I’ve been writing a great deal of late about prayer. The bulk of this is in the context of my research and writing as a journalism fellow on the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) initiative, through which I’m studying how the religiously unaffiliated—some 40% of whom report that they pray on a regular basis—approach prayer. What does someone who thinks of herself as an agnostic or an atheist mean when she says she “prays”? What is prayer for people who believe in God or a Higher Power but who engage that being or force primarily outside of institutional religion and its more formal, liturgical, and theological conceptions of prayer? When someone tweets #PrayForBoston or #PrayForOklahoma after a tragedy, what might she or he be gesturing toward in terms of the disposition and action of the person who prays, the subject of the prayer, and its possible object?
In the Christian tradition, prayer has been understood as inherently intersubjective—and engagement between a human who prays and the god who hears and answers that prayer. There’s an element, too, of prayer as sacrificial or at least consequential for the person who prays, as when Jesus prays, “Father, take this cup away from me,” but adds, “yet, not my will, but yours be done,” sacrificing his deepest desire to the presumed higher will of God. We pray for what we need, what we desire, that is, but we temper our human longing with deference to the divine will within which we live, and move, and have our being.
For many of the religiously unaffiliated I’ve interviewed or who have responded to my Nones Beyond the Numbers online narrative survey, prayer is something more intrasubjective. Influenced significantly by a very generalized understanding of Buddhist mindfulness meditation and practices of depth psychology, “prayer” is a deeper exploration of the self, an intrapsychic opening toward a certain register of calm within which the “authentic self” can better be heard. For some Nones, this practice is consequential in the sense that what they learn in prayer about their deepest, truest desires calls them to new modes of action in the world, and this is often action on behalf of others. “I came to see,” one None told me, “that I’m not this person who is basically a money-making, thrill-seeking machine. That’s not who I want to be. I can be more than that. I can be someone who really matters, who makes a difference—dorky as that sounds.”
I’ve also argued here and there that prayer also serves a discursive function, holding a space in our cultural lexicon for simultaneous expressions of anxiety and hope, as with all the prayer tweeting during crises. When someone tells me he “prays” for peace in the world, or help in a crisis, or for a parking space around the next corner, very often that has nothing to do with turning to a supernatural being or force for help or reaching inward for a clearer vision of what might be possible. It means something like, “I’m worried about violence in the world, and I hope it will stop.” As I wrote recently in Religion Dispatches, “No other word in English, so far as I know, marks that register as does the word ‘prayer.’” You don’t meditate for a parking space. You don’t contemplate help on your chem exam. You pray, whether you believe a god is listening to those prayers or not.
I began by noting that most of my reflection on prayer has been in the context of the NDSP project, but not all of it. A year or so ago, I started working on a novel, The Prayer Chain, that has turned out to be about prayer as all of the above, I guess, but also an opening to the imagination—as a particular space that allows for mental experiments in anxiety, hope, freedom, and transformation. As I read back over the story of a daughter, a sister, and a cousin dealing with the extended coma of a loved one as a result of a random, recreational accident, I also see that prayer is a tableau within which we might also experiment with various conceptions of the divine, its powers, its agency, its fluctuating reality in our day-to-day life. It’s a space within which we rehearse various ethical contingencies. Drawing perhaps on the deep Latin root of the word “pray,” precari, “to ask, to beg, to entreat,” it is where we hold and explore our questions. It holds, then, always a certain mystical capacity—a space in which mystery is gathered, engaged, and, depending on what you believe, resolved.
Of course, I hardly have all the answers here. No one does. So, I wonder, do you pray? How does prayer mean for you?