Does It Work?
For the next 24 days we are going to discuss prayer. Obviously, since I have dedicated a total of twenty-six days to this subject, I think it must bear discussing. Prayer is many things to many different people. We could probably each define it and have almost as many different definitions as we would answers. For some it is a request; others see it as a connection. Nearly every church has its own manner of prayer and procedures regarding such. But does it really work?
We just finished the season called Pentecost, a season that celebrates the Holy Spirit. We celebrated this season by delving into the various mythologies of the world, both past and present. Many believe prayer releases a deity’s spirit. In the New Testament, the Book of Acts states that when people pray, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, baptized in their faith.
Some connect prayer with theurgy. Somewhere around 480 ACE, Proclus described theurgy as “a power higher than all human wisdom embracing the blessings of divination, the purifying powers of initiation and in a word all operations of divine possession.” Not everyone agrees with that definition. Pierre A Riffard describes it as “a type of magic. It consists of a set of magical practices performed to evoke benefit spirits in order to see them or know them or in order to influence them, for instance by forcing them to animate a statue, to inhabit a human being (such as a medium), or to disclose mysteries.”
We will discuss whether or not prayer does indeed have benefits, a topic still being studied and debated today. We will also visit the various manners or forms of prayer. From quiet meditation to jubilant dancing to the solitary walking of a labyrinth, prayer is much more than whispered words said by a child before going to bed.
There are archaeological documents dating back some five thousand years to give evidence to mankind engaging in the act of prayer. Not everyone agrees prayer is beneficial or even religious. British author and religious journalist Christopher Hitchens quotes a nineteenth century American writer regarding prayer: “The man who prays is the one who thinks that God has arranged all matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct God how to put them right.”
Others believe that people use prayer as something of an excuse or cop out and instead of taking positive action to correct a situation, hide behind their praying. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett explains: “surely it does the world no harm if those who can honestly do so pray for me! No, I’m not at all sure about that. For one thing, is they really wanted to do something useful, they could devote their prayer time and energy to some pressing project that they can do something about.”
Dennett’s argument is used by those who feel some religious groups such as the Christian Scientists put young children in harm’s way by praying over medical conditions instead of seeking medical aid and resolution. Others feel prayer is a nebulous concept and that since it cannot be measured or even defined universally, it must not have value.
As I stated before, I clearly think the topic has some merit because I have devoted twenty-six days to discussing it. To those who would say that prayer is a nebulous concept, I would counter with the argument that so is love. Certainly love is not universally defined by all. Some married people believe love is evident by their partner’s gifts while others would argue it is in the daily mundane chores that no one particularly enjoys doing.
Whether or not prayer works is also not something we can take a yardstick out and give a measurement that everyone will accept. For some, the mere act of praying offers consolation that lends them strength to then undertake corrective and restorative action. Others find comfort in the mere thought that someone cares enough to offer prayer on their behalf.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of prayer is that it offers us a connection, not only to a deity but to each other. I firmly believe that in prayer we are all equal. Tyrone Edwards wrote: “Whoever in prayer can say “Our father”, acknowledges and should feel the brotherhood of the whole race of mankind.”
As we go through this series, I welcome your comments but I encourage you to try your own experiment with prayer if it is not familiar to you. If you do daily engage in prayer, then I suggest you try another form of it. Let your body move in prayer. Offer up prayers for those you dislike. Talk to your deity or spiritual guide as you go through those daily chores that are necessary but not particularly fun. In her book “Praying with Strangers”, River Jordan had a stunning realization. The act of praying for these strangers had a profound effect on her, a most unexpected result. “They are rescuing me from my indifference.” Maybe that is the true purpose of prayer after all. It rescues us from ourselves.