What exactly is „prayer“?
How is it that trees start greening at the same time in spring? Modern biology has found an amazing answer: the trees coordinate with each other. Of course, they don’t speak like we humans speak. The „tree language“ consists of the exchange of messenger substances that are passed on via the root system. There is a network underground that allows plant-to-plant communication. So there are obviously forms of exchange between living beings that were unknown to us until recently. Would we have thought such mysterious, hidden communication possible?
Basically, prayer is just such a form of communication, an exchange with God. This possibility that people can get in contact with God is also unusual for many contemporaries. How does that work? “Talking to God” seems impossible to many. It is clear that people have always prayed. The first evidence of human culture comes from the cult of the dead. On the threshold of life there are images of a heavenly reality in which one now suspects the deceased. A grave is not just a memorial, but the place where the visible and invisible worlds meet. Some of the first utterances of speech by early humans may have been prayers.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word „prayer“? I guess most people think of a text. The most well-known prayers, such as the „Our Father,“ are sets of words that we say to God, either silently or aloud. But that only says a part of what prayer means. Singer Mahalia Jackson uses a comparison in one of her songs. She sings, „I have a phone in my heart and I can call God anytime.“ That may sound childish, but it says something important. First there has to be a “telephone”, i.e. a connection, a network. God and man have „a connection to each other“. In two important words from the Gospel of John, the connection to God is „love“ and „spirit“. In these media, an exchange with God is possible at any time. There, where the connection in faith can be experienced, where I notice that God is there for me, that there is a relationship between us, there is the place of prayer. The exchange in words is a consequence of the relationship. Just like with friends, the friendship is always there, even if they are not talking to each other. Maintaining and deepening the friendship then requires regular „talking to each other“. But communication begins much earlier. When it comes to friendships, the spoken word is just as important as “seeing each other” and “being there for one another.”
So prayer can be understood as “communication with God”. This communication takes different forms. Sometimes it’s a simple „being there,“ a silent encounter with God. Sometimes it is an exchange in words, in requests, in praise and thoughts, which in turn is answered by hearing the „Word of God“. Sometimes communication is also a rite, a service in which the forms of expression of the encounter with the sacred are laid down in fixed rites and rituals. In all these forms, prayer is above all the cultivation of a friendship with God, the deepening of a relationship. The famous biblical saying „Pray without ceasing“ (1Thess 5:17) can be understood in this way. It’s not about reciting lyrics all day. Rather, it is about striving for a good, enduring, enduring connection and relationship with God. With Jesus one can also say „remain in my love“ (John 15:10). When I have such a relationship with God, my whole life is connected „without ceasing“ to that relationship. Then prayer is not difficult. It is then an expression, a part of the relationship with God. The connection to God is there and I can activate and deepen it at any time.
The Biblical Tradition of Prayer
The ancient world was a religious world. Daily and spiritual life showed numerous connections. Everywhere in the Greco-Roman world there were small house or street altars to which people brought their offerings and invoked the gods. There were great sanctuaries, pilgrimages and all sorts of magical and superstitious practices.
Judaism also had and still has an intensive tradition of prayer. By the time of Jesus three main forms will probably have been encountered. On the one hand there was the liturgical (service) prayer in the temple and in the synagogue. Here fixed prayer texts were used, which often came from the Holy Scriptures. In particular, the Psalms, a collection of different prayers for different occasions, played a major role. Prayer texts were sung and spoken. Liturgical prayers were also used in family services at home, for example on Shabbat or on feast days. The main prayer of the Jews is the „Sch’ma Israel“. It goes back to a text from Deut 26 and essentially contains the confession: „The Lord our God is one God“. This core tenet of the Jewish creed was repeated several times a day and kept in prayer capsules, which are tied to straps around the wrist and forehead during services and can be found at the entrances to houses. A second characteristic form of prayer was contemplative (contemplative) prayer. As e.g. Psalm 1 or 119 make clear, believing Jews were asked to memorize God’s Word, i.e. His law. It should be meditated on „day and night“ (Psalm 1:2). To do this, they took verses from the Holy Scriptures and repeated them under their breath over and over again. The law of God was to be internalized in such a way that the contact with God, which had revealed himself in his word, was not to be severed. In addition, of course, there was also personal prayer, in which the believers brought their daily requests and concerns to God in their own words.
The gospel gives some indication of this environment, for example when Jesus admonishes the disciples not to “babble like the heathen when they pray, for they think that if they use many words they will be heard” (Mt 6:7). Because God always already knows what people need, it is enough to limit prayer to the necessary words. Following this admonition, Jesus then teaches the disciples the „Our Father,“ which is, in a sense, an abbreviation of longer Jewish prayers. This prayer contains both praise of God and supplication. The „Our Father“ subsequently became the basic prayer of Christianity.
