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Prayer (sometimes called orison) is an active effort to communicate with a deity or spirit either to offer praise, to make a request, seek guidance, confess sins, or simply to express one's thoughts and emotions. The words of the prayer may either be a set hymn or incantation, or a spontaneous utterance in the praying person's own words.
Forms of prayer
The great spiritual traditions offer a wide variety of devotional acts. There are morning and evening prayers, graces said over meals, and reverent physical gestures. Christians bow their heads and fold their hands. Native Americans dance. Sufis whirl. Hindus chant. Orthodox Jews sway their bodies back and forth. Quakers keep silent.
Among these methodologies are a variety of approaches to understanding prayer:
- The belief that the finite can actually communicate with the infinite;
- The belief that the infinite is interested in communicating with the finite;
- The belief that the prayer is listened to and may or may not get a response;
- The belief that prayer is intended to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, rather than to influence the recipient;
- The belief that prayer is intended to train a person to focus on the recipient through philosophy and intellectual contemplation;
- The belief that prayer is intended to enable a person to gain a direct experience of the recipient;
- The belief that prayer is intended to affect the very fabric of reality itself;
- The belief that the recipient expects or appreciates prayer
The existence of prayer is attested in written sources as early as 5000 years ago. Anthropologists believe that the earliest intelligent modern humans practiced something that we would recognize today as prayer.
The act of prayer
Praying has many different forms. Prayer may be done privately and individually, or it may be done corporately in the presence of fellow believers. Prayer can be incorporated into a daily "thought life", in which one is in constant communication with God. Some people pray throughout all that is happening during the day and seek guidance as the day progresses. Ultimately prayer is a relationship between the created and the creator. There can be many different answers to prayer, just as there are many ways to "hear" the answers. Some may be audible, others may interpret healing, or specific physicals signs as answers to their prayer. How the answer is given and in what time frame it is given can be as varied as the requests themselves. Some outward acts that sometimes accompany prayer are: anointing with oil; ringing a bell; burning incense or paper; lighting a candle or candles; facing a specific direction (i.e. towards Mecca or the East); making the sign of the cross. One less noticeable act related to prayer is fasting.
A variety of body postures may be assumed, often with specific meaning (mainly respect or adoration) associated with them: standing; sitting; kneeling; prostrate on the floor; eyes opened; eyes closed; hands folded or clasped; hands upraised; holding hands with others; a laying on of hands and others. Prayers may be recited from memory, read from a book of prayers, or composed spontaneously as they are prayed. They may be said, chanted, or sung. They may be with musical accompaniment or not. Prayer may be unconscious. There may be a time of outward silence while prayers are offered mentally. Often, there are prayers to fit specific occasions, such as the blessing of a meal, the birth or death of a loved one, other significant events in the life of a believer, or days of the year that have special religious significance. Details corresponding to specific traditions are outlined below.
Prayer in Western religions
Prayer in the Bible
In the common Bible of the Abrahamic religions, various forms of prayer appear; the most common form is petition. This in many ways is the simplest form of prayer. Some have termed this the "social approach" to prayer. In this view, a person directly confronts God in prayer, and asks for his or her needs to be fulfilled; God listens to prayer, and may or may not choose to answer. This is the primary approach to prayer found in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, most of the Church writings, and in rabbinic literature such as the Talmud.
- Main article: Jewish services
Jews pray three times a day, or more on special days, such as the Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The siddur is the prayerbook used by Jews the world over, containing a set order of daily prayers. Jewish prayer is usually described as having two aspects: kavanah (intention) and keva (the ritualistic, structured elements).
Jews consider the best form of prayer is to pray together, for example you would need 10 people (minyan) to pray in synagogue. They believe the more people, the stronger the connection.
- Further information: Prayer in Christianity
- Further information: Christian Worship
Christian prayers are very varied. They can be completely spontaneous, or read entirely from a text, like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Probably the most common and universal prayer among Christians is the Lord's Prayer which is how Jesus told his disciples to pray.
It is customary among some Protestants in the USA to end prayers with "In Jesus' Name". Other formulaic closures include "through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever", and "in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit". However, the most commonly used closure in Christianity is "Amen" (from a Hebrew adverb used as a statement of affirmation or agreement).
There is also the form of prayer called hesychast which is a repetition for the purpose of meditation. In the Roman Catholic Church, probably the most common form is the Rosary; In the Eastern Church, the Jesus Prayer.
