Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What is prayer?


Prayer denotes communication with God.

Communication is a process:

1.    The sender encodes a message.

2.    The sender transmits the encoded message.

3.    The receiver receives the encoded message.

4.    The receiver decodes the message.

Good communication adds a feedback loop to that process to ensure that the message, as received and decoded, was the message that the sender intended.

Of course, the process is more complex than the four steps appear at first glance. Every step is fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding or error. The sender may encode (words, facial expression, tone, etc.) the message inaccurately. Information may be lost in transmitting and receiving the message. And the receiver may inaccurately decode the message. Furthermore, each human assigns unique meanings and nuances to sensory input, shaped by her/his unique neural patterns. Consequently, communication, even when combined with continual feedback, is at best an imprecise art.

The one exception to that analysis is if God is the receiver; then, and only then, is communication clear and accurate. If God is the sender, communication problems remain. The intended receiver – a human – must discern the message and then accurately decode it. The feedback loop works well going to God; God sending a corrected copy to the person encounters the same problems as the original message.

These comments presume that God is omniscient with respect to the present and the past but not the future, communicates with people, and allows people some degree of limited autonomy.

Discussions of prayer generally construct a typology of prayer. In petitionary prayer, a person asks God for particular gifts, blessings, or favors. I think this type of prayer is generally meaningless. God knows what we need and want; God loves us and seeks to do what is best for us. Why do we think expressing wants or desires to God will change any of that?

Petitionary prayer’s effect on the person praying is the one exception to that generalization about meaninglessness of petitionary prayer. Talking to God (aloud or silently, directly or indirectly) may change the person who is praying by increasing the person’s openness to discerning communication from God or by helping the person to align him/herself more fully with God.

Both parts of that analysis also apply to intercessory prayer, prayer one person offers on behalf of another. However, intercession may function in another way as well. All matter seems interconnected on a quantum level. One person expressing concern or affection for a second person thus has the potential of exerting a beneficial effect on the person for whom the prayer is offered.

The other types of prayer – adoration (how wonderful God is; how much we love God), thanksgiving, praise (declaring God's greatness, especially for what God has done) – presumably do nothing for God. A God who needs our adoration, for example, would appear to be insecure, i.e., suffer from a weak ego.

However, those types of prayer are important because of their potential to help the person praying enter more deeply into the mystery of the light and love that we call God. Even as in human communication, when a person shares what has happened in his/her life with a loved one, needing to express feelings without seeking anything in return, so adoration, thanksgiving, and praise may fill a similar function in our communication with God.

Like many clergy (cf. James Howell, Unsettling prayer), when honest, I find that I spend little time overtly praying. Yet much of my life is prayer: thinking about God, seeking to discern God's presence and message for me and for others, trying to align my life so that I more fully live in light and love. This last dimension is the most important form of prayer. At its most intent, this form of prayer becomes contemplation, meditation, or even the mystical encounter of the holy. More on that in another post.

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