Prayer is a basic element of religious expression. According to a survey taken by Lutheran Brotherhood and reported in USA Today (February 7, 1997) Americans are great practitioners of prayer: 24 percent of those polled said that they prayed more than once a day; 31 percent prayed every day; 16 percent, several times a week; 10 percent, several times a month; 9 percent, several times a year.
For Christians worldwide the "perfect prayer" is the one that Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) gave to his apostles and which has been known for centuries as the Lord's Prayer: "And…as [Jesus] was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray as John [the Baptist] also taught his disciples. And he said unto them, "When ye pray, say,
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on Earth. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive everyone that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil" (Luke 11: 1–4, King James Version). [Matthew 6:13 adds: "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen."]
The Lord's Prayer has long been esteemed as without equal or rival as a prayer. "Short and mysterious," the seventeenth-century bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) declared, "and like the treasures of the Spirit, full of wisdom and latent senses."
Jesus prayed a great deal throughout the gospels. In addition to his giving of the well-known prayer quoted above, he prayed at his baptism (Luke 3:21), before he chose the Twelve (Luke 6:12), before his invitation to all humankind to "come unto" him (Matthew 11:25–27), at the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:11), before his Transfiguration (Luke 9:28–29), for little children (Matthew 19:13), at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26–27), in Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 36–44), and on the Cross (Luke 24:30) to name only some of the most significant prayers recorded by the gospel writers. But as often as Jesus declared that prayer could work mysteries and wonders, he also admonished his followers concerning the secret nature of the act of praying:
"When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men.… But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to the Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do, for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him" (Matthew 6: 5–8, King James Version).
In Islam prayer, salat is one of the five Pillars of Islam, and the true believer must say his prayers (salla) five times a day, as well as on special occasions. The set schedule of prayers—dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and nighttime—is strictly prescribed and regulated. There is another category of prayer, the du'a, which permits spontaneous expressions of supplication, petition, and intercession. The du'a may also be allowed after the uttering of the formal salat.
While many religions suggest that their supplicants fold their hands, bow their head, close their eyes, and so forth, the followers of Islam have many exact procedures that must be observed in their prayers. Before prayer, there is the ritual purification (tahara), which at the very least requires washing the face and the hands to the elbows, rubbing the head with water, and bathing the feet to the ankles. In addition, the mouth, nose, and teeth must receive a thorough cleansing. If water should be unavailable to someone on a journey or away from home, clean earth or sand may be substituted in an abbreviated ritual exercise of cleansing.
In a city or village, the call to prayer (Adhan) is announced from a minaret or tall building by a muezzin, a crier. When the worshippers have assembled, another crier issues the iqama in a rapid, but more subdued, voice, announcing that it is now time to begin the prayers. If the worshippers should be away from a city, a mosque, or a muezzin, they themselves may call out the two summons to prayer.
While it is desirable to pray in a mosque, when the supplicants find themselves away from a formal place of worship, they must attempt to find as clean an area as possible. Prayer rugs (saijada) are carried by many Muslims, but they are not an essential aspect of the ritual. It is essential to properly cover the body: males, at least from the navel to the knees; females, the entire body except for face, hands, and feet. It is also of utmost importance that wherever they may be, they face the Qiblah, the precise direction of Mecca. And while it is always preferable to perform the salat in the company of others, it is permissible under certain conditions to pray in private—except for the Friday congregational salat, which may never be performed alone.
Before kneeling on their prayer rugs, however, it is of the utmost importance that the supplicants perform a required number of bending and bowing postures (rak'as) with the appropriate accompanying phrases. There must be two rak'as at dawn, four at noon, four in the afternoon, three at sunset, and four at night.
