With Prayer, What Matters Is that We Start 1

a man kneeling amid the rubble of a home, praying

Seeking the Right Way to Pray

Every once in a while, I meet with a patient who wants to know how to pray. The short answer is that there is no right way. You can find instructions, of course, but you can also find instructions that defy those instructions, so in the end, you just have to do what feels best to you. That isn’t where I start with people, though. First, I have to figure out why they’re asking the question.

Some people think that if they get the prayer right, God will give them what they want. Others worry that God will be mad at them if they don’t use the correct words. That fear is probably related to their longing for a good relationship with God, and there are those people for whom this is the main concern, ones who want to know that God’s there for them. They yearn for a sense of presence, even if it’s just a whisper, like a voice, or a knowing, or an image that arises in their minds. They want to connect with God, to be close.

Longing for Connection

This desire for connection and closeness is so basic to us that we will seek relationships with almost anything, including electronic gadgets. Because we tend to anthropomorphize, we almost cannot help but see robots and computers as human. This leaves us susceptible to being lured into “the fantasy of finding a friend in Siri,” as Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, put it. Not just any friend, though. Siri, or Alexa, or the mechanical purring cat that dementia patients are often given, is “something like a best friend, but in some ways better: one you can always talk to, one that will never be angry, one you can never disappoint.” [1]

I was struck by how much this sounds like many people’s image of God. Not only do we anthropomorphize animals and thinking machines, but we do this with the deity, as well. Yet if we don’t, how can we relate to the divine being? How do we even start to pray?

What Is Prayer?

Before answering that question, we must first define what we mean by prayer. Then we have to decide if there’s a right or wrong way to do it. Afterwards, some of us will wonder why we should even bother. What does prayer do for us?

First, what is prayer?

On a simple lever, prayer is talking to that which is holy to us. You might say that prayer is reaching out to the companion we imagine God to be, to this all-loving entity who accepts us exactly as we are, forgives our trespasses, and listens to everything we have to say.

In this case, all we have to do is start talking. When we’re finished, we stop.

Other Forms of Prayer

Of course, there are other ways to pray. Some prayers get written down and published, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, and the Third Step Prayer. Eventually, prayers get adapted. The Lord’s Prayer, for instance, has many alternate versions. [2] If we want, we can write our own prayers, such as some I recite each day.

Alternately, we can speak extemporaneously, speak what is on our hearts. Not that we need to say much. According to the Book of Matthew, God already knows our desires. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do,” Matthew writes, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:7-8 NRSV).

If we want to take this to heart, we can be guided by Meister Eckhart who said, “If ‘thank you’ is the only prayer you can utter in your lifetime, that would be enough.” [3]

Praying in Silence

As implied by Matthew, we can also pray in silence, with only the longing in our hearts. I think of this a little differently, though, as an active wishing, dreaming, or hoping.

One Pentecostal gentleman I was paged to minister to at the hospital, the husband of a patient whose heart had stopped, asked me to help him pray while the medical team tried to revive her. He raised his arms to the divine and spoke in a loud and lilting voice, asking for I know not what, for he spoke in Spanish, and I couldn’t understand him.

Yet my silence could still support him. Standing at his side, I raised my palms to the heavens and imagined light streaming to the body of his dying wife. The man spoke earnestly, and I tried to make my silent prayer just as heartfelt. When the man finished, he thanked me for helping him pray. I was struck by a sense that sometimes words are not necessary.

Meditation as Prayer

Meditation, too, can be a form of prayer. Once a week, I lead a series of spirituality classes. In one of them, I teach a few different kinds of meditation. Centering prayer, Tonglen practice, and lovingkindness meditations are all very much like praying.

Recently, a woman met with me afterwards to share what had happened to her when I led a Tonglen meditation. Because she, a devout Christian, was uncomfortable with Buddhist practices, she adapted the meditation. Instead of breathing in suffering so she could transform it, she offered her suffering to God. In the process, she opened herself up. She said nothing, thought nothing, simply sat in receptivity, sort of like Centering prayer. She was amazed to feel as if she were hearing God, not exactly with words, but as if God’s thoughts were in her mind. Her prayer was not one of talking to, but one of listening. She said she felt as if God had “prayed” her. That moment of connection changed her relationship with the holy, as well as her understanding of prayer.

When we think we know what prayer is, we limit ourselves.