Christian Science prayer
Christian Science teaches that prayer is a spiritualization of thought or an understanding of God and of the nature of the underlying spiritual creation. Adherents believe that this can result in healing, by bringing spiritual reality (the "Kingdom of Heaven" in Biblical terms) into clearer focus in the human scene. The world as it appears to the senses is regarded as a distorted version of the world of spiritual ideas: the latter is the only true reality. Prayer can heal the distortion. Christian Scientists believe that prayer does not change the spiritual creation but gives a clearer view of it, and the result appears in the human scene as healing: the human picture adjusts to coincide more nearly with the divine reality. Prayer works through love: the recognition of God's creation as spiritual, intact and inherently lovable.
- Main article: Salah
Muslims pray a brief ritualistic prayer called Salah in Arabic, facing Kaaba in Mecca, five times a day. The "call for prayer" is called Adhan or Azaan, where the "Mu-dhan" calls for all the followers to stand together for the prayer . There are also many standard Duas or supplications, also in Arabic, to be recited at various times, e.g. for one's parents, after Salah, before eating. Muslims may also say dua in their own words and languages for any issue they wish to communicate with God in the hope that God will answer their prayers.
Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, and `Abdu'l-Bahá have revealed many prayers for general use, and some for specific occasions, including for unity, detachment, spiritual upliftment, and healing among others. Bahá'ís are also required to recite each day one of three obligatory prayers revealed by Bahá'u'lláh. The believers have been enjoined to face in the direction of the Qiblih when reciting their Obligatory Prayer. The longest obligatory prayer may be recited at any time during the day; another, of medium length, is recited once in the morning, once at midday, and once in the evening; and the shortest can be recited anytime between noon and sunset. This is the text of the short prayer: I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting. Bahá'ís also read from and meditate on the scriptures every morning and evening.
Prayers to the god and goddess are said, and spells are sometimes worked. Depending on the belief system, the prayers are said to spirit, which has both a feminine and a masculine side. Prayers can be spoken, thought, written, or in pretty much any other form. Meditiative prayer is also sometimes used.
Spells are sometimes worked as prayer to try to use the energies of the universe to help another, provided that working the spell will not harm somebody else. Spells are are merely another form of prayer.
Many modern Neopagans pray to various gods. The most commonly worshiped and prayed to gods are those of Pre-Christian Europe, such as Celtic, Norse or Graeco-Roman gods. Prayer can vary from sect to sect, and with some (such as Wicca) prayer may also be associated with ritual magick.
Prayer in Eastern religions
In certain Buddhist sects, prayer accompanies meditation. Buddhism for the most part sees prayer as a secondary, supportive practice to meditation and scriptural study. Gautama Buddha claimed that human beings possess the capacity and potential to be liberated, or enlightened, through contemplation, leading to insight. Prayer is seen mainly as a powerful psycho-physical practice that can enhance meditation.
- In the earliest Buddhist tradition, the Theravada, and in the later Mahayana tradition of Zen (or Chán), prayer plays only an ancillary role. It is largely a ritual expression of wishes for success in the practice and in helping all beings. However it can also be a way of expressing respect and appreciation to the individual person of the Buddha, who is said to still exist though in a higher dimension.
- The Mahayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism emphasises an instructive and devotional relationship to a guru; this may involve devotional practices similar to prayer. It also posits the existence of various deities. But how practitioners relate to them will depend upon the 'level' at which they are practicing. At one level, one may pray to a deity for protection or assistance, taking a more subordinate role. At another level, one may invoke the deity, on a more equal footing. And at a higher level one may deliberately cultivate the idea that one has 'become' the deity, whilst remaining aware that its ultimate nature is shunyata.
- Pure Land Buddhism emphasises the recitation of prayer-like mantras by devotees. On one level it is said that reciting these mantras can ensure rebirth into a spiritual 'pure land' after death, where one may work further towards one's enlightenment with greater ease. On another, the practice is a form of meditation aimed at achieving realisation.
But beyond all these practices the Buddha emphasised the primacy of individual practice and experience. He said that supplication to gods or deities was not necessary. Nevertheless, today many lay people in East Asian countries pray to the Buddha in ways that resemble Western prayer - asking for intervention and offering devotion.
