Prayer may be a reflex and a refuge, a first response and a place we return to again and again. It has been both since terrorists hijacked four American airliners, toppled the World Trade Center, tore open the Pentagon, and left black scars in a Pennsylvania clearing.
As the violence of Sept. 11 unfolded, and in the weeks since, people have prayed in the solitude of bedrooms and back porches; in the community of churches, mosques, and synagogues; in ordinary places made holy--sports fields, city halls, and hotel lobbies. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of American adults say they have been praying more since the terrorist attacks.
But what if you don't know how to pray? If you have no adult practice or childhood training to draw on? If you feel moved by recent events to pray but you aren't sure how prayer works?
First of all, don't worry about how it works, says Marcus Braybrooke, patron of the International Interfaith Centre in Oxford, England, and author of "Learn to Pray" (Chronicle Books). He compares praying with plugging in an electrical appliance or logging on to the Internet.
"It's a way of connecting," he says in a telephone interview from his home near Oxford. "We may not understand how electricity or the World Wide Web work, but we still benefit from using them.
"Likewise, when we pray we may not at first understand to whom we are praying, nor how we might be answered, but by daring to make the connection 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 pray may come before belief or faith in a traditional view of God. "I start with the assumption that people are by nature religious, even if they are not observant in any particular faith community," he says. "Certain occasions create a sense of wonder, put us in touch with the dimension beyond the ordinary." It may be the beauty of nature, the birth of a child, 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 be honest, says Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today and co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Prayer" (Alpha Books).
"Prayer is about having some sort of relationship with God," says Galli, an ordained Presbyterian minister. "If that relationship is one of confusion, doubt, anxiety, or wonder, then that's what it is."
If that relationship is new or feels awkward for another reason, it might help to pray in the presence of other people, Galli says, either in 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 of Common 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 basic truths of who God is, what comfort he offers. Some of them have been honed over thousands of years," he says. When he prays one, he knows he is joining in a long line of believers that stretches back into history and 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 the terrorists struck Sept. 11, he turned to a prayer for the nation in the Book of Common Prayer. The words he'd read many times before so moved him 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 the simplest prayers I know, and I could pray it a thousand times and every time realize something new about God, about myself. The same is true of the 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 seem all 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, a theology professor who teaches spirituality courses at the University of Portland (Ore.). The rosary is a series of prayers and meditations centered on the lives of Jesus and Mary. A strand of beads helps the person praying keep his or her place and stay focused.
"The early desert-dwellers handed it down to us basically as a prayer of quieting oneself and letting the name of Jesus repeat in one's consciousness as a mantra, as a centering prayer," Bowen says. "The point is to let that name open our hearts and minds and bodies to the presence of God."
But what if you don't believe in God and, despite that, feel a pull toward prayer? Buddhism addresses that apparent contradiction.
"From our perspective, the function of prayer is to connect us with that which is greater than our small self," says Hogen Bays, a priest and teacher in the Zen Community of Oregon. He suggests two Buddhist prayer practices that others might find meaningful in these traumatic times.
"One is metta, or lovingkindness, practice," he says. "Sit down, quiet your mind and beginning with yourself, say, 'May I be free from fear. May I be free from suffering. May I be happy. May I be filled with lovingkindness."
Next focus on someone you love and say the same prayer on their behalf. Then pray in the same way for a neutral person, someone you don't know personally. Finally, pray for someone you dislike.
"In doing so you nourish the seeds of kindness and love," Bays says, "first in yourself, and then let it radiate outward. It's the opposite of nourishing the seeds of hatred and fear."
A second Buddhist approach to prayer is the practice of generosity, Bays says, "the giving of one's time, money, a smile or a kind word to anyone else."
"In the practice of generosity, we stop being so self-centered. We add a little bit of comfort to the world."