The Three Hermits

That was what a particular bishop learned when he tried to teach three hermits how to pray. In a story written by Leo Tolstoy, a bishop, while sailing on a ship full of pilgrims, heard of three men living by themselves on an island. Years ago, one of the pilgrims explained, the hermits moved there “for the salvation of their souls.” Once, when the pilgrim had been out fishing, he’d beached up on the island and met the men. They had fed him and helped him repair his boat.

Intrigued, the bishop arranged to have a dinghy lowered that could take him to the island to meet those men. So the ship put down anchor, and the bishop stepped into the small boat which was rowed to the island by oarsmen.

The three hermits waited for them at the shoreline, dressed in shining robes, their white beards hanging to their waists. When the bishop climbed out of the vessel, the men bowed to him. He gave them a blessing, and they bowed lower.

The bishop explained that he’d come there to meet them and to see what they were doing for the salvation of his souls. Perhaps he could teach them something.

Teaching the Hermits to Pray

They responded that they did not know how to serve God, but they prayed in this way: “Three are you, three are we. Have mercy upon us.”

Smiling, the bishop praised their understanding of the trinity, but explained that they didn’t know how to pray. He told them that within the Bible was a prayer God wanted people to speak, the Lord’s Prayer.

The men had never heard of it, so the bishop taught it to them. At least, he tried to. The men had a terrible time remembering the words. All day, the bishop spoke the prayer, having the men repeat after him. Finally, by the time darkness fell, all three men could recite the prayer correctly, and the bishop knew it was time for him to leave. As the dinghy rowed toward the ship, the bishop could hear the three men saying the prayer over and over. Feeling gratified that he could help these good men, he thanked God for bringing him there.

After he and the oarsmen climbed back onto the ship, and the dinghy was once again strapped to the hull, the sailors pulled up anchor, and they got underway. They had lost a lot of time, and the captain was in a hurry.

The Bishop Learns a Lesson

As they sped off, however, the bishop noticed something shining against the water. It seemed to be something moving. A bird? A boat?

Unable to see clearly what this thing was, he asked the helmsman to look. Raising his head, the helmsmen could see clearly what it was, for by then, the figures had come close. Frightened, the helmsman released the wheel and cried out, “Oh, Lord. The hermits are running after us on the water as if it were dry land!”

Hearing him, the other passengers rushed with the bishop to the rail where they looked down at the three, old men who had caught up with the ship. Calling out, the hermits said, “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God.” They asked the bishop to teach them the prayer again.

Crossing himself, the bishop leaned toward them and said, “It is not for me to teach you. Your prayer will reach God.”

Then the bishop bowed to the men, and the hermits turned and walked back to their island. [4]

There is no “right” way to pray.

What Is Prayer For?

Just because there are so many ways we can pray, however, doesn’t mean we should do so. After all, what is prayer for?

The rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote a lot about prayer. He acknowledged that prayer might not bring us miracles, but believed that it can make us feel better. “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields,” he wrote, “or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” [5]

If this is true, how does it happen?

Perhaps prayer heals us the same way revising our stories does. Even though there may be no factual reality to the interpretations and memories we build in our minds, our brains believe them. This is the theory behind narrative therapy and affirmations. In a limited way, we create our own reality. Thus, if we tell new stories about old hurts or beliefs, we may find healing. What we speak becomes what we believe.

Changing Ourselves

In this way, prayer helps us create a reality of hopefulness and connectedness. If we pray to a god, then that god becomes real.

The woman in my spirituality class felt this in a deep and passionate way. So did the three hermits whose purity allowed them to walk on water. When we pray from the depths of our hearts, when, humble and trusting, we open ourselves to something greater and more wonderful than we can ever know, we grow in faith and happiness. We become a better person, more clear, honest, and kind.

As the priest, Thomas Keating, wrote, the main reason we pray is “not to get something from God, or to change God, but to change ourselves.” [6]

Prayer as Manipulation

Of course, there are people who pray for their own gain, thinking they can influence the divine. This is the idea behind the prosperity gospel, for example. If we are good enough, have an unflinching faith, and tithe properly, we will be rewarded. Our prayers will be answered. If your life is not going well, you need to look to your faith and pray harder.

To me, this seems less like prayer than like manipulation, as if God granted favors to the most persuasive. In such prayer, there is no inner change. This kind of prayer is as empty and arid as the parched fields Heschel wrote about.