- Main article: Prayer in Hinduism
Hinduism has incorporated many kinds of prayer (Sanskrit: prārthanā), from fire-based rituals to philosophical musings. While chanting involves 'by dictum' recitation of timeless verses, dhyanam involves deep meditation (however short or long) on the preferred deity/God. Again the object to which prayers are offered could be a person (as in Krishna, Shiva) or simply plain formless meditation as practiced ancient sages. All of these are directed to fulfilling personal needs or deep spiritual enlightenment. Ritual invocation was part and parcel of the Vedic religion and as such permeated their sacred texts. Indeed, the highest sacred texts of the Hindus, the Vedas, are a large collection of mantras and prayer rituals. Classical Hinduism came to focus on extolling a single supreme force, Brahman, that is made manifest in several lower forms as the familiar gods of the Hindu pantheon. Hindus in India have numerous devotional movements. Hindus may pray to the highest absolute God Brahman, or more commonly to Its three manifestations namely creator god called Brahma, preserver god called Vishnu and detroyer god (so that the creation cycle can start afresh) Shiva, and at the next level to Vishnu's avatars (earthly appearances) Rama and Krishna or to many other male or female deities.
Typically, like most Christians, the Hindus pray with their hands (the palms) joined together. The hand gesture is similar to the popular Indian greeting namaste.
Prayer in Jainism
Although Jains believe that no spirit or divine being can assist them on their path, they do hold some influence, and on special occasions, Jains will pray for right knowledge to the twenty-four Tirthankaras (saintly teachers).
Philosophical paradoxes of prayer
There are a number of philosophical paradoxes involving prayer to an omnipotent God, namely:
- If a person deserves God to give him the thing he prays for, why doesn't God give it to him, even without prayer? And if a person is not deserving of it, then even if that person does pray and request it, should it be given just because of his prayer?
- Is it necessary to pray with speech? Doesn't God know the thoughts of all people?
- If God is all-knowing, then doesn't God already know what we are going to ask for before we pray?
- Do human beings actually have the ability to praise an omniscient and omnipotent God? Praising God is difficult to do without describing God, yet how can a person know anything about God's ultimate nature? This question was the subject of heated debate among many religious philosophers; one such debate took place in the 14th century between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria.
- The prerequisite of asking for a favour is faith in the recipient of the prayer. But asking to change an aspect of creation seems to be expressing a dissatisfaction with the way things are - and hence not trusting the "plan." This means faithfully asking for divine intervention is a paradox, requiring faith and displaying a lack of faith at the same time.
Many of these questions have been discussed in Jewish, Christian and Muslim writings from the medieval period onward. The 900s to 1200s saw some of the most fertile discussion on these questions, during the period of Neo-Platonic and Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. See Aristotelian view of God. Discussion of these problems never ceased entirely, but they did fall mostly from the public view for several centuries, until The Enlightenment reignited philosophical inquiry into theological issues.
All of these questions have been discussed in many Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious texts. There was much intellectual cross-fertilization between Jews, Christians and Muslims during parts of the middle-ages, and so there is much convergence among some of the rationalist philosophers of that era. Many of these texts offer proposed resolutions to some or all of these paradoxes.
Approaches to prayer
Direct petitions to God
From Biblical times to today, the most common form of prayer is to directly appeal to God to grant one's requests. This in many ways is the simplest form of prayer. Some have termed this the social approach to prayer.  In this view, a person directly confronts God in prayer, and asks for their needs to be fulfilled. God listens to the prayer, and may or may not choose to answer. This is the primary approach to prayer found in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, most of the Church writings, and in rabbinic literature such as the Talmud.
The educational approach
In this view, prayer is not a conversation. Rather, it is meant to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, but not to influence. Among Jews, this has been the approach of Rabbenu Bachya, Yehuda Halevy, Joseph Albo, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. This view is expressed by Rabbi Nosson Scherman in the overview to the Artscroll Siddur (p. XIII); note that Scherman goes on to also affirm the Kabbalistic view (see below).
The Kabbalistic view of prayer
Adherents of Kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) base their prayers on those found in the siddur, the traditional Jewish prayer text. However, they add to these prayers a number of kavanot, mystical statements of intention. Adherents of kabbalah reject both the rationalist and social approach to prayer. Instead, their approach ascribes a higher meaning to the act of prayer; Prayer affects the very fabric of reality itself, restructuring and repairing the universe in a real fashion. For these Kabbalists, every prayer, every word of every prayer, and indeed, even every letter of every word of every prayer, has a precise meaning and a precise effect.
