Prayer can be personal and social, these two expressions often overlapping but not always. Sometimes we just pray alone, other times while gathered together.
Both types of prayer – personal and social – are almost always spiritual, be they couched in traditional religious terms or not.¹
In the social sense, prayer is a gathering where people call out to a higher power for some kind of favor, comfort or remembrance. Sometimes these merge with the state (as in televised, non-denominational ceremonies like Remembrance Day), other times not (as in specific, denominational services).
Prayers often petition or communicate with a deity, higher being or power, to include deceased ancestors (as in ancestor worship).
Ideally offered with humility, prayer can be highly structured or unscripted and spontaneous.
Devotees usually pray through spoken word, thought, writing and song. Prayer is also found in the arts, multi-media or merely as an act of the will.
Bodily posture may or may not be important to prayer. Some pray, for instance, kneeling while others dance, as with the whirling dervishes of Sufism. Others pray while sitting or lying down. Or maybe while holding a yoga posture.
Christians believe that the Our Father prayer is unique because it is the prayer that Jesus, God’s only Son, gave to the world (Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4).
Sometimes after weekday Mass parishioners will continue on, reciting many written Catholic prayers from a printed page. Clearly this is important to them but for me it can be distracting.
After receiving Jesus Christ in the Eucharist I would like some quiet time to reflect on that momentous experience. But apparently some Catholics still need to recite additional vocal prayers to feel close to God—even then.
At times like that I always remember the Biblical verse telling us not to reel off prayers like clanging a bell (my paraphrase of Matthew 6:7).
Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.
¹ Occasionally we hear the phrase “a whim and a prayer,” meaning we’re in a tight spot and only luck will see us through. Technically the word “whim” is wrong. The original phrase is “a wing and a prayer.” Professor Paul Brians explains this common mistake:
whim and a prayer / wing and a prayer
A 1943 hit song depicted a bomber pilot just barely managing to bring his shot-up plane back to base, “comin’ in on a wing and a prayer” (lyrics by Harold Adamson, music by Jimmy McHugh). Some people who don’t get the allusion mangle this expression as “a whim and a prayer.” Whimsicality and fervent prayerfulness don’t go together.
The beauty of English, however, is that it evolves in different ways. So if “whim and a prayer” works better in a given situation, I say use it!
Related » AUM, Michael Brown, Contemplation, Faith and Action, Fasting, Hail Mary Prayer, Holy Rosary, Intercession, Meditation, Mental Prayer, Saint Michael, Mysticism, Rosary, Serenity Prayer, Vocal Prayer
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