Jesus appears to be critical of his own prayer tradition. At one point he censures the scribes for their long prayers (Mark 12:40) and at another point he gives an example of sincere prayer in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus makes it clear that prayer is not automatic. It is not so much the form or the words that matter, but that the prayer is sincere and honest and means what is expressed in it. In addition, prayer and life must coincide. Words and actions go together.
Apparently, for Jesus, prayer is above all an expression of a sincere relationship with God. Those who know God as their “Father” have a trusting relationship with him. Jesus does not refuse prayer, on the contrary. Again and again it is reported that Jesus withdraws to a lonely place for personal prayer. He also has occasional prayers of supplication, such as when he asks God’s forgiveness for his enemies on the cross (Luke 23:34). According to him, the temple should be “a house of prayer” (Mark 11:17). However, prayer must not become hypocritical. Where it is not supported by the right relationship to God and has no effect on one’s own practical life, it becomes useless.
In early Christianity, prayer traditions developed in this way. They unite the Jewish traditions with the reading and teaching of Jesus. The letters of Paul encourage the congregations to constant prayer (1 Thess 5:17). In essence, the forms of prayer remain the same. Liturgical, contemplative and personal prayer continue to exist in Christianity in a new way. The next section on prayer will deal with these forms.
For several years I was a curate, i.e. a spiritual companion for the boy scout tribe in Hamburg-Hamm. Among the children were Catholics, Protestants, but also Non-Christians. Nevertheless, it was clear at the camps and on the trips: people pray here. In the morning round and at dinner, one group always had the task of preparing a prayer. There was one basic rule: no texts were read out. The prayer should be personal and incorporate the concerns and desires for the day. That was a real challenge. It is easy to read fixed prayer and meditation texts; it’s hard to find the right words by yourself.
n the Catholic tradition, written prayer texts have always played an important role. After all, they wanted to pray “the right thing”. When we cleaned up St. Anne’s sacristy last year, we came across large piles of prayer suggestions and devotionals. The parishioners were encouraged to pray novenas or texts related to the occasion. The Liturgy of the Hours, which was also increasingly recommended to the congregations after the Second Vatican Council, consists of fixed texts. The praise of God also contains a collection of prayers from different centuries. The fact that you can address God personally, maybe even start a conversation with him, sometimes faded into the background.
Personal prayer is an important part of the relationship with God. After all, this is about myself, my thoughts, my wishes, my needs, my thanks and my requests. In the form of prayer I carry my life before God. This can be expressed in very different forms. Most people are probably familiar with the “quick prayer”. In a difficult situation, I send a message to God, so to speak, giving spontaneous expression to my concern. I know God is by my side at this moment and I hope for consolation and hearing in a specific matter. For many, going to church is also part of personal prayer. Throughout the day people keep coming to take a few minutes to reflect and pray. The candles that are lit, but also the entries in our book on display, bear witness to the concerns and needs that concern the visitors. They are preserved at that moment in the burning of the candle or as a written prayer.
Others have integrated personal prayer into their daily routine. For example, I like to combine my morning prayers with a look at my calendar and ask for success in the tasks ahead of me and for blessings on the people who meet me on that day. In the evening prayer I can look back on the day. The Catholic tradition recommends the personal review of the day, which contains thanks for what was successful, critical self-reflection and requests for the concerns that came to me that day. In this way, each day receives its special meaning before God. My whole life is in his hands.
Another form of personal prayer is contemplative prayer. It usually comes without any text at all. The basic idea is: I am there in silence before God. He sees me, I look at him. Prayer here is not an exchange of words and thoughts. It’s just being in the presence of God. Contemplative prayer takes practice. For example, it can be part of a prayer silence at a devotional. But the constant repetition of a word or sentence can also bring me into the contemplative attitude. This happens, for example, in the so-called Jesus prayer, but also with the rosary, where, in addition to the spoken word, it is important to remain calm and open to God over the course of the prayer. A litany has a similar function. The Taizé community created a new form of contemplative prayer in the 20th century. The short, ever-repeating chants accompany the prayers into the stillness of their hearts. The devotion culminates in a long period of silence provided for in every Taizé prayer. Now I can just be there before God in the silence.
The examples just mentioned show that personal prayer and fixed prayer texts are not mutually exclusive, but complement each other. I put my own life into the common prayer. Even in the Holy Mass, which is otherwise so well structured, there are times for personal prayer. The call „Let us pray“ is actually an invitation to personal prayer. All the individual prayers are then put together by the priest in the prayer of the day, which is Latin for „collection“, and carried before God. The prayers of intercession as a „general prayer of the believers“ are intended to take up the current concerns of the assembled congregation. In the preparation of the gifts, the bread and wine stand for the joys and troubles of our own lives, which are to undergo constant change. Everyone is invited to pray in silence during communion. In this, the church space is filled with everyday life, the requests and thanks of those present.
