As any person of faith can confirm, a loving relationship with God requires a healthy slice of time and effort. I admit up front that I am not great at this relationship: I do not spend enough time on God. I get busy. I get distracted. I forget. Prayer is often far down on my to-do list.
But prayer is the way we initiate communication with God. The late, great William A. Barry, S.J. describes our relationship with God as "a friendship like no other." Friends look forward to being together, and as in any close friendship, the give-and-take of conversation is essential. It's how we get to know and appreciate each other. I'm working on it, but I know that when I do pray, I often do too much of the talking and far too little listening. But God is an understanding friend.
Prayer arises in many forms. It can be fixed and formulaic, like saying the rosary, or a spontaneous outpouring of the heart. A prayer can be a statement of gratitude, or supplication, or adoration, or contrition, perhaps better known as giving thanks, or making a request, or expressing our love, or saying sorry.
There are as many kinds of prayer as there are religious denominations, and possibly as many as there are believers. But whatever we think of as actual prayer, it seems to me that many of our deeper thoughts are simply prayer by another name.
Take, for example, a moment of silence, which often substitutes for prayer in secular settings, such as a public school event or a government meeting. Religious people can use that quiet moment for praying to God, since the listening part of prayer certainly involves silence. And nonreligious people, who do not think of a moment of silence as a time for prayer, can just as surely benefit from a brief dive into their own private thoughts.
Meditation is not necessarily considered prayer, although people who meditate are among the most prayerful people I know. The discipline of meditation is an ancient one, going back thousands of years to wall art depictions of meditative poses in the Indus Valley. Many religions include meditative practices, especially in their mystical branches. But by promoting stress reduction and mental well-being, meditation also appeals to those who may not believe in any particular divinity.
Every child — or grown-up — who throws a coin into a fountain, or gazes on the evening's first star and whispers a wish, is communing with the spirit of prayer. A wish is a longing for something to be better, to be different, to be transformed. In times of desperation, that is exactly what a prayer sounds like.
In his first speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor from Georgia, said, "I think that a vote is a kind of prayer for the kind of world we desire for ourselves and for our children." I had to think about that for a moment, but it makes sense: We do vote for the people who best represent what we believe is right, and who (we hope) will act on those beliefs.
Prayer leads us home to God. "Our heart is restless," wrote St. Augustine in his Confessions, "until it rests in you." Prayer can direct us in the search for that safe landing. Even if we don't call ourselves spiritual people, however, we yearn for life's meaning.
We spend a lot of time and energy on self-improvement, or self-knowledge, or a greater purpose to our days on earth. We want something to hope for, something to live for, something to believe in, something to comfort us in times of struggle, something to light our path in times of darkness. Prayer can be the way we make some small progress on our journey. Sometimes we don't even realize we are praying. Sometimes we are just looking for a friend who is like no other.