I often meet people around here who offer to pray for or with me, ask me to pray for them, or say they need to take a moment to pray. What I find culturally curious is that praying means something entirely different to them than it does to us.

For us, praying is done through a set statement that you recite, usually to yourself and not aloud. It has a cadence, a rhythm that is not only soothing but has numerical, mystical qualities. The text can’t be changed, it is what it is. You are not supposed to roll out a list of demands because you can’t know better than God.

And here people improvise and create their own little statements tailored to a specific occasion.

Neither method is better or worse. They simply serve entirely different purposes.

10 thoughts on “Prayers

  1. The truth — and the tragedy –is that both types of prayers, the Jewish orthodox rote prayers and the equally rote Christian New Testament “Lord’s Prayer” and some Catholic ritual pleas to saints, and the sincerely wholly original personal prayers of more modern Christians and perhaps non-Orthodox Jews addressing personal concerns, are equally nonsensical.

    Those prayers may provide valuable psychological comfort to the people praying, if those people actually believe that a sentient, caring, omnipotent being is actually listening to their pleas, and has both the power and tine inclination to intervene in their specific concern.

    But in truth, the people in prayer are simply talking to themselves, and to the empty, uncomprehending night, and any “help” that they are receiving for their effort is a psychological fantasy that may temporarily sustain their hopes until the totally unrelated outcome plays out its course.

    If the outcome is favorable, they can thank “God” for answering the pleas; if not, they will simply have to try to respect and understand God’s unknowable but obviously best-for-everybody plan.


    1. I always wondered why unbelievers are so insecure in their unbelief that they need to come out with these statements of unfaith whenever anything religious is mentioned. The little rants are so identical that it’s like they need to pray to their unbelief.


    2. “Those prayers may provide valuable psychological comfort to the people praying, if those people actually believe that a sentient, caring, omnipotent being is actually listening to their pleas, and has both the power and tine inclination to intervene in their specific concern.”

      In the Orthodox Christian tradition I was raised in (which is probably very similar to Clarissa’s), prayers are really, really not about an omnipotent being intervening in your specific concern. If I were to describe them from a non-religious point of view, they’re repetitive ritualic behaviour (mostly mental recitation, but there can be a physical component as well), and the valuable psychological comfort comes from the meditative aspect of it all. The concept of praying for something, as opposed to maybe praying because you’re in distress about something, is quite alien to this mindset – God knows better, and won’t give you more than you can bear, even though you underestimate how much you can bear probably.

      Probably the closest thing to transactional prayer this tradition has are pilgrimages to relics or miraculous icons, but even there, it’s not about offering effort in exchange for personal favours. A closer representation is “on her feast day, this saint heals the sick who kiss her hand, so we’ll queue for 18 hours to have a chance at this”


      1. That’s exactly it, thank you, Stille.

        It’s ok not to know and not to care. But if one wants to pontificate on a subject, any subject, it’s a good idea to ask for information first.


  2. This sounds like evangelical prayer. I’m not an evangelical (or Christian of any kind) but it’s the type of Christianity I’m probably most familiar with. In this tradition a prayer is a way of addressing God personally, a one-sided dialogue if you will and is entirely verbal. The idea in many religions of a prayer as a physical, as much as verbal act is very foreign. Prayer in doesn’t need to be restricted to any particular place or time or context (and doesn’t even have to be articulated, it can be entirely mental in some denominations).
    While the surface form is phrased in terms of requests it’s meant also to express trust in and acceptance of God’s will.
    It’s also kind of almost egalitarian (which is one of the few things I like about evangelical thought – the idea that you always have direct access to and can speak directly to God.


  3. Yes, the church I grew up in had “prayer circle” where on Wednesday nights people would split into groups and make prayer requests and pray for each other in turn. The line between gossip and a prayer request was either very thin or non-existent. For example, if the entire prayer group didn’t hear that your neighbor’s sister cheated on her husband and now she’s not sure whose baby she’s carrying, how will they know what to pray for? It’s not like God would know what you were asking for if you prayed for comfort for the Doe family, no, everyone needs specific details 🙄

    To this day I cringe when some people from that church offer to pray for me.

    On the other hand, I attended a Catholic service last year, and I found the ritual to be comforting.


  4. My grandmother (devout evangelical) prayed all her life, and as I remember the way she talked about prayer in her life, it reminds me of how people with an active meditation practice find it valuable. Whatever was bothering her, hurting her, stressing her — she would close her eyes, silently narrate it to God, and then…not exactly hand it off to him (there would always be things for her to do when she stopped praying) but emerge with the comfort that, however the situation resolved, it would be proceeding according to a plan over which she had limited control, and through prayer she was making her peace with that situation. It seemed to help keep her mentally healthy to have that dedicated time set aside every day to have that conversation with herself.


  5. I find this interesting. You look at the Old Testament, and you can see that Judaism is rooted in this sort of tradition of ritual. And some of oldest types of Christianity — Orthodox and Catholicism — are based very much in that sort of ritualism. I haven’t studied the New Testament as much, but it seems to place more of an emphasis on the personal rather than the ritualistic — very much what Protestant prayers tend towards. This makes a lot of sense historically — the oldest branches of Christianity originated in Rome, after the fall of Judea, and they tended to follow and modify a lot of existing Jewish traditions. Whereas newer branches fought to drastically change many of these rituals, and eliminated some entirely. And in the United States, different sects further changed and modified these modifications.

    This is a simplification, of course. But the evolution of religion, even at the most simplistic level, is fascinating.


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