This latest contribution to the Washington Post/Newsweek On Faith online discussion responds to the question: What is prayer? Do you pray? If so to whom and for what?
Yes, I pray. But there are many misunderstandings about prayer. For many, prayer is talking to God, sometimes with a great list of requests and needs – sort of like childrens’ Christmas lists mailed to Santa Claus.
But, at least for me, prayer is more often becoming a time of listening than talking. There is so much noise in our world and our lives (much of our own making); prayer becomes a quiet space enabling us to stop talking long enough to see what God might be trying to say to us. The disciplines of prayer, silence, and contemplation practices by the monastics and mystics are precisely that – stopping the noise, slowing down, and becoming still, so that God can break through all our activity and noise in order to speak to us. Prayer serves to put all the parts of our lives in God’s presence, reminding us of how holy our humanity really is.
And also for us, prayer is the act of reclaiming our identity as the children of God; it declares who we are and to whom we belong. The action of prayer places us outside the realm of the powers and principalities. As prayer declares our true identity, it destroys our false identities. In prayer we act upon who we really are, and thus prayer has the effect of diminishing the illusions that have controlled us, and helping us remember what is really true. Prayer allows us to step out of our traps and find ourselves again in God.
Contemplative writer and priest Henri Nouwen once shared with our Sojourners community that the desert fathers regarded prayer as an act of “unhooking” from the harness of the world’s securities. Such prayer may be the only action powerful enough to free us from our spiritual bondage to property, money, power, ideas, and causes, which often control our behavior.
Only those who have truly found their identity in God can resist the violent tugs and pulls of the false values offered by the world. By re-establishing our security in God, prayer becomes an effective weapon in resisting the world’s false securities.
Prayer changes our frame of reference; it is not merely a preparation for action. Prayer must be understood as an action in itself, a potent political weapon to be used in spiritual warfare against the most powerful forces of the world. Prayer is not undertaken in place of other actions; it is the foundation for all the other actions we take.
I recall the way Archbishop Desmond Tutu would pray in South Africa, during the apartheid era. His prayers constantly affirmed God’s power over the claims of the state, and that was a threat to their power. And prayer, in recognizing God’s authority over the evil powers, moves us beyond opposition to affirmation, and beyond resistance to celebration. Thus prayer and the results of prayer can be the most revolutionary of acts. The powers that be in this world are aware of this – that is why they consider those who pray in this way to be a threat.