When I hear someone state that they are spiritual but not religious, I mentally translate it as, “I have a space inside me that is God-shaped and I don’t quite know how to fill it“. That enormous, yearning, undefinable space that is inside every one of us is prayer-shaped.
‘Prayer’, as a word by itself, seems to be as difficult and slippery in meaning as the word ‘love’. Both words defy a tidy definition. Read fifty books about prayer and you’ll come up with fifty different definitions about what prayer is or isn’t. None of them seem able to put satisfying words around something that is actually indescribable. Christian Wyman, a poet I like, says “. I almost feel I should put the word in quotes, as I’m never quite sure that what I do deserves the name.“
I’ve asked others what prayer means to them and they’ve come up with answers like this:
I’ve hardly prayed at all since I left primary school.
Nobody I know talks about prayer.
I think I have outgrown childish prayer and don’t know what to put in its place
I’ve tried reading books about prayer but they are hard to read.
I pray, but I don’t know if I’m doing it right.
I’d like to know more about prayer.
I’d pray more but there is no church near my house.
I like to pray but I don’t know the right words to say.
I meditate. Is that the same as prayer?
Only religious people pray. I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.
Sometimes I feel very still, like there are words rolled up inside me but I can’t get them out. Is this prayer?
I only pray when I want something.
I’d be embarrassed if anyone saw me praying.
When is the best time to pray?
I used to belong to a charismatic prayer group but it doesn’t satisfy me anymore.
I remember my grandmother praying but I never learnt how.
There’s no right or wrong way to pray, there’s just lots of different ways. Personalities and temperaments differ and God respects the uniqueness of each one. We pray as we are, women or man, young, old and in between, married or single, introvert or extravert, church-goer or never been baptised. How we feel, the relationships that enliven us or pull us down, even the weather, is reflected in the way we pray, whether we label it vocal prayer, intercessory prayer, liturgical prayer, contemplative prayer or charismatic prayer.
We pray out loud with others in words chosen for the occasion, we pray on the run, we pray when there seems to be nowhere else to go. And all the time we are left somehow dissatisfied, wondering if we are ‘doing it right’, forgetting, or not knowing, that how- ever and when- ever we feel the need for some kind of relationship with God, we are praying. And if you feel the need to pray but don’t know how to express it, then make up your own, private ‘Thank you God’ list.