Have you given much thought to prayer, pray tell?

“To the man who himself strives earnestly, God also lends a helping hand.” Aeschylus

Have you given much thought to prayer, pray tell? Someone once said, “Prayer provides power, poise, peace, and purpose.” And American college administrator, William Arthur Ward, has said, “Prayer is the prelude to peace, the prologue to power, the preface to purpose, and the pathway to perfection.” If that is true, I suppose we can also say, “Seven days without prayer makes one weak (week).”

Yes, prayer can and does make a difference. Not in the life of our Creator, for He/It is complete and perfect, and, therefore, has no needs. But we have a need to transcend ourselves, to stand in awe before a mighty power. We have a need to recognize that there is something greater than ourselves, something to which we can aspire.

If the Source of our being is changeless, our prayers have no effect on Him/It. So, why prayer? Because our prayers have an effect on us. Each time we prayer, it reminds us that we live in a loving universe, and that a Divine Spark glows within our soul. Saying a prayer can be like picking up the telephone and communicating with The Source; it can be like plugging into infinite wisdom. It can be a source of strength, comfort, and inspiration.

Why do I say prayer CAN be helpful rather than saying prayer IS helpful? Well, communication among a married couple CAN be a source of love, but often, instead of words of under-standing, criticism is offered; instead of words of kindness, bickering takes place, and instead of words of encouragement, words of scorn are spewed on one’s partner. So, communication can be helpful or hurtful, effective or ineffective. Our communication with our Creator is no different.

The type of prayer most commonly used is the prayer of petition. I call it the ‘gimme prayer.’ You know what I mean, “Lord, gim’me a nice partner; gim’me obedient children, gimme a well-paying job, gimme good health and keep me free from pain, and while You’re at it, gimme a nice house I can call my own.” Gimme, gimme, gimme. Such prayers are not about elevating ourselves, but about reducing our Creator to the level of Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.

When we resort to the ‘gimme prayer,’ we are effectively saying, “Lord, thank you for the gift of life, BUT I’m afraid it isn’t good enough for me. You see, I need more to be happy, so gimme this and gimme that, please.” Why is it that the people who look down on beggars in the street, don’t hesitate to become beggars before their Creator? To them, prayer is not about talking something over with God, but about talking God out of something.

The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “When I prayer for something, I do not prayer; when I prayer for nothing, I really prayer.” In other words, when I prayer for something, I am not praying; I’m complaining. And when I prayer for nothing it is because I’m perfectly content with what God has given me. So, to prayer for nothing is really a prayer of thanksgiving, gratitude, and appreciation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had this to say, “Prayer is a marvelous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts, but it is a dangerous substitute.” You see, some would rather depend on the ‘gimme prayer’ than on self-reliance. Rather than ask God to bless their work, they ask Him to do it for them. If we absolutely must petition Life, let’s follow the example of St. Thomas More, who, while in prison, wrote, “The things, good Lord, that I pray for give me thy grace to labor for.”

What about prayers of adoration (“I love you, God!”)? Surely, they are the highest form of prayer, aren’t they? Well, I wonder. Among spouses, some endlessly repeat, almost like a mantra, “I love you! I love you!” Perhaps it is because saying, “I love you,” is easier than mowing the lawn or doing housework! In spite of this, however, others prefer to express their love by deeds, not words. Our relationship with our Creator is similar. Rather than repeating over and over how great He/It is, we can act as though we believe it by serving others. Which is the greater prayer, telling God how great He/It is, or dropping coins in the palm of a homeless person?

The value of prayer is unquestionable, but if we spent less time speaking to our Creator and more time listening to what He/It has to say, I think we would be better off. Writing along similar lines, William McGill, “The value of persistent prayer is not that He will hear us, but that we will finally hear Him.”

Instead of saying a prayer, shouldn’t we become one? Let’s sing hymns of praise, not with our lips, but by our actions. Isn’t that the highest form of prayer? Brother Lawrence (Nicholas Herman) describes how work and prayer is the same to him, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

Let’s be ever mindful of what the Sufi mystic Saadi taught, “An act of goodness surpasses a thousand prayers.” This being so, let our actions serve as our prayers. Praying by offering someone a helping hand is far better than praying on bended knee. Look at the many opportunities for prayer we have. We can live a life of prayer by being patient, tolerant, compassionate, generous, kind, gentle, encouraging, accepting, forgiving, consoling, and supportive.

Our actions, then, are either prayers or acts of neglect. If we are to avoid the latter, we must be aware of our actions and mindful of the many opportunities to serve. And the greatest prayer we can offer is to lead a life of love, for as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “He prayeth best that loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.”

What better way to end than with a prayer? Here is a beautiful one usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but probably first written around 1912.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Case Study

The following is in answer to a question sent by Amitabh (a Bengali name that means “The light that cannot be extinguished”). He writes, “I truly believe in a creator (whether we call him God or Allah, or any other name). I serve people believing that serving them means serving God. I work as a volunteer, serving humanity, and I think this is the best prayer we can do.

