Prayer reflects human needs

People strive for contact with God

November 25, 2006|By K. Connie Kang | K. Connie Kang,Los Angeles Times

For years, surveys have shown that more than 80 percent of Americans pray regularly.

They pray in homes, houses of worship and on the Internet. They pray behind the wheel, while walking the dog, standing in line at banks. They pray alone and with others. And they regularly propel books on prayer onto the best-seller lists, with millions of copies sold.

Why? The answer, scholars of religion say, reflects not just formal theology but the nature and needs of humankind.

Human beings want to communicate with God, says the Rev. Siang-Yang Tan, a professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

"Prayer is a powerful means to experience God's presence, God's peace, God's grace and God's wisdom," said Tan, senior pastor of the First Evangelical Church in Glendale, Calif., who is also a practicing clinical psychologist.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, says the instinct is part of what makes humans human. "Their prayer may not be liturgically appropriate, and it probably does not come out of thoroughly developed theology, but the instinct to pray is universal and natural for all," Dorff wrote in Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable.

People also pray because faith traditions require it.

Christians are told to "pray without ceasing." With the start of Advent on Dec. 3, they will offer many prayers in preparation for Christmas. Muslims are commanded to pray five times a day, and Jews three times a day.

It is in prayer that people interact with God "most intensely," said Dorff, who is also a philosopher and ethicist.

"The regimen of prayer forces us to stop our normal activities and to take a serious look at life, and that alone may enable us to strengthen our moral resolve," said Dorff. Like a close friendship, an intimate relationship with God also requires constant communication, the rabbi said.

Muslim scholar Muzammil H. Siddiqi, of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, Calif., said, "Prayer is nourishment for the soul."

The meaning of - and desire for - prayer has long intrigued religious figures. Perhaps no one has expressed that longing for the divine, in the Christian context, better than St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the first philosopher of Christianity and author of The Confessions.

"You awaken us to delight in your praises," he wrote, "for you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it reposes in you."

But what do people pray for?

Gratitude is the most common expression of prayer, and not just during the Thanksgiving season. Ninety-five percent of the time people are thanking God, according to a survey done in the 1990s by the Barna Group, an independent marketing research firm based in Ventura, Calif., that has tracked trends related to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984.

People also ask for forgiveness (76 percent of the time), acknowledge God's unique and superior attributes (67 percent) or make requests (61 percent).

In the Christian context, prayers generally fall under the acronym ACTS - adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

Supplication has two components: praying for oneself (prayer of petition) and for others (intercessory prayer).

Though ACTS is a Christian guideline for prayer, it can be "generalized" to non-Christian religions, too, Tan said, because they also adore and worship God, confess their sins and seek forgiveness, thank God for blessings and pray for themselves and others.

Muslims have two types of prayer: salat and du'a.

"We make salat to establish our contact with Allah," said Siddiqi, an expert on comparative religion. "We glorify him, praise him and express our obedience to him. When we make du'a, we call upon our Lord and ask him for health, healing, protection, prosperity, love, mercy and many of his gifts for ourselves, our families, friends and others."

In their longing to connect with the divine, human beings also pray to mark holy days, blessings of marriage and births. And they pray for the dying and the dead.

Kaddish is the Jewish mourner's prayer, but it is all about God - not a word is mentioned about the dead.

"Let God's name be made great and holy in the world that was created as God willed," it begins. Kaddish ends with adoration: "May the one who created harmony above, make peace for us and for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. And say: Amen."

The method of prayer is as diverse as the intent. Prayers are spoken, sung, written and silent - what Roman Catholics call "interior prayer." The aim in interior prayer is simply to rest in the presence of God. Since the 1980s, there has been a surge of interest, especially among Protestants, in such meditative prayer - learning to sit quietly and go deep into the silence.

Since prayer can be a dialogue with God, another form involves both speaking and listening.

At the Saint Andrew's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Valyermo, Calif., monks practice lectio divina, an ancient technique of a slow contemplative praying by reading of the Scriptures. The technique allows the faithful, as St. Benedict said, to hear with the "ear of our hearts."

The abbot of Saint Andrew's, the Rev. Luke Dysinger, writes that such prayer "enables the Bible to become a means of union with God."

K. Connie Kang is a writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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