What is prayer?

I realised yesterday that my prayers had dried up. I’d lost my voice. My rhythm. I lost my way to the altar. I woke in the night with my longing for connection. I took my fear to the couch, after boiling the kettle for tea. I struggled to find the words to explain my absence, to apologise for letting things go for so long. I made a poor attempt at praying. I thought to myself, what is prayer?

For years now my private prayer has taken place on the pages of the morning. This was awkward turning up without my book in the middle of the night. As I tried to explain this I discovered my words were not needed. He was already there. Leaning in. ‘So how about praying for someone else!’ He suggested. ‘This heaviness is not about you.’ Then he gave me a name and some faces. The rest was easy. I asked that God would do for them, all the things that I could imagine they might need. When I returned to bed, my own problems didn’t seem quite so big. I slept.

When I woke at daylight, my question still lingered.
What is prayer?
Why does it seem so complicated?
Why do I avoid it, or place it after everything else?
Why do I think it requires sacrifice, sacrament and strain?
Why do I feel so unsure when it’s easy?
If it’s easy, is it then not a prayer?

So I loaded my basket with some books and headed to cafe to research.
I packed my kindle, my new Mary Oliver book of poems, Eugene Peterson’s The Message and my journal.

In His faithfulness God reminded me that our communion need not be difficult.
Just like David wrote,
“O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

I started first with a poem and along with my coffee my answer came.

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum prayer as it crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
With my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
Self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

What do you think?
What is prayer?



1 Comment

Filed under prayer

One response to “What is prayer?

  1. Ian Duval

    The Lord’s prayer is a good model for what our prayers need to be. It shows to whom our prayers should be addressed – ‘Our father in heaven..’ The prayer is largely a list of specific requests to our heavenly father. What to pray for? Whatever is in accordance with the father’s will, as the prayer ends, ‘your will be done…’

    There is no room for warbling here (ok for songs of praise) or eloquent, padded words. Prayer is asking God to help us and people we are concerned for to live in accordance with his will and purpose.

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