How do/does prayer and meditation differ?
January 15, 2008 4:45 PM   Subscribe

What are you thinking about when you pray?

Although raised as a Protestant by parents so devoute they tithe 10% to their church, I didn't get any useful instruction on prayer growing up, so it's always been rather a mystery to me. Nor have I had any instruction in meditation so forgive me if the comparison is offensive, but I'm all for regular periods of quiet self-reflection...isn't
that what meditation's all about? But actual prayer's allegedly communication with your diety -- well, for me that's always been like the scene at the end of "Cool Hand Luke" -- the line's open, I'm talking, but never hear any response. At this point the more transcendent say things like "I see signs of God all around" but what's happening in your head when you're praying?

I know some maybe-younger Christians treat it like a session with Santa Claus, concentrating hard on wishes -- for others (if generous) or (if selfish) for themselves. "Dear God/Santa please give me the bike/girl" but I personally gave up on all that very early on since it
never seemed to affect actual outcomes.

But when others pray, they're often reciting litanies of one type or another, either mentally or out loud. Of course this is what's going on during church services, when prayer is directed.

And of course there's the type like me, at the church service with my parents during Christmas or Easter, just going along to get along, waiting for the Jesus nonsense to be over with. It's my opinion that a significant percentage of any congregation has this mind-set, but would never admit this to their more pious family members, as the result would be ostracization from the fellowship, and the reason they're there's for the social benefits.

So how about you? Are you in dialog with your savior during prayer? Does repeating a mantra make things better?
posted by Rash to Religion & Philosophy (36 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I always ask for the safety, health and happiness of my kids. I also ask for the insight (or nudge) to help someone if I can help them.

When I say Hail Marys or Our Fathers, it's kind of a comforting thing. Sounds kind of OCD, maybe, but the repitition seems to kind of calm me.

I am Catholic, if that interests you. My parents were not very devout.
posted by beachhead2 at 4:48 PM on January 15, 2008

I would ask for the safety of my friends and family, I was raised Methodist by the way.
posted by carefulmonkey at 4:57 PM on January 15, 2008

For me, it is having a conversation. The difference is that God knows everything I am going to say, plus what I am thinking, to boot.

"Asking for things" is only a small part of praying, really. Praising Him (like one would a cherished lover, altho of course there are major differences here too), thanking Him for things He has done for me, praying for others, asking for forgiveness and help, stuff like that. But part of praying is also listening for the still small voice, as He speaks back. Through His word, through His thoughts in my thoughts, through inner knowings, through the peace He gives-He has many ways of speaking back. Unlimited, actually.

One cool thing about prayer is that ideally it is simply spending time and strengthening the most important Relationship of all. It is not just saying stuff out loud into the air while you think about what to have for dinner tonight.
posted by konolia at 4:57 PM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Family and those less fortunate than myself.
posted by fire&wings at 5:05 PM on January 15, 2008

Well, for me personally, there are two kinds of prayer:

1) Communal prayer - in which you pray in front of, or over, or with other people. This kind of prayer is more about the community than the prayer, to me. Which doesn't diminish its value: some of the times I have most felt a divine presence have been in the midst of group prayer.

2) Private prayer - I used to use words for this. I liked prayers written by other people (mostly the BCP) or sometimes poems, or lines from holy texts, or I would just say - silently, or aloud - what was on my mind. Over the past few years, my experience of personal prayer has become less language- and goal-oriented, and, I guess, more meditation-like.

Recently someone said to me that "God is in the space between two thoughts", and that matches my experience. I am mildly shy of admitting this in the not very religion-friendly space that is MetaFilter, but I have had some sort of ecstatic experiences in this kind of prayer, where it felt like the top of my head was going to fly off. (Only in a good way.) I experience it as making connection with the divine force, as opposed to talking at it.

So what is happening in my head? Not much. If I have a thought, I try to let it go without judgment. Another thought, I let it go. I don't really ask for things at that time. Or if I do, it would be something like "Help me settle into this".

You know that line from Psalms, "Be still and know that I am God"? That's how I mostly employ personal prayer: to be silent in the presence of God. I think that my wants and needs are pretty constantly being broadcast by my overactive brain, and being quiet for a while is where it's at.

