What is Prayer?

Not so long ago I walked into church one Sunday and I was asked to confirm that I was doing the prayers – and I had completely forgotten!  My stomach sank.  Fortunately enough equilibrium returned for me to scribble thoughts during the scripture readings and  the sermon.  Improvised prayer is an art and not one in which I am practised.

So what is prayer?  Improvised thoughts or deep reflection?  Beautifully crafted and memorable phrases, or earnest petitions?  Do we sit or do we kneel?  Eyes closed or eyes open?  Hands together or resting in our laps? Is it something we only do on Sundays or do we pray every day? 

In the Church of England many beautiful prayers have been passed down to us.  Some through the Book of Common Prayer and its successors.  We have the weekly collects for each season – our weekly collective prayer.  But is prayer only about beautiful language read out to us, or chanted together?  Often so familiar that we may not even notice what we are saying.

And what is our relationship with God when we pray?  How do we address him – as our Heavenly Father, our Lord, or just God?  Do we treat him – or ‘her’, even – rather like a slot machine?  Put in our request and out comes an answer or a solution to all our woes.

I’ve come to think that, like many things in life, prayer has something to do with attention and connection. As William James, the American philosopher, observed, “Reality is where you place your attention”.  At the moment of prayer our ideal, surely, is to be present with God, to connect and experience God, wherever we are and by whatever means.  And that means paying attention to this moment so that ‘God is and I am’.

Chris Dawson

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