Prayer as Witness

Beyond gaining favor for ourselves, or even healing our hearts and minds and souls, Heschel suggests another reason to pray. He says that prayer helps us fulfill God’s commandments, because in this way we witness to the holy and keep God alive in the world. To perform mitzvot, to practice the daily ritual commandments described in the Torah, is to tilt the balance of power toward the good. In Isaiah, we are told, “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen.” (Isa. 43:10 NRSV). According to Heschel, the Kabbalistic school of Jewish mysticism, as understood by Rabbi Akiba, took this to mean, “If you are my witnesses, I am God, but if you are not my witnesses, I am, as it were, not God.” [7]

Heschel understood that this god searches for us as much as, or more than, we search for Him. This god is the one that Jesus revealed when he used the prodigal son’s father as a metaphor for the holy divine being. This god watches out his window for his son to come home, then rushes to greet him before anyone can harm the boy’s body or his soul. We long for this kind of love, and prayer can bring it to us, but Heschel is telling us that prayer can also bring our devotion to the holy one, thus giving the breath of life to him.

We Are Not God

Is this only in our minds? Is there truly a god who is so influenced by our love that she would die without it? Maybe this is no more than our human need to imagine that something or someone loves us unconditionally, whether it’s Siri or God. Either way, when we pray, that to which we pray becomes real.

So what should we pray to? And if we don’t believe in a personified deity, why bother?

Perhaps, if it does nothing else, prayer reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. We are not God.

Last week, at the recovery church circle, we talked about the value of not taking things personally, a thesis developed by Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements. The consensus seemed to be that sometimes taking things personally is helpful, because then we show caring and compassion to those who we’ve harmed. Often, though, we take personally things that have nothing to do with us, such as random comments by strangers, because we cannot imagine the world from any perspective but our own. We think everything in life revolves around us, so we naturally assume that whatever someone says or does is because we are there.

In reality, we are but one speck on a planet of billions of humans and gazillions of creatures that each have complex needs and a unique worldview. We, absolutely, are not God. Whatever that deity might be, whether or not it even exists, it is not us. We are but a tiny part of the whole.

Service as Prayer

At the same time that prayer reminds us that we are not the most important creature on this planet, however, it can also help us remember that we matter. Think of those tiny, insignificant-looking mitochondria. Without them, we would die, so they matter a lot, at least to us. Yet they are way smaller than our skin-covered material form. Obviously, size doesn’t prove our worth. One small action, like throwing a gasping sea star back into the sea, can give our lives meaning. Loren Eiseley told a parable in which a small boy walked along the beach, throwing into the water any sea star he found swept helpless onto the sand. A gentleman stopped him, pointing out how pointless his actions were. After all, there was such a long stretch of beach, and so many dying stars. How could his actions matter.

The boy bent down, picked up another sea star, and hurled it into the surf. “It mattered to that one,” he said. [8]

Making a Difference

Prayer reminds us that, even if we are small, we can make a difference; we do matter. Indeed, the very act of saving a single life, of offering food or clothing, encouragement or hope, is its own kind of prayer. Service connects us to something larger than ourselves. It heals the hearts of others, but also our own. Even meditations, such as Metta (lovingkindness) and Tonglen, provide hope not just to ourselves, but to others, for in the process we send love and transform suffering for all those around us. This is a kind of service; it’s definitely a kind of prayer.

When we offer the gift of our attention, our compassion, or our hands, we make real the deity, we mend broken hearts, heal wounds, find our true place in the world, build connections between one another, touch the divine, and render Siri meaningless. Why talk to a computer when we have God in ourselves, in other people, and in the world?

There are many ways to pray, and many reasons to do so. Finding the “right” way is not what matters. What matters, is that we choose a way and start. The “how” is unimportant.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Turkle, Sherry, “Robot Companions,” John Brockman, ed., This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories that Are Blocking Progress, New York: HarperCollins, 2015, 264-267, 267.
  2. For some examples, see https://rainbowcathedral.wordpress.com/prayers/ and http://www.standonline.org.uk/themes/stand/documents/Resource_6_Alternative-Lords-prayers.pdf.
  3. Quoted in various iterations on many different websites; this version comes from Wikiquote – https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Meister_Eckhart
  4. Tolstoy, Leo, “The Three Hermits,” in the public domain; adapted.
  5. According to Wikiquote, this quote can be found in Borowitz, Eugene, The Jewish Moral Virtues, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
  6. Keating, Thomas, Heart of the World, New York: Crossroads, 2008, 63.
  7. Quoted by Green, Arthur, “Three Warsaw Mystics,” Arthur Green: Hasidism for Tomorrow, ed. Havah Tirosh-Samuelson, Aaronn W. Hughes, Boston: Brill, 2015, 53-104, 93.
  8. Eiseley, Loren, The Star Thrower, New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1979, adapted. See https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/503244-the-star-thrower.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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