“Now, I have some long cherished wishes. Do you think God will ever listen to me and fulfill my desires? I believe so. With this belief in my heart, I continue serving others more and more. I serve God. God will certainly reward me. Do you think I am on the right path?”

Amitabh, you say that God will reward you by granting your wishes, but if you believed that, you wouldn’t have written. Rather than being filled with trust and faith in God, your heart is filled with doubt. As long as this condition remains, there is little likelihood that you will get your cherished desires.

Here is what is important to understand. God is not a Santa Claus dispensing gifts to all His children. Rather, God is the Creator. He has created all. His creation is held together by laws. His laws govern the universe and humanity. I’m not referring to religious laws, but to natural laws. An example of a physical law would be gravity and an example of a spiritual law would be “You reap what you sow.”

What if I jumped from a plane to commit suicide and then changed my mind as I fell to earth? No amount of praying will spare me! The natural outcome of such an act would be death. Death by the law of gravity. Now, what if I would like to become a great success, but lack faith in God, myself, and others? What if I would like to succeed, but expect to fail? If I expect to fail, I most likely will because of the psychological law that we get what we expect.

Christ didn’t say “All your prayers will be granted,” but said, “All things, whatsoever you ask in prayer, BELIEVING (expecting), you shall receive (Mat 21:22). So, the first step to receiving your desires is to trust in God and believe in His love. He loves you and wants only what is best for you. So, start expecting to receive His blessings.

These spiritual laws are simple to understand once we take the time to think about them. For example, let’s say I have an interview for a job I want. I am excited by this opportunity, thank God for it, and am confident and expect to land the job. This being so, what impression will I give to the interviewers? Won’t I be exuding confidence and enthusiasm? Even if I am not the most qualified, I may be chosen because of my great attitude. That’s not surprising, is it?

But what if I don’t get the job? No problem! For I know God will grant whatever I wish, OR SOMETHING BETTER. We want what is best for us, but the problem is we cannot know what that is. All we can do is set our goals and make the best decisions we can. Whenever things appear to be going wrong, it is just God telling us He has better plans for us. That’s why it makes sense to submit to the will of God.

God always answers our prayers. He does this by giving us either what we prayed for or what we SHOULD HAVE prayed for. Plato realized this, for he prayed, “Grant us what is good whether we prayer for it or not, but keep evil from us even though we prayer for it.” To this, Socrates adds, “Our prayers should be for blessings in general, for God knows best what is good for us.” As long as we want only what our Creator gives us, we will be free from frustration and always fulfilled.

Muslims should have a good understanding of this idea since the name of their religion, Islam, means submit or surrender. We surrender to the will of God not to be enslaved, but to be set free from making bad decisions. Those who have mastered the art of surrender have only one request they ask of God; mainly, “God, grant that I only try to follow Your will.” Such a prayer is a wise one because the only way we can guarantee that we will always get what is best for us is by following the will of God.

Besides believing that God will grant your wishes, or something better, you need to be patient, Amitabh. After all, it is written in the Koran (Quran), “And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and most surely it is a hard thing except for the humble ones” (2.45). And again, even more clearly, it is written, “O you who believe! seek assistance through patience and prayer; surely Allah is with the patient.” (2.153) More than 1,000 years before the Prophet Muhammad said these words, Buddha said something similar, “The greatest prayer is patience.”

Thanking our parents five times a day can keep us focused on them and ever grateful for their support. But if we’re not careful, our thanks can be reduced to a mere ritual, empty of any feeling. So it is with our prayers. So, heed the advice of the ancient Jewish sages who taught “Do not make prayer mechanical. Let it be a cry for grace and mercy, that love replace fear in the place in which you stand.” (Pirke Avot 11:17).

The 12th century Muslim mystic Hakim Sanai reminds us also of how important sincerity is, “When you sincerely enter into prayer, you will come forth with all your prayers answered; but a hundred prayers that lack sincerity will leave you still the bungler that you are.” Your requests do not become holy just because you ask God for His favor. If you first make sure your requests are worthy and aligned with His will, they will surely be granted.

You also ask if you are on the right path. The answer depends on what you mean by “With this belief in my heart (that God will fulfill my wishes), I continue serving others more and more.” If you mean by this that you serve others because God will reward you, you are on the wrong path. Those on the right path do not serve others because of obligations or rewards. No, they serve others because their help is needed and because it is the right thing to do. They wish to become more Godlike by serving others out of love. Their mission is to sow love and peace wherever they go. They look for no reward because their service is their reward. As long as it is done with a pure heart, and not with the hope of any reward, I agree with your statement that serving others is the same as serving God.

I’ll end with a few suggestions. First, remember prayer is not a monologue; it is a conversation. Listen more than you speak. Second, don’t prayer for your present situation to change. Instead, prayer for your thinking to change. Prayer to become trustful, hopeful, and positive. Third, give up self-centered prayers for other-centered prayers. For example, instead of praying to marry the woman you love, prayer to love the woman you marry. Fourth, heed the advice of St. Augustine, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” Finally, we end with these words of the Persian poet/mystic Saadi, “To give pleasure to a single heart by a single kind act is better than a thousand head-bowings in prayer.”



Scroll to Top