Personal prayer remains a challenge. With the boy scouts I talked about at the beginning, the results were more or less successful. But that didn’t matter. It wasn’t the skilful choice of words that made the prayer, but the knowledge that this was „our“ prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer
A difficult point in the preparation for First Communion is the first confession. It serves to introduce the children to the sacrament of confession. It has always been important to me that this “task” does not overwhelm the children. As a chaplain, I noticed relatively quickly that the element of “penance” in particular was difficult for the children to understand. For them it was more like a homework assignment they took with them from confession. The actual meaning remained rather closed to them. So, instead of doing penance, I started praying the Lord’s Prayer with the children at the end of confession. They had covered prayer in class and knew it. However, as I was praying, I noticed that some also found the “Our Father” difficult. They had learned it by heart at some point, but usually only prayed the text together with the others. The actual meaning of the words had not necessarily opened up to them. This sometimes resulted in quite peculiar, sometimes amusing versions. It’s not that easy either: what is meant by „guilty“ or what does the word „sanctified“ mean? Why is it “to the wicked” and not “the wicked,” and what is behind the request not to be tempted? I believe that the difficulties in understanding are not only found in children to whom individual words mean nothing. I believe it occurs in adults too. As much as we are familiar with the „Our Father“ – the text „speaks“ to me and above all: Can I make it my own as my personal prayer?
The Our Father is Christian prayer. It is a prayer handed down to us by Jesus himself. The Gospel of Luke (Luke 11:2-4) tells that Jesus had retired to a place to pray. As he finished the prayer, the disciples asked him, „Lord, teach us to pray.“ Obviously they wanted to be able to pray like Jesus or with Jesus. As an answer they received a relatively short text, namely the „Our Father“ (although without the usual conclusion of the prayer „for thine is the kingdom…“, which is a later addition). It is possible that Jesus summarized longer prayers of the Jewish tradition here into very short requests. These words, which can also be found in a slightly different form in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 6:9-13), became the basic prayer early on. We know from early Christian texts that the Lord’s Prayer was said several times a day.
But what is important about the Lord’s Prayer besides its biblical origin? Perhaps one could say that it is a short form of what is important according to the Christian faith. Joseph Ratzinger draws attention to the fact that the text has a structure that can be combined with the double commandment to love God and love of one’s neighbour. The first petitions are about God, who is confidently addressed as „Father“. That alone cannot be taken for granted. God does not appear here as a distant, unapproachable ruler, but as familiar and close. To a certain extent we are in a family relationship with him. The second part of the Lord’s Prayer then deals with human needs. Heaven and earth, God and man, the big and the small belong together.
But from the front. After addressing God as “Father in heaven” follows the request “Hallowed be thy name”. The Bible understands the name of God as „YHWH“, which can be translated as „I am the ‚I am there’“. It is about the recognition of this God in the tradition of the people of Israel. The confession is: I believe in you, this God. His kingdom is to come. Jesus proclaimed this kingdom. It is about a reality in which God and people come together and in which everything changes for the better. Those who acknowledge God place themselves under his blessing and ask for his will. Heaven and earth should only become one reality in this kingdom.
In human reality, we depend on God’s power to do all things good. The following prayers of the Lord’s Prayer make this clear. First and foremost is the request for daily bread. It’s about our existence. We depend on getting what we need for daily life. The bread can certainly also stand for other things that give us „food“, for affection, friendship, hope, inspiration, joy and much more. Then comes the request for reconciliation. „Forgive us our trespasses, just as we are ready to forgive the trespasses of others.“ Forgiveness is an essential feature of the kingdom of God. There is ample evidence of this in the life of Jesus. Only where a person is free can he really start anew. A peaceful world can only arise where strife, war and hatred no longer have any influence. The request for “salvation from evil” is also to be understood in this direction. Where evil has no power over us, we can see the right path for our lives and the lives of others. Therefore, we hope not to be „tempted,“ that is, to go astray. Recently, Pope Francis has stimulated a debate as to whether the phrase „lead us not into temptation“ is actually correct, given that God never wants to lead man to evil. In his interpretation, Ratzinger therefore speaks more of the “test”. We only recognize the good when we confront the bad. Thus the praying person in the Lord’s Prayer declares on the one hand that he is ready to endure trials, but on the other hand he hopes that they can pass him by.
These hints can perhaps be of help in understanding the Lord’s Prayer better. Of course, you have to talk about it in more detail. I was recently talking to a couple about prayer. They had their own thoughts about the prayers of the Lord’s Prayer and wrote their lives into the prayer. In this way, the text became a personal prayer for her, filled with her own experiences. It had become „their“ prayer.