I'm an Episcopalian, but not a particularly traditional one. How I pray would probably make more sense to a Buddhist.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 5:09 PM on January 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

i am an athiest, but i was raised jewish. prayer, at least in my community's tradition, was mostly a celebration of god, although there were also prayers for health, healing, peace, and sanctification. the kaddish, the jewish prayer of mourning, is particularly illustrative, in that it does not commend the soul to earth or god, or even mention death at all. it simply praises god.

i've found the value of prayer, for me, is that it organizes my breathing and my thinking. probably because jewish prayers are also in hebrew, not my native tongue, it forces me to slow down and concentrate on the words. it puts my breathing into a rhythm and it calms me. it's probably not terribly different from a mantra repeated during meditation.

whether that opens the line to god or simply inner peace, well, that's between me and god, and you and god. not between you and me. :)
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:18 PM on January 15, 2008

I just finished reading “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” by A. J. Jacobs and he talks about the awkwardness of praying when you never do it and the types of prayers that there are . He starts with thankfulness and has to force it at the beginning but soon finds that and other prayers quite fulfilling. Plus it is a fun read. Not as LOL-Bible-Laws-Are-Silly as I thought. Especially since he's agnostic. I think it would be a good one to pick up as he addresses exactly that.

@thehmsbeagle: I find that interesting that you mention the top of the head experience. Jacobs describes a moments that happen to him exactly like that.
posted by beautifulcheese at 5:24 PM on January 15, 2008

I use it as a time to give thanks for the blessings in my life.
posted by Ugh at 5:27 PM on January 15, 2008

Born Southern Baptist, went to Catholic School. For me and my current belief system, thankfulness is the greatest statement to God, so that is what I do when I pray, first and foremost I express gratitude and try not to ask for things outright. In situations when one would pray for someone (a sick friend, the safety of family, etc.) I don't pray for specific outcomes, but that God gives them the words and shows them the steps. I often do that for myself, as a matter of fact, so that it's not about things magically happening for someone, but that they (or I) may be able to work (via words or actions) through things on their own.

Having said that, I do have a few prayers that I've memorized over the years, either learned in church or written on my own, that do bring me comfort, mostly because they remind me of people or places that are close to my heart -- or out of habit.
posted by SoulOnIce at 5:36 PM on January 15, 2008

Hello, devout Christian here who tries to tithe 10% also. When I pray, I understand that I am talking to the Almighty. I understand that because of that, my words are serious and have meaning. I pray with that in mind. I do not pray shallow things or things that I really do not feel or believe. God, if anyone, would know if I'm trying to put on a show. I try my best not to pray things just because I think I should. That time of prayer is between the Father and I. I do not repeat mantras.

If you want to know how one prays, just read scripture. Read the Psalms. Read how much in anguish people are praying when they are in trouble, when they don't understand. Read Jesus' prayer to the Father when Jesus is about to be crucified. "Take this cup away from me." There is nothing one can hide when they pray. If you feel absolutely indifferent towards Him, I would suggest that if you're trying to pray, say that. If you don't believe that He is there, you probably wouldn't be trying to pray in the first place.

I have no idea what people think about when they meditate. When I pray, I am communicating, be it talking aloud or in my head. My thoughts are aligned with what I am saying, just as much as they would be if I were communicating with any regular person.

Most Christians will tell you that God speaks back. I am not sure if I have ever heard Him audibly but most of the time, I don't hear anything. I do however, feel that the communication lines are open- both ends are at the very least, listening.
posted by pinksoftsoap at 5:48 PM on January 15, 2008

i'm having whatever conversation it is that i feel i need or want to have with god when i pray. no matter what i end up talking about with him though, i will always include three things in prayer: gratefulness, thanks for the life i have been given and asking for the fortitude to carry on when things are hard, and forgiveness for my mistakes.
posted by violetk at 5:49 PM on January 15, 2008

My prayers involve several parts: thankfulness for the blessings in my life, big and small (family, spouse, job, whatever good things happened to me that day), then I treat it as a conversation and talk about any difficulties I am having. I don't usually say "please give me this or that" but I might ask for greater endurance, understanding, patience, etc to help see me through my troubles. I think praying makes me a better person--it forces me to acknowledge all the good that is in my life, and to step outside of my narrow box to see a larger perspective.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 5:51 PM on January 15, 2008

I pray for the wisdom and compassion to end suffering (my own and others'). I'm buddhist so I'm not really praying to a God. It's more like affirming to myself that I can be a better person and make the right decisions. Unlike (most?) Christian prayers, thankfulness is rarely a part of my repertoire. Not that I'm not grateful for what I have, it's just there's no conception of an external force to be grateful TO.
posted by desjardins at 5:59 PM on January 15, 2008

I pray every now and again. Lapsed Christian and all that.

