Prayer may be a reflex and a refuge, a first response anda place we return to again and again. It has been both since terroristshijacked four American airliners, toppled the World Trade Center, toreopen the Pentagon, and left black scars in a Pennsylvania clearing.
As the violence of Sept. 11 unfolded, and in the weeks since, peoplehave prayed in the solitude of bedrooms and back porches; in thecommunity of churches, mosques, and synagogues; in ordinary places madeholy--sports fields, city halls, and hotel lobbies. A survey by the PewResearch Center found that 69 percent of American adults say they havebeen praying more since the terrorist attacks.
But what if you don't know how to pray? If you have no adultpractice or childhood training to draw on? If you feel moved by recentevents to pray but you aren't sure how prayer works?
First of all, don't worry about how it works, says MarcusBraybrooke, patron of the International Interfaith Centre in Oxford,England, and author of "Learn to Pray" (Chronicle Books). He comparespraying with plugging in an electrical appliance or logging on to theInternet.
"It's a way of connecting," he says in a telephone interview from hishome near Oxford. "We may not understand how electricity or the WorldWide Web work, but we still benefit from using them.
"Likewise, when we pray we may not at first understand to whom weare praying, nor how we might be answered, but by daring to make theconnection we can access a reservoir of energy and understanding that is buried within us."
Braybrooke, a 35-year veteran of worldwide interfaith movements,sees prayer in broad, inclusive terms, believing that the urge to praymay come before belief or faith in a traditional view of God. "I startwith the assumption that people are by nature religious, even if theyare not observant in any particular faith community," he says. "Certainoccasions create a sense of wonder, put us in touch with the dimensionbeyond the ordinary." It may be the beauty of nature, the birth of achild, the death of a loved one, or the horror of terrorism that moves a person to prayer.
Whatever it is that calls us to prayer, prayer itself calls us to behonest, says Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today andco-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Prayer" (Alpha Books).
"Prayer is about having some sort of relationship with God," saysGalli, an ordained Presbyterian minister. "If that relationship is oneof confusion, doubt, anxiety, or wonder, then that's what it is."
If that relationship is new or feels awkward for another reason, itmight help to pray in the presence of other people, Galli says, eitherin a room full of people--a church, synagogue, or mosque, for example--or in a more figurative sense, by using a prayer that others have prayed for generations.
In his own prayer life, Galli draws often on the Episcopal Book ofCommon Prayer. Although he has been praying daily for years, he still finds that these tried-and-true prayers often say what he's feeling better than his own words would.
"These are prayers that articulate some of the basictruths of who God is, what comfort he offers. Some of them have beenhoned over thousands of years," he says. When he prays one, he knows heis joining in a long line of believers that stretches back into historyand forward into the future.
Galli finds himself going back to the prayer book again and again,finding new shades of meaning in prayers he's read before. When theterrorists struck Sept. 11, he turned to a prayer for the nation in theBook of Common Prayer. The words he'd read many times before so movedhim that he couldn't recite them aloud at his family dinner table.
"It can take a while for a pre-composed prayer to sink into a soul,"Galli says. "A classic example is the Lord's Prayer. It's one of thesimplest prayers I know, and I could pray it a thousand times and everytime realize something new about God, about myself. The same is true ofthe Twenty-third Psalm. ('The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want....') That's why people turn to these prayers over and over again."
Familiar words may be comforting in situations that otherwise seemall out of joint. Some adult Catholics who may not have prayed for years turn to the rosary in times of crisis, says Maria Tattu Bowen, atheology professor who teaches spirituality courses at the University of Portland (Ore.). The rosary is a series of prayers and meditationscentered on the lives of Jesus and Mary. A strand of beads helps theperson praying keep his or her place and stay focused.