What is prayer, and why do we pray?

Published December 23, 2018

Photo: A3PF Family/Shutterstock

Some people, if asked, would probably 
say that prayer means asking for something, and indeed the Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines prayer as “a solemn request or thanksgiving to God or an object of worship.” The word itself comes from the Latin prex, which can mean not only a prayer but an earnest or humble request.

But is that really all it is? Some Anglicans who are especially involved in it say prayer can be a much richer thing than the dictionary definition would suggest.

For Br. James Koester, a Canadian monk who is brother superior of the Society
 of Saint John the Evangelist, a monastic community of The Episcopal Church based in Cambridge, Mass., says prayer is about “being filled with the life of God.” He cites 2 Peter 1:4, in which it’s written that Christ has given believers the ability to “become participants of the divine nature.”

How do we know we’re sharing in the divine life when we pray? Love tells us, Koester says.

“Christ is present everywhere, and one of the places we discover the presence of Christ is if we’re in the presence of love,” he says. “If my prayer draws me deeper into being a person of love, then I’m in the presence of God, because God is love.”

Sharing in the life of God ultimately also means taking part in building the kingdom of God, he says; we are transformed by prayer, and our actions are affected by it.

God is unchangeable, so prayer isn’t about trying to change the will of God, Koester says. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for things to be other than they are, he says, because an important part of prayer is giving voice to our desire—to God, to others and to ourselves.

“God knows that there needs to be peace and reconciliation in the Middle East,” he says. “But God also wants to know that I think that’s important, and God wants me to share that desire…God wants me to verbalize that, and then I become changed by that.”

Aligning with divine will

Archdeacon Paul Feheley, national director of the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer (Canada), which promotes prayer among Canadian Anglicans, agrees that prayer is really about trying to align our own wills with the divine will, rather than trying to sway God.

He points out the example of Christ, who, in the garden of Gethsemane, prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Feheley also cites the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

“If we model ourselves on Jesus, as I believe we should, we’re always putting ourselves into the presence of God—not to sway, but to understand,” he says.

Feheley says it’s certainly to be expected—and not reprehensible—that people in the grips of crisis turn to God with prayer that things will turn out well for them. But there’s something more fundamental to prayer, he says.

“By facing the difficulty, and by putting ourselves in God’s presence, then there’s a sense of knowing that God is with us no matter what…and that’s the critical thing about prayer,” he says. “It’s not winning and losing—it’s a constant unconditional love that’s with us.”

We can pray even amidst the most mundane of tasks, suggests a priest. Photo: Antonio Diaz/Shutterstock

Brad Pickens, executive director of
 The Farmhouse Mission, an ecumenical mission and retreat centre in Orleans, Ind., compares learning to pray to acquiring a language.

Pickens, who with his wife, Kara, designed and is overseeing the delivery of a lay spiritual renewal program in the diocese of New Westminster, says that when we pray, we’re learning to repeat “what God is saying to us through the Scriptures, and through the church, and the world…to pick up the language of God in order to give voice to our needs and the needs of the world, and to give voice to how God views the world.”

Being present to God

And yet, he adds, prayer is, in some sense, speech beyond speech, “a language that gives voice to something that’s interior and mysterious, an apprehension of God that is somewhat beyond us.”

Although prayer can be formal, says Kara Pickens, as it is in liturgy and spoken prayers, we can also pray through our tears, our laughter, our work, and generally when “we invite the sacred to shape our experience as humans.”

For Christians, Koester says, it’s important to remember that prayer isn’t about trying to reach a remote God.

“Christ is in all places, and we’re not actually calling down God to come to this place,” he says. “We’re actually meeting God where God already is.”

Similarly, say Feheley and the Pickenses, it’s important to know that we can pray even amidst the most mundane tasks, by being present to God.

“Scriptures talk about praying constantly, and everybody goes, ‘I can’t do that,’” Feheley says. “Well, you can, actually, if you see what you’re doing as prayerful.”

We often have these “sacramental” moments, moments of “holy encounter,” says Brad Pickens, when we are aware that God is present even in the midst of our everyday lives.

“It’s the substance of our life, and sometimes it comes about just in these really beautiful ways…when things become a little more clear, and a little more reoriented towards God,” he says.


This story originally appeared on March 12, 2018.



  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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