by Jack McLean

“Strive to make all your actions beautiful prayers.” ‘Abdu’l-Baha

The Pew Research Centre US Survey (2014)

Prayer is a specifically religious activity. As a prescribed, normative activity, it figures into the regular practice of the followers of all the world’s major religions. According to religious editor, Michael Lipka, in a 2014 survey done by the Pew Research Centre on the habit of prayer in the US, 55% of Americans say they pray daily; 21% say they pray weekly or monthly; 23% say they seldom or never pray.

Although some atheists have been known to pray in life-threatening emergencies, according to the Pew survey, even among those who had no formal religious affiliation, 20% say they pray daily. Interestingly, women (64%) are more inclined to pray daily than men (46%). These percentages gratified my hunch that women may be intrinsically more religious than men. Seniors are far more likely than adults under 30 to pray daily (65% vs. 41%).

Now I extend my apologies to all good Canadians, but I could not find in my time-limited Internet research any comparable Canadian figures on the practice of prayer. I frankly don’t know if the US figures are roughly comparable to the Canadian population, but I suspect that prayer is more widespread in the US than in Canada.

The figures may look surprisingly high to some readers of this column, in light of the fact that the land south of the border has come to symbolize worship of the Almighty Dollar and to epitomize crass materialism, “glitz and glamour”. (Let’s not forget that in Canada the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; we share the same media-culture and lifestyle). But they do demonstrate that prayer, despite the heavy sway of this materialistic, secular age, persists as a deep-seated spiritual drive.

The Bible Belt

Despite the current vogue of “new atheists” that is also passing our way in print and on the lecture circuit–the big four are Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett–we should not forget the presence of that sizeable swath of US believers in the “Bible Belt.” The Bible Belt is undoubtedly boosting the figures on prayer in the US.

This large region, located in the south-central and south-eastern regions of the US, still retains, to a large extent, the soul of a church because of the active presence of the various evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant churches, particularly Baptist. In western nations, affluence typically correlates to the decline of religion, but not in the Bible Belt. I note in passing that all fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

Capacity to Pray and Types of Prayer

In order to begin to appreciate and to enjoy prayer, we need first of all to acquire the capacity to pray. To use a simple sports metaphor, prayer is the athletic training of devotional life. The weight-lifter acquires capacity by training, by gradually lifting heavier weights. We learn to pray by praying, just as we learn anything by doing.

We should distinguish personal prayer from congregational prayer. Some are content to pray only during a worship service once a week. But personal prayer, according to the US Pew Survey, involves just over half the population in that country, who say they pray daily. To return to the sports metaphor: daily exercise will benefit the soul more than weekly exercise.

Scholars have set out lists of various types of prayer. My prefered list includes the following 7 types which are not in any rank-order:

  1. Petition, asking God for something.
  2. Intercession, praying through the intermediary of another soul. Note: This type of prayer is not exclusively reserved for Roman Catholics.
  3. Praise and thanksgiving, thanking God for blessings.
  4. Ritual or obligatory prayer, prayer that is prescribed in a holy book, either for the individual’s devotions or community worship.
  5. Contemplative prayer, devotional prayer as high-thought.
  6. The prayer of discernment, asking God for the ability to make the right decision.
  7. The prayer of adoration, mystical prayer in which the seeker prays for communion with God alone.

In my view, the highest type of prayer is that which is promoted by adoration, i.e. the prayer that springs from no other desire than loving communion with God: seeking the presence of the Beloved.

Prayer as Action and Community Service

I have left out what is arguably the most important type of prayer–Action! I quoted ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), the third Central Figure of the Baha’i Faith, at the head of this column: “Strive to make all your actions beautiful prayers.”

If all our prayers consist of one or more of the 7 types of prayer, then we fail to realize one of the essential purposes of prayer: to transform ourselves, and just as importantly to transform our families and our communities. Prayer or meditation without social action is incomplete. The more severely-minded, practically oriented among us would argue that prayer without action is useless.

If all our prayers are prayers of petition only, then something is seriously lacking in our spiritual attitude. Even if our most ardent desires are not granted–sometimes the wisest answer to prayer is “No”–we can still find abundant reasons to be thankful.

Francis St. George Spendlove (1897-1962), the art historian and former curator of the Canadiana Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum, and wise spiritual mentor to those living in my parents’ generation, used to say to friends and audiences in the 1950’s: “Be careful what you pray for, you may get it.” I don’t know with certainty if George Spendlove originated this saying, but it contains a profound truth.

Sometimes we long for something with great passion, not realizing that were we to receive what we long for, the “gift” may turn out to be something positively harmful to our moral and spiritual development. Our wishes and desires should also be accompanied by the Prayer of Discernment.

For those who wish to study the history and psychology of prayer, I highly recommend Friedrich Heiler’s (1892-1967) beautiful,classical study, Prayer: A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion. (English translation from the German 1932).

Email Jack: jackmclean999@gmail.com