Prayer has been on my mind a lot over the past few weeks. Because I don’t pray, this recent preoccupation seems worth exploring. Aside from the use of prayer as a means of communication with the divine, which is obviously a major component of prayer for probably everyone who prays, what interests me is why we pray, what it does for us in the moment, and how it affects our interactions with our world.
I was competitive about prayer as a child. As many children learning to do something new, I would differentiate between what I saw as good examples and bad examples. It was an honor to be asked to pray aloud in Sunday School, but the pressure was high. We listened carefully to one another, judging which of us was the most poetic, generous, or inclusive. Some children’s prayers flowed easily, or they sounded impressively fervent. Some children mumbled, stumbled over words, or trembled with shy discomfort. I approached prayer as a skill that could be mastered, and (despite my limited and retrospectively wholly inappropriate understanding of prayer) I was pretty good at it.
Dovetailing beautifully with my recent preoccupations, I have spent the past few weeks discussing prayer with my students. Each student on the interfaith council has been asked to present his or her religion's use and understanding of prayer. They have been asked questions relating to the methods of prayer, like "do you pray alone or in a group?" but they also touch on larger questions, including "What does prayer mean to you?" I have spent the past several weeks learning about the world’s prayers, and with each presentation my vision of what prayer encompasses shifts and reorients. Last week, a student asked me about prayer in humanism, and although my initial response was that prayer is not a part of secular humanism, the more I think about this question - what does prayer mean to you? - the less certain I am that prayer is not a part of my life.
Recently, a close friend was in a traumatic accident and is lucky to be alive. For the sake of anonymity, and for its poetry, let's call her Hope. Over the past few weeks I have spent hours at the hospital and recovery center, in the waiting room with her family and other friends, and in her room, holding her hand, reading aloud, listening to music, watching her favorite movies, and being overcome with joy that Hope is not only physically and neurologically intact, but recovering far faster than any trauma surgeon expected. Even with this accelerated progress, Hope is looking down a long and difficult road to recovery, and each step forward brings new challenges and trials as she relearns how to trust and love her healing body.
Hope prays, and her family prays. I have met many of her close friends and most if not all of them pray, too. No one hesitates to reach out for hands in prayer. I can't help but notice the ways in which prayer is implemented, and the surety with which everyone goes about it, as though prayer is the only possible response to something of this magnitude. With each new piece of information, heads are bowed and prayers pour out, sometimes asking for strength and peace, and oftentimes thanking God for Hope's incredible positivity, the unexpected speed of her healing, and for the many hands and hearts that have reached out to help over the past few weeks. Watching the impact of these prayers on the people who offer them fascinates me. The relief is visible, the comfort tangible, and the connectedness between each of Hope's caretakers is notably reinforced with each prayer. In certain moments I worry that my inability to fully engage in this communal act of comfort is going to leave me outside of Hope's healing, but I'm starting to realize that while I might not pray in any traditional sense, I have ways of connecting and hoping that are not wholly different from simple conceptions of prayer.
I don't pray. At least, I don't pray the way that I have ever understood prayer. I don't speak to God, give thanks, supplicate, or worship. But asking what prayer means to me is different than asking what prayer looks like, and today I see prayer primarily as a means of engaging with what is happening around us, even when the act of prayer is directed to something beyond the here and now. Prayer is one outlet to express our fears and concerns, our joys and celebrations. We are joined in the act of sharing ourselves with one another.
In cases like Hope’s, praying keeps the helplessness of a waiting room from weighing down on us. Prayer answers our need for agency. People pray because it is what they can do, and it helps us let go of our inability to take action and not go crazy. We pray because prayer keeps us from feeling powerless and disconnected. I have my own way of doing this – of tapping into something more than myself - and while I wouldn’t describe it as an act of prayer (mediation, maybe?) I am not as much of an outsider in the waiting room as I first thought. I see the effect of prayer on those around me. I am comforted by witnessing the outpouring of love for this young woman, and hearing that love shared aloud. I know that everyone cares deeply in the same ways, even if they are expressed differently.
My conclusions about prayer may only work for me, but here they are: Prayer is for the pray-er in its expression, and for others in the sharing. It soothes our feelings of helplessness in unimaginable situations, and helps us feel and process the connections between ourselves and everything that is happening around us. It's not about being the most poetic, generous, or inclusive; it's about creating space for joy and for hope. Even an atheist can appreciate that.
Esther Boyd is the Communications Director for State of Formation, as well as a humanist working in multifaith chaplaincy at Johns Hopkins University. She holds an M.A. in Religion and Literature from Yale University, where she focused on religious identity, and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Colby College where she focused on American apocalypticism. While in graduate school, she founded Yale Divinity School’s interfaith student cooperative, Open Party, sparking deeper interest in interreligious education. Esther is also an editor for the Humanist Chaplaincy thinkblog Applied Sentience.