“Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1879, The Brothers Karamazov
If you aren’t certain of God’s existence, or what God even means, what would bring you to pray?
If prayer is a conversation between a believer and their saviour, how can anyone on the fence take part? And yet, we know that many people who class themselves as non-believers say that they do pray, especially in times of hardship. How many others, who refuse to admit that they partake in what they profess a senseless task, close their eyes tightly when alone, and plead for some relief from their sorrows, or avow their gratitude for having been spared a tragedy?
The absence of any deep discussion about God from the conversation that follows, is not a devaluation of faithful prayer. It’s just due to a lack of personal insight into the devout. One can presume that prayer takes on a different role and sense of profundity when performed in worship to God. What we are querying, is why someone would pray to a God that they claim they don’t believe in?
One rather quick and obvious answer, is that maybe we’re not as certain in our doubt as we think.
In the age of reason, faith in the non-material is becoming more and more rare. People tend to follow popular culture and opinion and declare it as their own without much thought or regard. Spiritual conviction doesn’t seem like something that should be decided upon because of current trends, but it does happen. People continue to overtly proclaim their scepticism, but in private they turn their eyes to the sky and begin a conversation.
“Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer utters itself.”Carol Ann Duffy, 1992, Prayer, The Times Saturday Review
Aside from asking for something, which is called a petitionary prayer, people often pray to show thanks.
We wake in the morning, sit at the side of the bed, bow our heads and give thanks that we are alive. We give thanks for our children’s health, for the companionship of our love and the unity of our family. And why do we do this if not to offer praise to God? Declaring our gratitude helps orientate ourselves. We place precious gems together, which act as our centre point. Like the sun to the earth, we revolve around these critical focal points in our life and we act accordingly. It lets us clearly see what is important to us and what makes us happy and we can base our actions on what will maintain those things. It reduces the noise and the clutter by prioritising what is critical to cherish and maintain in our lives, and by allowing us to see all that comes secondary. Lest we take precious gems for granted and lose our way, we decide upon and declare our gratitude.
As we do in petitionary prayer, why would we ask for anything if we know it will not be answered?
Unless we believe ourselves to be masters of the universe, there are things out of our control. These are the things we are more likely to pray for. Even if we don’t have a complete, or any, image of an all-powerful God who controls everything, we know for certain that we don’t. Whether you want to call it fate, fortune, luck or arbitrary chance, there are things that are out of our hands but that effect our lives directly. In petitioning for the recovery of a family member, or the safe arrival of a child, or shelter in a storm, we are asking for grace. For the ways of the world, that are so out of our control, to align momentarily with our own deepest desires. It is always those things closest to our hearts that we petition for. Not many people idly prayer for material gain, or physical prowess- we pray, and plead, for the things dearest to us.
Maybe prayer without addressing God is not prayer at all, maybe it’s just meditation or rumination.
But when the chips are down and we’re encumbered with sorrow or strife, who are we pleading with? When a child has been saved and we drop to our knees, repeating our thanks, who are we thanking? We don’t need to figure these questions out right away, but it stands that there is value in prayer for people, even for those who can’t align themselves with God. If you feel the want or need to pray, then pray for its sake alone.
“Be not afraid to pray—to pray is right.Hartley Coleridge (1796-1849), Prayer: II. Be not afraid to pray—to pray is right, Lyra Sacra: A Book of Religious Verse selected by Henry Charles Beeching, 1903
Pray, if thou canst, with hope; but ever pray,
Though hope be weak, or sick with long delay;
Pray in the darkness if there be no light.”