I grew up learning that God always answers prayer. Yes, no, or wait. These were the answers that God gave. Because God always answers prayer. It seems pretty simple and as a neat little formula, it works to explain how “casting our cares” (or wants, wishes, and hopes) out there into the ether could result in them being received by a God who is influenced by my petitions.
How one prays and what prayer means to a person says a lot about who God is to that person. Many, I think, see God as somewhere out there making things happen from his heavenly throne, receiving the prayers of countless worshipers, big enough (or not big enough) to answer them all and respond accordingly. Some would say, pray according to your faith. Expect God to do wondrous things and miracles will happen. Pray “in Jesus’ name” for an extra seal of approval and seek to align yourself with the will of God. Prayer is powerful to move mountains and soften the hardest heart. What it comes down to, most often it seems, is that prayer is transactional, an asking and a receiving, hinged on hope and often destined for disappointment when things don’t go the way we wish.
What I have seen is that people pray for things (with very strong faith, to be sure) and those things do not come to pass… and sometimes they do. And then others don’t pray at all and they are gifted with what many pray so fervently for… and other times they are not. Studies have been done about the power of prayer, yes, and I wonder, is prayer for the one doing the praying, for the one prayed for, or for the one prayed to?
I no longer think of God as a force that is “out there.” As I have come to experience and understand God as Life, as the animating force that sustains, maintains, and contains all things, prayer has changed. What is the will of God when God is infinite, beyond and within time in ways that our linear finite minds could never fully perceive? Will, as we would understand it, would be governed BY time and WITHIN time. God’s knowing, as we would understand it and claim it, would be bound to knowing as we know. I can’t say that this is the case. So praying so as to influence God, or praying so as to better know the will of God, seems like a game of cat and mouse.
Prayer, in it’s essence, is non-linear. I can put so many words to what prayer is not, to how prayer falls short. But attempting to describe prayer that aligns with indwelling Life is to describe an action, an attitude… a way of being. The “will” of God, is what IS. Life happens in its horror and bliss and all is within that Life. To pray is to have our intentions, our desires, our being engulfed, embraced, consumed, and overwhelmed by presence. We don’t cast our prayers out there somewhere… our prayers are taken up and transformed before they ever reach our lips. I do believe prayer is incredibly impactful, not just for our time but for all of time and for all places, but this can only be when God is in all things and all things are in God.
Perhaps we would all do well to release our need to pray with the right words or finding the right things to pray for and just listen for a while. Rather than going through the lists of those we care for and the things we want to see happen in the world, we could breathe… in silence… without the words. When I open my groups or spiritual direction with silence or teaching breathing practice, we are praying, just in a more natural and universal way.
Imagine it like being in the ocean. You could get obsessed with what you are going to do in the water, what kind of floaties you will have with you, how you can boat, swim, or dive. You could analyze and think about all the little parts of the water and the sand and the aquatic life. But you wouldn’t get the same experience as if you stopped and felt the waves on your body, the movement, the ebbing and the flowing. You would be missing something if you didn’t pay attention to being wet, to being weightless, the salt on your lips. Prayer is similar. It is a relationship. Loving affects the lover, the beloved, and all those in their presence.