It's mostly a thank you thing that starts big and winds it's way back to the small things. So I say thanks for a bewildering Universe and galaxies that swirl and stars that supernova and planets that spin around and for an Earth to live on and a moon in the sky to look at through my window and air to breathe and water to drink and the food in my belly that day and the laughs shared with friends and the roof over my head and the warm bed I lie in and a job to go to in the morning. Then I kinda get political and ask that those with power use it properly and that everyone awake or asleep will be ok and if they're not then that they have strength to get through their hardships. I ask for those in pain to have their pain eased and this scared to have no fear. And then I get personal and ask good things for family and friends. And then I sneak in some selfish stuff cos, you know, I've done all the unselfish praying stuff but ultimately this is why I'm here. And I usually round off with a respectful chiding as I'm not entirely convinced the whole Great Scheme is going entirely to plan and if it is why is the place such a mess. And just before I say an Amen I concede that I can barely run a bath successfully so what do I know. Then I say Amen.

The whole thing can take a while but I'm usually lying down in bed in the dark so it's quite comfortable. I feel very relaxed afterwards and drop off to sleep easily. I used to pray in a more orthodox manner but this way I don't feel like I'm bullshitting and it makes me feel better cos if Anyone was listening I'm sure They'd know.
posted by brautigan at 6:05 PM on January 15, 2008 [8 favorites]

I subscribe to the Anne Lamott school of prayer. "Help me, help me, help me" and "thank you, thank you, thank you", wash, rinse, repeat. Best for me in a dark room with a lighted candle in front of me. So call it meditation, call it prayer, call it self-examination. Doesn't matter. I'll call it prayer cause that works for me. Can relate to the "top of the head" experience and enjoy it when it happens.
posted by jeanmari at 6:26 PM on January 15, 2008

Prayer is 10% talking and 90% listening. If you want to experience God in your life, you have to listen (aka meditate). Sometimes I will picture myself as being a giant ear, and just hold that vision. Other times, I am just moved with joy. Silence really *is* golden.
posted by dhammala at 6:35 PM on January 15, 2008

When I read your question the first thing that came to mind was The Year of Living Biblically because, as beautifulcheese said, he really wrestles with prayer.

Personally, my prayer life is all over the map. I was raised in church, I now work for a church so I feel like I should be some kind of prayer master by now, but I'm not. I've had a few powerful moments of connection through prayer but mostly I have the feeling of putting everything out there and waiting for a response. It's interesting because I don't get frustrated by the lack of immediate response like I do when my husband doesn't respond to me immediately. I guess I accept it as a given going in. What I've found is that I eventually get responses (directly or indirectly) but that most of the responses I get take place outside of my prayer time.

So what's in my head when I pray? Much of the time I'm trying to push back all the outside thoughts. I'm fighting to stay focused. I lose that battle a lot but on my good days, I even use that struggle as fodder for my prayer and ask for the focus I need (some days I have to ask repeatedly!).

A few months ago I was at a conference where they made us spend a good chunk of time in contemplative prayer, focusing our thoughts on a single Bible verse. The first day, I tried as hard as I could but I was distracted by everything around me. The second day, I fell asleep. On the third day, something clicked. I don't know what I did differently that day; I've struggled to recreate that moment. And in fact, the next day, I was back to where I was on day one.

So I'm a person that just can't figure out how to connect with God through long prayers. My coworkers can and do but it's just beyond me. Instead, it's more like I treat God like my constant companion. All day long I turn to him and share what I feel, whether it's a moment of thankfulness or a request for his help. I'm still trying to learn how to do the sustained prayer thing but I guess I'm a slow learner.
posted by wallaby at 6:38 PM on January 15, 2008

Derrida says some cool things about prayer here, if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 6:46 PM on January 15, 2008

(And by that sort of thing I mean Derrida, not prayer; obviously you're interested in prayer or you wouldn't be asking the question.)
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 6:47 PM on January 15, 2008

I personally like to say the Prayer of St. Francis before bed and when I first wake up. It's the one that starts with "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace." I focus intensely on the words and what they mean to me in my life. At other times of the day, I thank God for simple things like meals, living in a country with a high standard of living, or ask for strength or faith. I don't usually ask God for material things unless it's a matter of life or death. Meditation, for me, is clearing out my mind and simply refreshing myself spiritually by not letting my thoughts or worries influence me.

