naughty kids who masturbate and/or eat shellfish. The answer is no, we’re not going back to that. However, I still think there’s a place for sin and confession in one’s prayer practice.
The experience of wonder tends to elicit, not only gratitude, but also an awareness that we are not as we should be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in those times when we are awestruck by those “great souls” whose courage, wisdom, and compassion have inspired the world. Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, Galileo at his telescope, Jesus forgiving his executioners, and Rosa Parks refusing to get off the bus. My life, by comparison, seems awfully shallow and self-absorbed. My awe at these heroes and heroines reminds me of what is lacking in myself. Confession is simply the practice of honestly facing and naming this lack while also experiencing the desire to change, grow, and actualize the potential within us.
Help. The prayer of Petition. This is probably the most well-known type of prayer. This is the part where we pray for stuff or people. It’s not a cosmic vending machine or Christmas list, although lots of folks seem to treat it that way. I think you can tell a lot about people based on what they pray for. People whose prayers are primarily concerned with their own ego-centric needs and wants tend to be somewhat less enlightened than those who turn their attention toward the needs of others. In our prayers of Petition, we continue to hold our lives in the context of the whole, just as we do in the prayer of Adoration. From that place of awareness and perspective, we speak what is on our minds. Standing before the infinite expanse of the Big Picture, do you still think it is critically important that your next car is a Lexus? Does it really matter whether Attractive Person X agrees to go out with you? It’s good to name these things because naming them brings our issues out into the open, where we can hopefully realize how silly our worries are in the grand scheme of things.
However, there are some things that certainly do matter in that context. Some things really are that important. For example, I cannot begrudge a person who prays for strength to overcome an addiction or endure chemotherapy. That stuff is hard and, if it were me, I would take any help I could get, placebo or otherwise. Sometimes we pray that we would be more patient, loving, courageous, or compassionate. This is where we let prayer change us as well as our circumstances. We take the lack we experienced in those “Oops” moments and focus our intentionality on growing as human beings. The desire to be a better person is often the first and most critical step on the journey to being a better person.
Finally, there are those prayers of Petition that we make on behalf of the world at large. When you see the news reports about missile strikes and suicide bombers, do you ever stop and pray for peace? In a world where 30,000 people die daily from malnutrition, do you ever pray that the hungry would be fed? Do you pray for sick people to get well? Do you pray for justice and goodwill among our leaders? Saying these prayers may not actually bring an immediate end to these problems, but they do sometimes lead us to make a beginning within ourselves. The intention we express in prayer toward the issues that disturb us often lead us to “become the answer to our prayers.” Sometimes, we eventually find ourselves in a position to take action and make a meaningful difference in the world. Which leads me to our last type of prayer:
Yes. The prayer of Oblation. This is the prayer where we offer ourselves to the service of something beyond our own little ego-centric lives. We say “Yes” to service, justice, compassion, and making a difference. This is where we embody in our lives that which we have admired in our heroes and heroines and lacked in our own lives. The same capacity for goodness that was in Jesus, Buddha, and Rosa Parks exists also in us. Christians call it the Spirit of God, living in our hearts; others might just call it human potential. Call it whatever you like, I don’t care. Whenever you step outside yourself and into the service of others, when you volunteer at the shelter, when you bring that casserole to a grieving friend, when you call your senator’s office, when you pick up a sign and march on the picket line, you are praying the prayer of self-offering. Whenever you come to the “Yes” in the process of inner transformation that begins with awe and moves through gratitude, confession, and petition, you begin to do in your life what Jesus and others did in theirs. In your own small way, you become Jesus. And that, in the end, is what prayer is really about: getting to “Yes”, following the path of awestruck wonder that leads to the transformation of yourself and your world. That’s why I pray and that’s how I do it.
Anne Lamott. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.
Shane Claiborne & Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove. Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals
The Book of Common Prayer, Catechism.