A good question: What happens when I pray?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: What happens when I pray?
In my role as warden of St Cuthbert’s, I receive prayer requests daily, from people I never meet. Recently, our morning intercessions mentioned platypuses and sloths, alongside people who were ill or bereaved. Memorably, another request once said: “Pray for the people I have hurt, and those I am going to hurt.” This ministry certainly focuses the mind when it comes to the question of what happens when we pray.
I believe that, whatever the nature of these prayer requests, they share an underlying reaching out to God, and a hope that our prayers will somehow bring people closer to the divine. I’ve had to learn to let go of head knowledge about prayer – for instance, I’ve never had to think about the theology of praying for a dead pet before! I now see the task of the intercessor as being one of inviting people to join a circle of prayer which embraces those present in worship, those seeking prayer, and the subjects of their requests. In the midst of that circle, the Holy Spirit dances in ways unrestricted by logic and common sense.
To pray is to intentionally play one’s part in an eternal and dynamic conversation. When we truly open our hearts before God and alongside others we are touched by the Holy Spirit. When we are consciously praying for others, we can often find ourselves changed and spurred to action…
Rachel Poolman is warden of St Cuthbert’s Centre, Holy Island, Northumberland
Having spent a significant part of my life as a professional scientist, this question has been often asked of me, and indeed I have often asked it of myself. Science seems to describe a world of law and order which is predictable and understandable. How then can God answer specific prayer requests?
This problem goes back to Isaac Newton. Having engaged his head with an apple (or so the story goes), he produced an understanding of gravity and the laws of motion which were amazingly successful in describing the motion of the planets in the solar system. Out of this arose the image of the mechanistic universe: The universe was clockwork designed by the ultimate watchmaker. While some thought that this design could prove the existence and nature of God, it raised a huge problem: Just as a perfect watch would not need constant correction by its maker, so God shouldn’t poke his fingers into the mechanism.
The power of this image should not be underestimated. It meant miracle stories in the Bible could not be about God intervening in the world, but were simply made up by the early Church to dramatise their belief about Jesus. God may have lit the blue touch paper of the Big Bang, but then retired a safe distance. And prayer may change the mind of the person praying but God could not physically change anything in the world…
David Wilkinson is principal of and professor of theology and religion at St John’s College, Durham University and author of When I Pray, What Does God Do? (Monarch, 2015)
‘Prayer is an act of pure faith that enables self-forgetfulness’
Perhaps the question should say “we” instead of “I”, as it is the Holy Spirit who prays in us. The question also evokes several points of view: That of the pray-er, that of the prayer, and that of God.
Vocal prayer serves the function of voicing for ourselves our concerns (God already knows), and enables a transfigurative letting-go process in us as the words are released into silence. In this way, vocal prayer can be therapeutic: The ancient and medieval worlds understood the power of words in this way. Vocal prayer and praise is a gift: It benefits us, not God.
Beyond words, there is the silence of beholding. Isaac of Nineveh (Seventh Century) remarked that true prayer does not begin until the one who prays is no longer aware that he or she is praying. In the 20th Century, Simone Weil similarly spoke of prayer as “perfect attention”. What is important is not what we say in prayer, or how many times we say it, but rather understanding that each moment of life is positive prayer or negative prayer, and if the latter, that we need to turn ourselves around.
What happens to us in prayer? The answer can only be metaphorical. We might say that the letting-go process pierces the encapsulating membrane of self-consciousness that we wrap around ourselves, opening us to whatever use God might have in mind. If we allow this letting-go process to affect the way we pray, our self-consciousness is gradually elided into the simple beholding of which Isaac speaks…
Maggie Ross is a solitary, whose latest book is Silence: A user’s guide (DLT, 2014)
Prayer is an expression of our personal, intimate relationship with G-d. (Out of reverence for the holiness of the name of G-d, the Jewish people do not spell it out completely.) It begins quietly in the silence with a whisper of awe, a sigh of longing, a stirring of the heart. Just as we turn our heads when someone calls our name, when we call G-d’s name, we draw G-d’s energy toward us and embrace it. We kiss the Divine Light with the prayers that ascend from our lips, which arise from the sweet, pure centre of our souls.
Through prayer, we recharge our relationship with G-d to change our destiny. We feel that we are not worthy to ask for anything and yet we do. But prayer is not just a shopping list of requests, prayer is a union of the soul with G-d. We are spiritual beings in the physical world. Our job is to unite the two. We do this through the physical speech of prayer (not just thinking holy thoughts) and through the action of mitzvahs. Mitzvahs are G-d’s commandments, the holy actions that connect and elevate us in our relationship with G-d, causing G-d’s hidden love to descend and be revealed in this world.
In Judaism, righteous Gentiles have seven special mitzvahs. The first is to acknowledge that there is only one G-d who is infinite and supreme above all things. This commandment includes prayer and meditation on the Oneness of G-d. As King David wrote: “Praise the Lord, all nations, extol him all peoples.” Prayer is the ability to connect to G-d and the opportunity to change one’s physical reality into a spiritual reality. Prayer is a tool for transcendence…
Rae Shagalov is a Jewish calligrapher and author of The Secret Art of Talking to God (Holy Sparks Press, 2014). Her website is holysparks.com
This is an extract from the July/August 2015 edition of Reform.