For what it matters, I'm a Presbyterian (USA) and my Christianity is very liberal (I'm pro-gay marriage).
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:48 PM on January 15, 2008

I don't recall where I heard this story, and I really think it must be apocryphal, but I've always liked it.

Allegedly an interviewer once asked Mother Theresa what she said when she prayed. She said something like "I just listen." So he asked what God said to her. She said something like "He just listens too. And if you don't understand that, then I can't explain it to you."

I think that about sums it up.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:04 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recently read the book "Compassion" by Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison and it has a view of prayer that is totally new to me.

"...we have accepted the idea that doing things is more important than prayer and have come to think of prayer as something for times when there is nothing more urgent to do."

The chapter goes on describe prayer as a discipline that encourages us to patience and stillness.

" involves the ongoing struggle to prevent our minds and hearts from becoming cluttered with the many distractions that clamor for our attention....Having become free, through discipline, to listen patiently to God's Spirit...we come to the awareness of all the things Jesus said and did"

"The ordinary and proper response to our world is to turn on the radio, open the newspaper, go to another movie, talk, to more people, or look impatiently for new attractions and distractions."

"...but real prayer brings us closer to our brothers and sisters...because prayer is also the first expression of human solidarity."

The authors identify God's Spirit that we recognize in ourselves through the discipline of prayer as what makes us brothers and sisters and brings us to unity. Since reading this book, I have tried to find everyday time for prayer, which for me is becoming still and becoming aware of the people around me as brothers and sisters.
posted by francesca too at 7:15 PM on January 15, 2008

Answering the question, I think meditation is almost totally different to prayer.

Generalising, there are two main forms of meditation:

One is about stilling the mind, and stopping thoughts from arising (or if they arise, just letting them slip away). This might be achieved with some visualisation (eg a candle flame), or without visualisation, but the goal is a one-pointed concentration on, well, basically nothing. It might also be achieved by repeating a mantra (which is a bit like a prayer, essentially a string of words like "om mani padme hum") whose purpose, imho, is really just to crowd out any other thoughts from arising.

The other form (which requires the first as a foundation) is a visualisation meditation, eg imagining a form of the Buddha, with various gestures & accoutrements & so on, each with symbolic meaning. This might even be animated (a pink cloud appears, out of this cloud two radiant diamonds arise, which become the Buddha's eyes...) this has prayer-like aspects, because you might (eg) imagine rainbows of light rays pouring out of the Buddha, and these travel all over the world & bring comfort to sentient beings, but it's still different to prayer, I think, because you're not specifically *asking* for this to happen, but simply seeing it in your mind, as if it is already going on.

Prayer, in my experience, is more like the telephone line mentioned above: "hey, it's me! look, my granny's sick & if you make her better I'll promise to be good. oh, and you are big. really really big. i mean really really really big. gosh, we're all impressed down here..."

Having said that, there are meditative traditions within Christianity, in monasticism, for example, but also in more modern reinterpretations of the Christian worship. You might like to look up Thomas Merton's writings on this topic.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:29 PM on January 15, 2008

When I go to church, the entire ritual engulfs me. The prayer is not just in the prayers, but also in the chanting before mass (three hymns) the listening to the story, the lesson, the giving of the tithe, the shaking hands with others after the gifting, holding hands all together singing the final hymn. It is an hour well spent, a very different level of prayer - multiplied - when I am with others.

Alone, the prayer is personal: part meditation, part gratitude, part asking for help. Depending on life's circumstances I'm either asking for a lot of help, or saying thank you a lot, or just thinking nothing and saying nothing and just counting my breaths. Prayer can take place quietly in the living room with the lights of the city dancing below, or on the slopes of a mountain as my skis carve another edge, or walking on misty forest trails.

