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  Prayers & Essays- a world of prayers by Mark Muesse


Our language and beliefs are our own, our prayers to the Divine are universal.

Belief divides the religions of the world, but prayer unites them. Across ages and cultures, prayers of Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and even non-theistic Buddhists have been strikingly similar in form, substance, and intention. To be sure, prayers from these diverse traditions are addressed to different gods or other sacred realities, but apart from their names for the divine, people throughout the world pray for the same things and in much the same ways.

These are the words of confession made at the service of the Evening Prayer in the Anglican Church:

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things we ought to have done; And we have done those things we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

Are the sentiments of this modern Anglican prayer all that different from the following prayer found in ancient Akkadian and Sumerian texts and recited thousands of years before the appearance of Christianity?

I, your servant, have committed every kind of sin.
Indeed I served you, but in untruthfulness,
I spoke lies and thought little of my sins,
I spoke unseemly words—you know it all.
I trespassed against the God who made me,
Acted abominably, constantly committing sins….

I constantly practiced shameful dishonor against you,
I transgressed your commandments in every way that displeased you.
In the frenzy of my heart I blasphemed your divinity.
I constantly committed shameful acts, aware and unaware,
Acted completely as I pleased, slipped back into wickedness….

Though my transgressions are many—free me of my guilt!
Though my misdeeds are seven—let your heart be still!
Though my sins be countless—show mercy and heal me!
My God, I am exhausted, hold my hand.

The similarity between these prayers of contrition—greatly separated by time and distance—is only one example of how homogeneous humanity’s prayer life actually is, especially when compared to the world’s widely divergent religious beliefs and doctrines.

But perhaps that should not be so surprising. After all, humans share a common stock of fundamental needs and impulses. We all require food and shelter, protection from illness and misfortune, material well-being, clarity of conscience, and reconciliation with death. At various times, we all experience the sense of awe and gratitude at the mystery of being alive. And in its most rudimentary sense, prayer is making these needs and desires known to ourselves and to the powers that be and seeking their fulfillment.

Prayers of Petition

The most common form of prayer is petition: the request for divine assistance. In older English usage, “pray” functioned like the word “please,” as in the phrase “pray tell me.” Thus, the word prayer carries overtones of supplication. Interestingly, the English word prayer derives from a Latin root, precari, from which also derives the word precarious. In its fundamental sense—but not, of course, its only sense—prayer is an appeal to the divine in the face of uncertain circumstances, a situation not in our control.

Prayers for Sustenance

Acquiring food and material sustenance is one such instance, although we urban moderns tend to forget how precarious getting food can be. The vagaries of climate and pestilence have made hopes for successful harvests and bountiful livestock among the foremost requests in human prayer. It is quite possible that humanity’s very first prayers were for satisfying the simple need for food. All throughout the history of religions, we find prayers concerned with physical nourishment. Still today, Jews recite an ancient harvest prayer during the festival of Sukkoth that contains this passage:

Blessed art thou, O Lord, Shield of Abraham.
Thou, O Lord, art mighty forever;
thou revivest the dead, thou art powerful to save.

May he send rain from the heavenly source,
To soften the earth with its crystal drops.
Thou hast named water the symbol of thy might;
Its drops refresh all that have breath of life,
And revive those who praise the powers of rain.

The Menominee among indigenous peoples of the Americas address the same appeal to their tribal spirits, the Thunderbirds:

You thunderers are our eldest brothers! Now we have asked you to come with your rain to water our gardens, freshen our lives, and ward off disease. We beg you not to bring with you terrible hail and wind. You have four degrees of tempest, come with a moderate rain and not a deluge. Do not bring too much lightning. Grant this, that we may be happy till the next time of offering. This tobacco we offer you, you can see it before us. It is for you.

This Hindu prayer celebrates the commencement of plowing and sowing in hopes of a fruitful crop:

Lord of the field, pour for us,
like the cow pouring milk, a sweet stream
that drops honey and is pure as butter.
May the Lords of the Law shower on us grace.

Sweet be the herbs to us and waters,
and for us the mid-air be full of sweetness.
Let the Lord of the field be sweet to us,
and may we follow him uninjured.

May the draught-bulls work happily,
and happily our men,
and happily the plough furrow.