In Kabbalah and related mystical belief systems, adherents claim intimate knowledge about the way in which the divine relates to us and the physical universe in which we live. For people with this view, prayers can literally affect the mystical forces of the universe and repair the fabric of creation.
The rationalist approach
In this view, ultimate goal of prayer is to help train a person to focus on divinity through philosophy and intellectual contemplation. This approach was taken by the Jewish scholar and philosopher Maimonides and the other medieval rationalists; it became popular in Jewish, Christian and Islamic intellectual circles, but never became the most popular understanding of prayer among the laity in any of these faiths. In all three of these faiths today, a significant minority of people still hold to this approach.
The experiential approach
In this approach, the purpose of prayer is to enable the person praying to gain a direct experience of the recipient of the prayer (or as close to direct as a specific theology permits). This approach is very significant in Christianity and widespread in Judaism (although less popular theologically). In Eastern Orthodoxy, this approach is known as hesychasm. It is also widespread in Sufi Islam, and in some forms of mysticism. It has some similarities with the rationalist approach, since it can also involve contemplation, although the contemplation is not generally viewed as being as rational or intellectual. It also has some similarities with the Kabbalistic view, but it lacks the Kabbalistic emphasis on the importance of individual words and letters.
Experimental evaluation of prayer
Efficacy of prayer healing
- Main article: Efficacy of prayer
In 1872, Francis Galton conducted a famous statistical experiment to determine whether prayer had a physical effect on the external environment. Galton hypothesized that if prayer was effective, members of the British Royal family would live longer, given that thousands prayed for their wellbeing every Sunday. He therefore compared longevity in the British Royal family with that of the general population, and found no difference. While the experiment was probably intended to satirize, and suffered from a number of confounders, it set the precedent for a number of different studies, the results of which are contradictory.
Two studies claimed that patients who are being prayed for recover more quickly or more frequently although critics have claimed that the methodology of such studies are flawed, and the perceived effect disappears when controls are tightened. One such study, with a double-blind design and about 500 subjects per group, suggested that intercessory prayer by born again Christians had a statistically significant positive effect on a coronary care unit population. Critics contend that there were severe methodological problems with this study. Another such study was reported by Harris et al.. Critics also claim Byrd's 1988 study was not fully double-blinded, and that in the Harris study, patients actually had a longer hospital stay in the prayer group, if one discounts the patients in both groups who left before prayers began, although the Harris study did demonstrate the prayed for patients on average received lower course scores (indicating better recovery).
One of the largest randomized, blind clinical trials was a remote retroactive intercessory prayer study conducted in Israel by Leibovici. This study used 3393 patient records from 1990-96, and blindly assigned some of these to an intercessory prayer group. The prayer group had shorter hospital stays and duration of fever.
Several studies of prayer effectiveness have yielded null results. A 2001 double-blind study of the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in the recovery rates between people who were (unbeknownst to them) assigned to a group that prayed for them and those who were not. Similarly, the MANTRA study conducted by Duke University found no differences in outcome of cardiac procedures as a result of prayer. In another similar study published in the American Heart Journal in 2006, Christian intercessory prayer when reading a scripted prayer was found to have no effect on the recovery of heart surgery patients; however, the study found patients who had knowledge of receiving prayer had slightly higher instances of complications than those who did not know if they were being prayed for or those who did not receive prayer. Another 2006 study suggested that prayer actually had a significant negative effect on the recovery of cardiac bypass patients, resulting in more frequent deaths and slower recovery time for those patient who received prayers.
Many believe that prayer can aid in recovery, not due to divine influence but due to psychological and physical benefits. It has also been suggested that if a person knows that he or she is being prayed for it can be uplifting and increase morale, thus aiding recovery. (See Subject-expectancy effect.) Many studies have suggested that prayer can reduce physical stress, regardless of the god or gods a person prays to, and this may be true for many worldly reasons. According to a study by Centra State Hospital, "the psychological benefits of prayer may help reduce stress and anxiety, promote a more positive outlook, and strengthen the will to live." Other practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, and Meditation may also have a positive impact on physical and psychological health.