All I know is that I don't pray enough, not often enough. Life gets in the way - as it does - and I wish I would make more time. It's a different level of conversation, and it will take me a lifetime to get it right ... if that, if ever.

@nebulawindphone, that was a beautiful quote from Mother Theresa.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:50 PM on January 15, 2008

I've been going to an Eastern Orthodox church for several months and studying Orthodoxy for a bit longer, and one prayer the Orthodox often use is called the Jesus Prayer. It's a way to follow St. Paul's instructions to "pray unceasingly". Basically, it consists of the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner", although there can be shorter or longer versions of it. Through repeating this prayer as often as we can, we seek to push other thoughts out of our minds while focusing more and more on God until you reach a point where the prayer "says itself" - becomes a constant rhythm in your heart, more or less.

Here's a little more information from
Because prayer is a living reality, a deeply personal encounter with the living God, it is not to be confined to any given classification or rigid analysis. However, in order to offer some broad, general guidelines for those interested in using the Jesus Prayer to develop their inner life, Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Prayer:

1. It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a simple recitation which Theophan defines as prayers' "verbal expression and shape." Although very important, this level of prayer is still external to us and thus only the first step, for "the essence or soul of prayer is within a man's mind and heart."

2. As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a level at which we begin to pray without distraction. Theophan remarks that at this point, "the mind is focused upon the words" of the Prayer, "speaking them as if they were our own."

3. The third and final level is prayer of the heart. At this stage prayer is no longer something we do but who we are. Such prayer, which is a gift of the Spirit, is to return to the Father as did the prodigal son (Luke 15:32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit that cries 'Abba, Father!'" (Gal. 4:6).

posted by flod logic at 7:56 PM on January 15, 2008

For me, meditation is trying to still the mind. To just allow thoughts to rise and fall without attaching to them. The school of thought closest to mine (currently, it changes) is the Insight Meditation Society (your local branch) which teaches a school of Buddhist meditation. They are here, and lots of dharma talks or discussions to various topics including an introduction to meditation is at Dharma Seed.

Prayer is another matter. I turned away from prayer when I was young because my prayers were always of the form "God, let X happen." I now think this is not such a great prayer. When I pray free form, if you will, I pray for knowledge of gods will for me and the power to carry it out. Thats it.

Sort of in between meditation and prayer is repeating other people's prayers. I chant something I learned from my first yoga teacher for my daughter when she is in bed, and chant the same thing or some krishna das sanskrit chants on my own sometimes.
Favorite prerolled prayers the St. Francis Prayer
The so-called Serenity prayer
This one I asked about a couple of years ago.
The metta sutra

I have no idea how it works. But it does.

Good luck. With an open mind and open heart you can't go wrong.
posted by shothotbot at 8:00 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

What an interesting question! I find it a wonderful thing for someone to ask. Congrats on even considering it.

I too am a protestant. I guess you're right, that we don't communicate how to pray. I don't remember anyone teaching me and sadly I've not taught my children - which I will rectify soon enough since you brought this up.

It's important to note first, that I'm not the best Christian in the world. I don't practice it the way that I should but I truly believe and that's the key in the end, despite Christian-phobics beliefs.

I remember a passage in the Bible about Solomon. Solomon prayed for wisdom, and God was very pleased that he didn't ask for wealth or power, only wisdom. Solomon's prayer was granted for that reason. It is that passage that has guided my prayers.

I pray for everyone I know, that they remain healthy, happy and find Him. I pray for His guidance in all matters (to be a good mother, sister, aunt, wife, friend, employee, boss, etc. - all my roles in life), to make the right decisions and to do right for others.

I pray for whomever or whatever happens to come to mind. Earlier, I was reminded of (I had heard of it before) this really amazing program where prisoners raise dogs to become service dogs for the blind. I then prayed for those prisoners, the dogs and the person who will get one.

Here in Mobile, the current horrific news headline is about a man (Lam Luong) who threw his 4 children (all under the age of 3) over an 80 foot bridge - alive - into the Mobile Bay and which naturally killed them. I have prayed for the poor mother of those children, the family and friends of those children and for anyone in similar situations many times since this has happened.

It's all very personal and what you want to share with God. To get used to it, just begin talking to Him as though you're writing in your journal. For instance, I told Him how I can't understand how horrible people, like Lam Luong, could do such things. I've even told Him that I sometimes have doubts, but that I do know He is there. It's just hard sometimes. It's just talking sometimes too.

