Why I Pray

07/11/2011 11:37 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2011
  • Jon M. Sweeney Author of Inventing Hell, The Pope Who Quit, The Enthusiast

Why do I pray?

Not because I believe that God grants favors to people because they pray, or to those who pray the most fervently. If that were so, I can only imagine what would happen when Ole Miss plays the Crimson Tide in college football in October in Oxford or Tuscaloosa. No team would ultimately be able to triumph; the stands and states are too packed with the competitively devout. You'd have a football game that goes on forever in some sort of divinely-inspired timeless warp of lead changes. The players would ultimately expire from exhaustion.

Instead, I pray because

  1. I'm grateful. I wake up in the morning and, even if the baby is crying and I don't feel as rested as I wish I did, I am grateful to be waking up to a new day. I know that this is the most basic level of spiritual understanding, enduring despite whatever troubles I may have with coming and going belief, ritual, delight or disgust in my religious home or leaders. There are at least two essential ways to show this gratefulness: to those around me who bless my life, which I try to do with deeds and words each day, and to the Ultimate Source of it all. Hence, I pray.
  2. I'm needful. Not of a winning football team. Not of a parking space at the mall. Not, in fact, for any special favors no matter how serious. But of light -- what the Quakers perhaps best call the "inner light" that comes from God. This is where the rubber meets the road in life, I think: do you believe that there is a God who wants to know you, who has an inexplicable yet essential connection to your life? I do. Even so, the light sometimes dims because perhaps God withdraws, but more often because I do. So I need help maintaining connection, and it is that basic needfulness that also leads me to pray.

My inspiration for these reasons and ways of praying comes from many sources. These
evolve over time, broaden, narrow, and deepen. They include Christian mystics like the late medieval Meister Eckhart who once said, "God is at home when we have gone out walking." Or a later mystic like Saint Teresa of Avila who wrote this oft-quoted poem: "Let nothing disturb thee; / Let nothing dismay thee: / All things pass; / God never changes. / Patience attains / All that it strives for. / He who has God / Finds he lacks nothing: / God alone suffices." And then of course Saint Francis of Assisi who became so thankful and mindful of spiritual need that he began to understand the sun as his brother, birds as his sisters, and a ferocious wolf as his friend.

I also take inspiration from AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). I have never been to a meeting in my life but I recognize the most important spiritual movement of the twentieth century when I see it and anyone in recovery knows that the most essential expression of our humanity is our need for something beyond ourselves. The people of AA have taught me to be constantly aware of the gift and responsibility that is life.

And I am inspired by the siddur, or prayer book, of the Reconstructionist movement of contemporary Judaism. The section on Morning Blessings seems to me to contain the very essence of why people have always needed and desired religion in their lives: to help give expression to gratefulness and need. Everything is all right there in the most basic and exhilarating language of human desire and response. Most familiar of all (to Jews at least) is the prayer of reverence and awe called Mah tovu, or "How lovely." This old prayer weaves together Bible verses from the books of Numbers and Psalms and includes these beautiful lines:

How lovely are your tents / Drawn by your love, I come into your house / I fall in prayer / I greet, I bless, I bend the knee, before The One who fashions me.

And then begins the reciting of a long litany of blessings that were mostly written in the Talmudic era. In succession, they acknowledge the God, life of all the worlds, who removes the sleep from our eyes, who makes the blind to see, who clothes the naked, who sets the captive free, who makes firm a person's steps, and who made me in the divine image.

For all of those things and many more, I am both needy and grateful.