• Cynthia McCarthy

How Do You Pray?

When I was about 15 or 16 years old, my great Aunt Charlotte came to visit from the other side of the country. She was my father’s aunt, and even though I was told I had known her when I was younger, I didn’t really remember her. The visit was fun. She was a chatty, charming, witty old woman in her 80’s, standing just over 5 feet tall, with curly grey hair, thick glasses, and a raspy old lady voice that got raspier when she laughed. Picture Sophia Petrillo from the Golden Girls without the bamboo purse.

The most interesting thing happened during Charlotte's visit. She was staying in the guest room down the hall from my room, and one night, she went to bed a few minutes before I did. While walking past her room, I noticed her door was ajar. I peeked in and saw something fascinating. Aunt Charlotte was praying. She was kneeling on the floor (probably no small feat at her age) with her elbows resting on the bed, her hands clasped together, eyes closed, and she was whispering softly. I froze for a moment in the hallway, listening, watching. I couldn’t look away. It was simultaneously the weirdest and most adorable thing I had ever seen! My great Aunt Charlotte was praying like a little child.

A million thoughts ran through my head as I tip-toed on to my room. Did she always pray that way, kneeling on the floor? Had she prayed that way her entire life? Did she pray like that in church? Did she even go to church? I had never prayed that way. Was that bad? Was I lazy because I never got down on my knees? Was she doing it right and I had I been doing it wrong? Was there a "right way" to pray? An epiphany began to emerge in my naive teenager brain: People pray in different ways!

I didn’t get a lot of answers to my internal questions because I certainly wasn’t going to voice them, but I suspect my wondering all those years ago played a role in me becoming an interfaith minister some twenty plus years later. I have learned a few things since then: 1) Prayer is a very private, personal spiritual practice. 2) People really do pray in all kinds of ways—and none of them are necessarily right or wrong. And 3) Sometimes… people don’t want to talk about how they pray. (Refer back to number 1.)

The Bible discusses how to pray rather clearly. Jesus instructs us in Matthew 6:6, “…when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place…” (That must have been Aunt Charlotte’s mistake—she left that door to her room open… I’m kidding!) Jesus is explaining that prayer takes place in private, when we go within and use our mind and our thoughts to communicate with God. This is not to say we can’t speak our prayers out loud. He also reminds us that our Father knows the things we need before we ask Him, and he tells us to pray what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer. (Matthew 6:8-13)

The guidance and Divine wisdom of Jesus with regard to prayer is wonderful information, and for some, it’s a good starting point. I’m the last person to tell anyone how they should pray. I’ve seen people pray on their knees, wailing in tears. I’ve seen people pray laying down in silence to the point I thought they were sleeping. I’ve heard prayers chanted and recited by a group in unison. I’ve heard and been moved by songs of prayer, sung by choirs. It seems to me whatever instructions we’re given about prayer can be interpreted in any number of ways. 

In fact, I’m tempted to make a sweeping declaration: It doesn’t matter how you pray, it only matters that you do. Why? Because prayer is powerful and effective. For instance, numerous studies have proven that groups of people who prayed for sick people actually helped them recover faster than those who were not prayed for. (See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3393937)

Keep in mind the study did not specify the WAY in which a participant prayed, but merely that they prayed. Eyes closed or open, doesn’t matter. Contemplative, affirmative, thanksgiving, intercession, centering prayer, doesn’t matter. Silent, spoken out loud, whispered softly, doesn’t matter. Crossed legged, laying down, standing, sitting, or kneeling by the bed in your nightgown like dear Aunt Charlotte, doesn’t matter.

Prayer is powerful because we (the faithful, the spiritual, the consciously aware) each tap into our own way of doing it. Even though it may feel awkward, I encourage you to talk in your families, with your neighbors and your friends about how you pray. Share your spiritual practice freely! We can learn from each other and be open to new ways of seeking the Kingdom and communicating with the Divine. But, ultimately, we will do what works for us. That is the beauty of God, for God is multifaceted and unlimited. It makes sense to me that God is expressing through each of us in different ways, including all the ways in which we pray.


Rev. Cynthia

P.S. It occurs to me, I never mentioned the way I pray in this blog! In case you are interested, I'm a big fan of affirmative prayer, a method taught in New Thought churches that uses positive language focused on the desired outcome. I try to speak my prayers out loud whenever possible (usually when no one else is home!) I pray a prayer of gratitude upon waking, I pray in the shower, and I try to pray as I'm drifting to sleep at night. I would love to hear how YOU pray, so please comment below!

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