Contemplative prayer comes fairly naturally to me, but I’ve never been attracted to or felt an aptitude for intercession (prayer for others) or for petition (prayer for self). In recent weeks I asked friends to pray for me, and the result was beautiful. Some responded with kind words or detailed commitments about how they would honor my request, such as by lighting a candle for me, adding me to their daily prayers, or putting something that reminds them of me on their home altar. Others responded with offers of help or ideas for ways I could improve my situation. All of this was most welcome, and I felt seen and loved. My mind became more spacious, and I could see options that were not apparent before.
Would the result have been the same if I asked people to think kind thoughts about me? Maybe, but my feeling is that calling it prayer, calling on the Divine Friend, added a richness to the human friendship being expressed, as divine as that is. We ought not to separate divine and human too finely.
As someone who appreciates science, I am curious about the mechanism of action for prayer. For there to be a causal relationship, scientific method tells us, one event should precede the other: pray first, then watch for effects. There are other criteria in scientific method, but the time relationship is the one I want to look at here. For prayer to be effective, the result should come after the prayer.
The human mind has a certain convention for experiencing time. In fact, we have many conventions that vary across cultures. Not only is there the matter of scale- geologic time as opposed to internet time- there is the matter of how time is felt in the body, how the mind arranges events in relation to each other. Not only is the human experience of time highly varied and complex, the explanation of time given by physicists adds another level of complexity.
We can only know what we know from the perspective of our own individual mind. Our ignorance is therefore infinite, for we cannot hold all data in the mind simultaneously. From a theological point of view, God is infinite, working with time yet not subject to it. Scientific method may not be able to answer the riddle of prayer.
Prayer emerges from the need to pray. It is not a contract with God, not a commodified exchange. Intercession and petition “work” the same way that praise, thanksgiving, adoration, contemplation, or other kinds of prayer “work:” we have a need to lay ourselves before God as nakedly as we can. When I pray for my own needs and those of others, I am learning, it is because I need to call out to the Friend about those needs. It’s not that God does anything differently because of my prayer, nor even that I am changed. I pray for things for myself and others so I can bring my needs into the light and not be so alone with them.
To someone who feels no need to pray, or who is hostile to the idea, this sounds like having an imaginary friend, mere projection of needs and wants onto the sky. I cannot defend against that charge, and I have my own frustration at not knowing how prayer “works.” or even what is meant by prayer “working.” Yet the urge to pray persists, despite the objections of the discursive mind, which has only its own point-of-view and makes its own excessive claims. Praying opens up space for love. That is why I pray now.