Prayer is both difficult and challenging. It is difficult to pray, to stand alone often amidst a large group of not so silent individuals and offer up prayers in languages not so well understood. It is difficult to control one’s thoughts, images and imagination. It is difficult to focus. Notably, it is challenging because we don’t always understand the subject or object of our deliberation. Not only is it hard to focus on God or what we think of as the divine, but also it is problematic because we are not sure what prayer is supposed to accomplish.
Pious people pray to fulfil the commandment to pray. Many offer up prayers as if in discussion with God. Additionally, we have a tradition that prayer is an exercise in self-judgment. That is probably the hardest and least performed function associated with prayer.
Our liturgy is filled with words of praise and appreciation. Thanking and glorifying the Creator and giver of life seems quite proper. Even for those whose beliefs waver or question the premises of faith, prayer is still available and present in admittedly complicated but nonetheless significant ways. Gratitude is always appropriate.
But for Jews, the classic form of prayer must always include a request. Maimonides makes that a condition of prayer. So what are we doing when we ask God for something? Surely, we announce that we are not self-sufficient. We need God’s graciousness and gifts. Even if we don’t deserve it, we beseech the Almighty to remember our ancestors and grant us something in their merit. Thus, prayer is a sign of suitable humility.
But, we also ask for real practical benefits. Please heal my son, make my daughter behave, grant me long life, let me win the lottery. What is it we expect when we ask for these personal fundamentals? I know rationally that God cannot and will not grant all my requests. It is not a matter of disbelief, but of impossibility. The world does not work that way and even for believers there is a sense that God created the world to work according to natural law. Prayer cannot overwhelm or overturn the laws of nature, both for the believer and for the rationalist.
Not every one who prays can win the lottery. (Yes I know you must buy a ticket first.) I buy lottery tickets. I pray to win. I know I won’t. But I do spend some wonderful moments meditating on how I would spend the winnings. I smile as I think about helping my children, supporting a charity and honouring my parents. Is this a form of prayer for me? For in essence I am reconnecting with some basic values in this process. I am confirming that I want to give charity, or help my family, or honour my parents’ memories. All positive commandments. Again, I ask, cannot this be considered an appropriate form of prayer?
Prayer requests then can be seen as a form of exchange demands. Some do believe: I pray – God gives. Perhaps this seems crass, but humanly straightforward. Otherwise, prayer can be seen as a discussion with God that displays one’s value system, that does allow us to be reflective, taking a moment to judge ourselves. What is it that is important to us? What do we need and desire? Where do we stand on personal, local and global issues? If prayer can help us focus on these issues then it elevates us and raises the level of human interaction, both with God and with each other. In that case, prayer requests are vital – not just religiously required but humanly indispensable. They may even lead to our action. That type of prayer – with God’s help – may really lead to redemptive action.