What is prayer?


When you think of “prayer” what is it exactly that you picture in your mind’s eye?

Do you think of falling on your knees? Hands clasped together? Is prayer out loud? Or is it silent?  Is prayer done in a church? Or in the privacy of your home? Do you pray by yourself? Or with others? Is prayer all of the above? Or is it none of the above?

There’s a great scene in Eat, Pray, Love (2006) where the main character, played by Julia Roberts, falls on her knees in the middle of the night in her living room and speaks to God. She’s torn up about her marriage, the direction of her life, and her unfulfilled dreams. This act of desperation is a last-ditch attempt for her at a resolution, at peace, at a way out. Narrating the scene, she says:

I decided to pray. You know, like to God. And it was such a foreign concept to me that I swear I almost began with “I’m a big fan of your work.”

 What I love about this moment is that Elizabeth, the main character, assumes a physical form of prayer- kneeling, hands gripped, eyes directed skyward- but her words are unplanned, frank: she’s raw about her emotions, she expects God to listen, and most incredibly, she expects an answer. Her prayers are simple:

I need an answer.

Please tell me what to do.

God, help me.

This may be a fictional moment, but it shows us something very real: a) prayer is not concerned with form, so much as its concerned with authenticity, and b) prayer is not shooting arrows into an abyss. It’s an exchange. There’s no booming voice or burning bush. Elizabeth simply receives the impression that she’s supposed to go back to bed. And that in a sense, is her answer to prayer: to carry on.

Even as Elizabeth acknowledges she’s slightly uncomfortable with the whole thing, she believes in its power to work. And that’s the beauty of prayer, I believe. Jesus said even if your faith as small as a mustard seed (that’s pretty dang small), it can move mountains.* My ultimate point is this: prayer is not for the full-throttle, committed believer alone. It’s also for the woman, man, or child who thinks there just may be a possibility it is a real exchange or conversation with the Creator of the universe.

*Matthew 17:20

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