The serenity prayer and other's like it are all well and good, but if it doesn't come from the heart it's not much help.

Goodness knows I'm no expert, but I can say that when I pray, I am a much happier person, I feel better, and honestly I'm more healthy. There have been actual scientific studies that have shown this to be true. Even if it's not "prayer" but so called "mediation" (same thing) it's beneficial.

Good luck to you! If you're interested in further reading, this article might help. :)
posted by magnoliasouth at 8:25 PM on January 15, 2008

Prayer can be a means of remembering and being thankful for the people in your life. This can include the people you feel good about, and also the people you don't always get along with. Invoking blessings on (or, if you will, thinking positive thoughts toward) people has a positive effect, even if the effect is sometimes only mediated thru you, in the way that you may act toward those people.

In terms of internal verbalization, if that's necessary, it can be as simple as, "Bless X, bless Y, bless Z", etc. That way you leave the details of exactly what blessings persons X, Y, and Z should get up to the Almighty. It's not about trying to solve other people's problems or dictate to God what God should do for them.

Others have already mentioned another significant form of prayer: thankfulness. Again, it can be very simple: a list of thanks for just about anything and anyone in your life. Whatever your concept of God, or the ultimate power(s) behind the universe, may be, we all owe almost every aspect of our lives to forces beyond our control. Reminding myself of this is usefully humbling (because it puts my own puny "achievements" in perspective) yet also comforting (because when I really take stock and consider what I have, I see how incredibly fortunate I am).

I view meditation as a separate, but related, discipline from prayer... more about calming the mind and finding inner peace.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 8:56 PM on January 15, 2008

I never found praying much different than hoping. Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, anyone can hope something happens. If I am in a religious building for a baptism or bar mitzvah or wedding or whatever, when asked to pray silently I usually say to myself, "Self, I hope I have the strength to know what is right and to act upon it. I also hope my family is safe, healthy and prosperous." Then I look around at the decorations or the lady's dresses or something similarly distracting. I rarely follow the service. During the talking parts of the service I usually try to envision my life in 5 years. Positive vibes. No negative waves.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:05 PM on January 15, 2008

Practicing Presbyterian, tithe and all that - but I'm pretty sure that's not what makes a Christian.

I'd recommend "With Christ in the School of Prayer." It follows on and elaborates on Jesus' explanations of prayer to the disciples - its purposes, how to do it, etc..

A lot of Christian denominations teach the ACTS method of prayer:

Adoration - Expressing love for God (assuming you have some)
Contrition - Repenting / seeking forgiveness for failing to live up to said love
Thanksgiving - This one is where it starts to get easier for me
Supplication - Asking for things is where you'll end up spending the majority of your time

For me, prayer isn't so much something I sit down and fold the hands to do. Frankly I can barely do it at all in the context of a church. Its more of something I try to keep in my head during the day. Offering up my hopelessness on the latest relationship failure as I'm driving to work. Thanking God for a direct trip on the elevator instead of stopping at every floor when I'm late. Wow that view sure is pretty cool, you sure are awesome for thinking of that. I'm angry at this person, he really lied to me - now what? I can't sleep - why not? Etc.

As with most things, better people before me have stated it more eloquently:

There is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in our praying, and praying to a known God, revealed through Israel and Jesus Christ, who speaks our language. The first is a lot more fun, the second is a lot more important. The Psalms were not prayed by people trying to understand themselves. They are not the record of people searching for the meaning of life. They were prayed by people who understood that God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings was the center. God, not their souls was the issue. God, not the meaning of life was critical. Feelings, souls, and meanings were not excluded—they are very much in evidence—but they are not the reason for the prayers. Human experiences might provoke the prayers, but they do not condition them. It is not simply a belief in God that conditions these prayers…but a doctrine of God. We would rather pray by exploring our own deep spiritual capacities, with God as background music…without bothering with the tedium and complexity of the Scriptures. But if we elect the Psalms to train us in prayer, these are the conditions in which we will be working…Left to ourselves, we will pray to some God who speaks what we like hearing…but what is critical is that we speak to the God who speaks to us. The Psalms train us in that conversation. – Eugene Peterson, Answering God

