I often hear or read discussions about prayer that “doesn’t work.” I find that concept really curious. If you engage the person who says these things for a while to discover what they really mean by prayer “not working,” what they mean is that they asked for something in prayer and didn’t get it. I think that such an attitude reflects the basest understanding of what prayer really is, almost descending to the point of making prayer a commodity. Allow me to elaborate.
Intercessory prayer is perhaps best thought of as prayer’s training ground. Despite that, it is probably the kind of prayer most often used. We want something, either for ourselves or someone else, and so we ask God to provide it. We think, mostly because we have been taught, that this is what we are supposed to do – that this is what prayer is – appealing to a kind of cosmic Santa Claus to provide us with what we want so that we don’t have to face the realities of life. That isn’t really prayer, it’s self deception.
All true prayer is based in and upon relationship with the Divine, however you understand the Divine. All true prayer is based in what the eastern religions have called meditation and what the religions of the Book (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) have called Contemplation. We spend time in relationship with God. As Mother Theresa is reported to have said when asked what she did when she prayed, we listen for God – and God listens for us. Fundamentalist Christianity, in its profound ignorance, has tried to discredit contemplation in favor of intercession – but thousands of years of contemplation stand as witness against the ignorance of this approach.
May I suggest an analogy? Suppose you decide you want or need some material thing or help with some project. Would you ask a complete stranger, or would you ask someone with whom you have a relationship? If you have any sense at all, you will answer the latter. Do you see how absolutely preposterous and presumptuous it is to ask God for something having not first established a relationship with God through spending hours upon hours in the Divine presence? Can you see that establishing that kind of relationship cannot have as its motive eventually “getting something out of it.” I believe we all have had friends who were only our friends as long as we kept giving them whatever they asked. Once we caught on to their schemes, we most likely ended the friendship – and yet that is precisely to what so many people have reduced their “relationship” with God.
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, needs a contemplation/meditation practice. It is through this spending time together that healthy relationship is formed. It is through this practice that we are transformed and begin to see the world as God does. It is through this true prayer that we come to have the spiritual energy (for lack of a better term) that makes our intercessory prayer much more efficacious. That doesn’t mean that we will always – or ever – get the outcome we desire. It does mean that when we pray for a sick loved one they will feel themselves surrounded by the loving kindness of our prayers and be more receptive to the possibility of healing. At the same time, we must acknowledge that we all will eventually die – no matter how many powerful prayers are directed our way. The true effect of those prayers at the time of death may very well be that our suffering will be reduced and our transition eased.
It is also through our meditation/contemplation practice that we will come to truly see that it is not material things that will make us happy, and so we will stop praying for the ridiculous, selfish things we sometimes do – like that new Lexus, or a bigger house, or a new pool table. The reason we don’t get those things when we pray for them is that materialism takes us away from God, and so God is gracious enough to ignore our requests.
It is very popular these days to talk about “a personal relationship with God” or Jesus. I agree that we need one, but not the kind of “personal relationship” so many people envision wherein we talk to Jesus while we eat our Cheerios. Rather, we need that relationship that develops when we follow Jesus’ admonition to go into our room and close the door and pray in secret. Then God, who hears in secret, will grant our most important wish – an ever growing relationship leading to union with the Divine.
That is why we pray. Leave the other stuff to Santa Claus.