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What does prayer mean?

Prayer is a difficult thing to explain.

Prayer is a difficult thing to explain. There is a fair amount of confusion about what prayer is ‘for’ and concern about what prayer ‘does’ – as if it was a kind of divine vending machine where prayers go in at one end and results come out of the other. In my own Christian tradition there often seems to be a mix up between ‘prayer’ and ‘asking for stuff’ – where praying is seen as presenting God with some kind of shopping list which we hope will be fulfilled, and if it isn’t then somehow it hasn’t worked.

I’m not sure we start with the right question. Perhaps we should begin with what prayer is, not what it does.

Prayer is, in the Christian faith and in many other spiritual traditions, a way of being and a way of relating.

Prayer is a way of being: being in the moment, being present, being open. It is a way of learning to be ourselves. For the theist, it is learning to be in the presence of God, a presence that infuses every moment and every space – but one to which we devote our attention on order to encounter the Divine.

Prayer is a way of relating: to God, to ourselves, to those around us. In opening our hearts and minds and souls to God we are challenged to grow, change, and to love. Just as we make time to spend with those we love, so in making time to pray we are seeking to grow in our relationship with the Divine. We might speak, we might be quiet, or we might be active in doing other things.

There are as many different ways of praying as there are people on the planet. For some people meditation, or ‘centring’ by seeking to empty their minds of distraction, is their preference. For some, action is their gateway to praying, helping those in need, getting on with their daily work, or chores can be a way of putting every moment into the presence of God. For some of us, it is singing, or dancing, or playing an instrument, or listening to music, or laughing, or crying, or walking, or reading, or running. For some, prayer is like a conversation with God, for some it is speaking prayer aloud in groups, for some it is public worship, for others it is nothing but silence.  When asked what she did in Prayer, Mother Theresa – now known as St Theresa of Calcutta – responded “I listen,” and when the interviewer followed up by saying “what does God do?” Mother Theresa replied, “God listens too.” There is no one way of praying, we all find our own way of praying.

What prayer is not is an attempt to change God’s mind.  If anything we are seeking to know the way of the Divine in order that we might be changed; being a person of prayer means being a person open to transformation, to becoming more loving, peaceful, gracious, compassionate. It’s not an easy path and being open in prayer can often be a painful experience as we find and confront those parts of ourselves which we might not be keen on seeing. 

But for those of us who pray we find it refreshing, inspiring and challenging. We follow the example of Jesus who, we read in the Gospel stories, repeatedly “went away by himself to pray.” For a healthy spiritual life, prayer is like breathing. And it is worth any effort we put into it.

Alastair McCollumAlastair McCollum is Rector of St. John the Divine Anglican Church in Victoria. He has a passion for the Gospel, motorbikes and bike culture, worship, philosophy, theology, guitars, single malt whisky, real ale, cinema and all things French. You can find Alastair at the church website: www.stjohnthedivine.bc.ca and on his blog: fracme.blogspot.ca

You can read more articles form our interfaith flog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE

* This article was published in theprint edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, September 24 2016