Prayer – secret, fervent, believing prayer – lies at the root of all personal godliness. – William Carey

To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives. The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ. – Richard Foster

I can very much relate to the feeling of talking to God and not really hearing anyone else on the other end of the line. I'm not really sure we're supposed to "hear" anything - I think we've built up a lot of misconceptions around what we should and should not experience as a part of prayer. For me, its more of just getting my heart in the right place / being in the right state of mind. Beyond that, no expectations. And the times that I've been more earnest about it have been some of my best. But I'm a stupid little human so its still a struggle to get there, most of the time.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:20 PM on January 15, 2008


Were I to take up a religious belief, then while praying, I would think of nothing. Because there is nothing I could say that my god did not already know. There is no meaningful information that could flow from me to my god. Any god worth worshipping already knows exactly what I am, what I want, what I deserve and has decided what, if anything, to give and to do to me. I would therefore think of nothing, or some visualization equivalent to nothing (the endless desert, the "white-gold glow", the stark emptiness of space, the single sound filling the void), and await my instructions.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:07 PM on January 15, 2008

I was raised Quaker. For me these moments are about experiencing gratitude, and asking for help in becoming a better human being.
posted by itstheclamsname at 5:18 AM on January 16, 2008

What a fascinating question, and what fascinating answers.

I was raised in various types of Protestant churches... Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist. I never really saw much difference (as a child) besides the different ways they sang. I don't recall "how to pray" ever being addressed, besides having to learn The Lord's Prayer. But I've always prayed.

As a child I prayed for very specific things... I have always had health problems and tried to pray them away on many occasions. Then my grandfather died about ten years ago. For days I drove around listening to angry music and basically praying. I was pissed at God and told him so and questioned how he could take someone so important to me out of my life. The one day, I just heard him. Sort of. I felt a wave of peace come over me, and had the realization that everything was going to be okay, if I just opened myself up to the unexpected changes in my life and sought positive results from each of them.

Since that day, prayer has been different for me, but, reading these responses, I see that I'm not alone. More than anything I'm expressing gratitude for my world and my life. And then asking for strength and wisdom for myself and for those around me. And then usually more gratitude and wonder, as I'm living a life I never expected and am amazed that I've made it to such a happy place. I don't know... praying to me is like talking to a father... or a Father, if you will. :) Telling him what's on my mind, and making sure he knows I appreciate what he's doing, and I guess asking for advice, almost. Even though I don't know exactly who or what I'm praying to, I know it's my God, and I know that praying gives me peace.
posted by uvaleg at 6:06 AM on January 16, 2008

When I was younger (6/7 to 14/15) and was being brought up as a Catholic I used to use time for prayer as a time to just contemplate my life and the lives of people important to me. I would try and think of ways to help friends and family if I could or just hope that their problems would go away.

I didn't think of it as communication with a deity after I was about 6 or 7, and now I don't "pray" at all, but do still occasionally sit and think about things in a similar fashion.
posted by knapah at 1:29 PM on January 16, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers. I recall another aspect of prayer which I read about in Nevil Shute's Round the Bend which featured a prophet/engineer who suggested many quick micro-prayers, throughout the working day -- for example, as you finish tightening a bolt, ask if the torque is correct.
posted by Rash at 2:55 PM on January 16, 2008

itstheclamsname: I was raised Quaker. For me these moments are about experiencing gratitude, and asking for help in becoming a better human being.

I don't pray very often, but I do understand the way I pray. I scanned this thread looking for someone who was similar to me, and was surprised at the amount of variation. Though a lot of people in this thread have discussed ways of praying that sound familiar to me, or make sense and sound like ways I'd pray if I committed more attention to it, nobody's said quite what I was scanning for. itstheclamsname came closest. I generally offer thanksgiving for the basic blessings in my life with recognition of the fortune I've had relative to many others. Then I ask for strength and wisdom in my upcoming or ongoing challenges, or other qualities which I'm in need of — caring in my relationships, for example.

This is because I don't want to presume to ask favors from God, and I'm not entirely convinced of an anthropomorphic God who's directly listening to my prayer and wants to help. But I do think that the act of praying can create changes in myself, and I think internalizing those positive thoughts is the actual point of the exercise.
posted by lostburner at 1:00 AM on January 25, 2008

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