Jewish liturgy did not begin to achieve its fixed form until the centuries after the destruction of the second temple, and the prayer book did not appear in its classical form until the Middle Ages. But spontaneous prayers are found throughout the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. To list only a few: the prayers of Abraham (Genesis 15:2–3), Isaac (Genesis 25:21–23), and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:9–13) petitioning God for an heir; Moses' prayers for plagues on the Egyptians (Exodus 8:12), for the Red Sea to part its waters (Exodus 14:21), for a glimpse of God's glory (Exodus 33:18), for Aaron's forgiveness after his sin of making the gold calf (Deuteronomy 9:20); Samson's prayer for strength to bring the columns down upon the Philistines (Judges 16:28–31); David's prayer to be forgiven for his immorality with Bathsheba (Psalms 51); Job's prayer to be forgiven for pride (Job 40:3–4; 42:6); Solomon's prayer for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5–9); Elijah's prayer for fire to consume the altars of Baal (1 Kings 18:36–37); Jabez's prayer for prosperity in his work (1 Chronicles 4:10).
There is a rich Jewish tradition that envisions angels carrying human prayers to heaven, and there is a belief that the entreaties of the righteous can more effectively intercede with God than ordinary mortals. As in the Christian and Islamic traditions, there are strict warnings against worshipping the angelic intercessors. God alone must be the sole and ultimate focus of all prayer.
In recent years, more and more doctors and scientists have begun to study the power that many religious men and women claim may be achieved by focusing their prayers upon God and asking healing for themselves or others. Dr. Larry Dossey (1940– ), author of Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (1993), recalled when he was doing his residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas, and had his first patient with a terminal case of cancer. Whenever he would stop by the man's hospital room, Dossey found him surrounded by visitors from his church, praying and singing. Dossey thought this was appropriate since they would soon be singing and praying at the man's funeral, because the cancer had spread throughout both lungs. A year later, when he was working elsewhere, Dossey learned from a colleague that the terminally ill patient was alive and well. When he had an opportunity to examine the man's X-rays, Dossey was stunned to see that his lungs were completely clear. There was no trace of cancer. Although Dossey had long since given up the faith of his childhood, it seemed to him that prayer had healed this man of his terminal cancer.
Intrigued, but devoted to the power of modern medicine, Dossey became chief of staff at a large urban hospital. He observed that many of his patients prayed, but he put little trust in the practice until he came across a study done in 1983 by Dr. Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital, in which half of a group of cardiac patients were prayed for and half were not. Those who were prayed for did better in a significant number of ways. Dossey could no longer ignore the evidence. The Byrd study had been designed according to rigid criteria. It had been a randomized, double-blind experiment—neither the patients, nurses, nor doctors knew which group the patients were in.
Inspired to search for other such experiments, Dossey was astonished to find more than 100 serious and well-conducted studies exhibiting the criteria of good science. About half demonstrated that prayer could bring about significant changes in those suffering from a variety of illnesses. Dossey has since given up the practice of medicine to devote himself full time to researching and writing about prayer and how it affects human health. His extensive studies have produced the following discoveries:
In June 2000, researchers at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina,
Critics of such studies accuse the researchers of making subjective judgments concerning patients or of injecting hope into the equation. Others say that the results of people praying for the sick are no greater than random chance.
But, in general, Americans believe that the power of prayer is beneficial for their health. A 1999 CBS News poll found that 80 percent of adult Americans believe prayer improves recovery from disease. In June 2001, a Gallup Poll revealed that 54 percent of adult Americans believed in spiritual healing.
The contemporary mystic Harold Sherman was firm in stating that one should never pray out of a sense of duty or obligation or habit. One should not make a ritual of getting a prayer over with as quickly as possible. Nothing is accomplished by rapidly mumbling a prayer without thought or feeling behind it. It is the feeling behind a prayer, Sherman advised, not the words thought or spoken, which gets through to God, to the cosmic consciousness level of the mind. In his book How to Solve Mysteries of Your Mind and Soul (1965), Sherman presented "Seven Secrets for Successful Prayer":
Benson, Herbert. Timeless Healing. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Dossey, Larry. Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. San Francisco: Harper-SanFrancisco, 1993.
Guideposts Associates. The Unlimited Power of Prayer. Carmel, N.Y.: Guideposts, 1968.
Humphrey, Nicholas. Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
Steiger, Sherry Hansen. The Power of Prayer to Heal and Transform Your Life. New York: Signet, 1997.