Others feel that the concept of conducting prayer experiments reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer. The previously mentioned American Heart Journal study published in the American Heart Journal indicated that some of the intercessors who took part in it complained about the scripted nature of the prayers that were imposed to them, saying that this is not the way they usually conduct prayer:
Prior to the start of this study, intercessors reported that they usually receive information about the patient’s age, gender and progress reports on their medical condition; converse with family members or the patient (not by fax from a third party); use individualized prayers of their own choosing; and pray for a variable time period based on patient or family request.
Historical polytheistic prayer
In ancient religions of Greeks and Romans (Ancient Greek religion, Roman religion), ceremonial prayer was highly formulaic and ritualized. The Iguvine Tables contain a supplication that can be translated, "If anything was said improperly, if anything was done improperly, let it be as if it were done correctly."
The formalism and formulaic nature of these prayers led them to be written down in language that may have only been partially understood by the writer, and our texts of these prayers may in fact be garbled. Prayers in Etruscan were used in the Roman world by augurs and other oracles long after Etruscan became a dead language. The Carmen Arvale and the Carmen Saliare are two specimens of partially preserved prayers that seem to have been unintelligible to their scribes, and whose language is full of archaisms and difficult passages.
Roman prayers and sacrifices were often envisioned as legal bargains between deity and worshipper. The Roman formula was do ut des: "I give, so that you may give in return." Cato the Elder's treatise on agriculture contains many examples of preserved traditional prayers; in one, a farmer addresses the unknown deity of a possibly sacred grove, and sacrifices a pig in order to placate the god or goddess of the place and beseech his or her permission to cut down some trees from the grove.
Some modalities of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) employ prayer. A survey released in May 2004 by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, found that in 2002, 43% of Americans pray for their own health, 24% pray for others health, and 10% participate in a prayer group for their own health.
- 24-7 Prayer Movement
- Daily Prayer for Peace
- Glossolalia ("speaking in tongues")
- Interior Life
- List of prayers
- Moment of silence
- Prayer in LDS theology and practice
- Prayer beads
- Prayer in school
- Prayer wheel
References and footnotes
- ↑ Greenberg, Moshe. Biblical Prose Prayer: As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1983 http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft8b69p1w7/]
- ↑ <includeonly>[[Category:Pages with broken references]]</includeonly><span class="citeerror">Cite error: Invalid <code><ref></code> tag; no text was provided for refs named <code>Galton</code></span>
- ↑ http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2005/07/prayer_still_us.html Prayer still useless
- ↑ <includeonly>[[Category:Pages with broken references]]</includeonly><span class="citeerror">Cite error: Invalid <code><ref></code> tag; no text was provided for refs named <code>SouthMedJ</code></span>
- ↑ <includeonly>[[Category:Pages with broken references]]</includeonly><span class="citeerror">Cite error: Invalid <code><ref></code> tag; no text was provided for refs named <code>Infidels</code></span>
- ↑ <includeonly>[[Category:Pages with broken references]]</includeonly><span class="citeerror">Cite error: Invalid <code><ref></code> tag; no text was provided for refs named <code>Harris</code></span>
- ↑ Tessman I and Tessman J "Efficacy of Prayer: A Critical Examination of Claims," Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2000,
- ↑ Leibovici L. Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomized controlled trial. BMJ 2001;323:1450-1. PMID 11751349.
- ↑ <includeonly>[[Category:Pages with broken references]]</includeonly><span class="citeerror">Cite error: Invalid <code><ref></code> tag; no text was provided for refs named <code>O.27Laoire</code></span>
- ↑ Aviles JM, Whelan SE, Hernke DA, Williams BA, Kenny KE, O'Fallon WM, Kopecky SL. Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clin Proc 2001;76:1192-8. PMID 11761499.
- ↑ Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Gallup D, Blankenship JC, Cuffe M, Guarneri M, Krieger RA, Kshettry VR, Morris K, Oz M, Pichard A, Sketch MH Jr, Koenig HG, Mark D, Lee KL. Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. Lancet 2005;366:211-7. PMID 16023511.
- ↑ Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer
- ↑ <includeonly>[[Category:Pages with broken references]]</includeonly><span class="citeerror">Cite error: Invalid <code><ref></code> tag; no text was provided for refs named <code>STEP</code></span>
- ↑ The Deity in the DataWhat the latest prayer study tells us about God
- ↑ Herbert Benson et al., "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer", American Heart Journal, Volume 151, No 4, 934-42 (2006)
- ↑ Mind and Spirit. from the Health Library section of CentraState Healthcare System. Accessed May 18, 2006.
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