Christians, in the same way as members of other faith communities, pray. What we mean by this is on one level very simple: it means being in communication with God. But as soon as we say this it raises a huge number of questions – how, why, when, and many more.
Communication is, of course, one of the things that humans do and in very sophisticated ways. It doesn’t always involve speaking. We communicate through speech but also through writing and gesture and sign.
Communication can be a physical as well as an intellectual thing. Those of us who have been ‘taught’ to pray may have been told, ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’. We sit cross-legged on the floor of the assembly room and concentrate hard as the teacher or the vicar says a prayer. Is this really praying?
Well, of course it is. You don’t have to put your hands together, you don’t have to close your eyes, you don’t have to listen to someone else saying a prayer and simply say Amen. But all these things have a part to play as we grow into people who pray.
At one point in the Gospel stories the disciples ask ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. What the Gospel doesn’t tell us is that Jesus said anything about sitting still and closing your eyes but instead he taught them words to pray. Christians call these words ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, the ‘Our Father’, and that prayer has been repeated ever since.
Every moment of every day, everywhere, someone will be whispering this prayer, saying it silently, shouting it out loud. One saint described it as a ‘compendium of prayer’, by which they meant that it contains everything that we should be praying about. It is the perfect prayer.
But you don’t need words and your prayer doesn’t need to be perfect. You can pray simply by lighting a candle and remembering someone or something, and placing that prayer and that person and that candle before God; the candle will keep the prayer alive as you walk away.
You can pray by sitting quietly and just listening for the sound of God, because communication is always two way. You can pray with a congregation of people in church saying words that we know off by heart, together, as a community.
You can say prayers with as few words or as few thoughts as it needs. ‘God, help me’ is as powerful a prayer as the long and agonised prayers of the saints. You can pray as some do with a phrase you repeat over and over again. You can pray by simply saying the name ‘Jesus’.
What is important, as in any relationship, is that we keep talking; what we say is secondary. We need also to realise that we’re entering into a mystery, an adventure, which is just what the English poet George Herbert did as he tried every picture, every description he could think of to explain prayer and concludes it all by saying:
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.