Countless other prayers for meeting the basic need for water and food exist in virtually all known religions, a sentiment that reverberates with that appeal of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Prayers for Protection

Together with our vulnerability to an uncertain food supply is our susceptibility to disease and accident. Not surprisingly, prayers for protection from illness and misfortune comprise a massive portion of divine solicitations. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, prayer was the principal mechanism for healing and the prevention of illness. Today, prayer is often made in conjunction with the use of modern medical technologies.

Written during the pre-modern era, the Atharva-veda, part of the most sacred scripture in Hinduism, brims with prayers, incantations, and spells for bodily integrity, such as this example:

May there be voice in my mouth, breath in my nostrils,
Sight in my eyes, hearing in my ears;
May my hair not turn grey or my teeth purple;
May I have much strength in my arms

May I have power in my thighs, swiftness in my legs, steadiness in my feet.
May all limbs be uninjured and my soul remain unconquered.

Belief in god is not important in Theravada Buddhism, yet what is recognizably prayerful discourse is vital to the tradition. Because Buddhism emphasizes the alleviation of suffering, prayers for healing and safety are central. The following paritta, or prayer for protection, is frequently recited by monks and intoned on the radio each morning in Sri Lanka:

By the power of this paritta, may we be free from all dangers arising from malign influences of the planets, demons, and spirits. May our misfortunes vanish. May all evil omens and untoward circumstances, the malign conjunctions of the stars, and evil forces vanish. Let those who are in misery, be free from misery; let those who are in fear, be free from fear; let those who are in agony, be free from agony; let those who are insecure, be free from insecurity; let those who are in sorrow, be free from sorrow; and let all living beings be free from misery, fear, and sorrow. May the rains fall in due season; may there be a rich harvest; may the world prosper; may the ruler be righteous.

This prayer, addressed to no supreme deity or saint, is thought to generate positive merits that will benefit the persons named and help develop compassion in the life of the speaker. While the Buddhist prayer is one for a general well-being, other prayers can be quite specific, as in this Pygmy plea for snakebite protection:

When the foot in the night
Stumbles against the obstacle that shrinks and rears and bites,
Let, O snake, thou our Father, Father of our tribe
We are thy sons,
Let it be a branch that rears and strikes,
But not one of thy sharp-toothed children,
O Father of the tribe, we are thy sons.

Sometimes, prayers for health take a surprising twist. In India, prayers and offerings are made outside the village precincts to the goddess of smallpox. There, villagers supplicate her with gifts and praise and beg her to leave them alone and stay away from the village. Occasionally, humans pray to be protected from the gods!

Prayers for Divine Assistance

Beyond requesting the cosmic powers to assist with basic human needs, it is not uncommon for prayers to solicit, rather pointedly, divine aid in gaining wealth and other earthly advantages. The ancient Aryans, ancestors to the Hindus, were not timid about seeking material bounty. The Atharva-veda records this prayer for success in gambling:

The successful, victorious, skillfully gaming Apsara, that Apsara who makes the winnings in a game of dice, do I call hither…. May she, who dances about with the dice, when she desires to win for us, obtain the advantage by her magic! May she come to us full of abundance! Let them not win this wealth of ours!

Sacrilegious? Although some might think such prayers for material prosperity is unbecoming of those seeking the spiritual life, it is probably true that most religious persons have uttered such prayers at some point in their lives. As a college student, I prayed about each and every test I took knowing that higher grades would bode well for my career. I’m not sure that a prayer for gambling success is so different in the final analysis; in both instances, divine aid was sought to render life materially prosperous.

Prayers for Those Who’ve Died

Prayers of request are often invoked at particular points in time, especially when divine blessing is sought. People pray at the beginning and conclusion of a journey, the start and end of the day, the inauguration of house-building, at baptisms and funerals, marriages, naming ceremonies, puberty rites, and indeed at any point where ritual is deemed appropriate and divine favor is sought. Such occasions and the prayers that mark them are obviously too many to mention, so let us consider only one, prayers for the dead. This kind of prayer, which we find throughout the world’s religions, is especially important because it not only marks a transition as do other rites of passages but also because it functions to help reconcile us with death. Coming to terms with death and dying is one of the principal purposes of religion. In Islam, prayers for the departed focus on forgiveness that leads to Paradise:

O God! Pardon our living and our dead, the present and the absent, the young and the old, the males and the females. O God! The deceased, to whom Thou accorded life, cause her to live in the observation of Islam [i.e., submission to God], and she to whom Thou gave death, cause her to die in the state of Islam. O God! Make her our forerunner, and make her, for us, a reward and a treasure, and make her, for us, a pleader, and accept her pleading.

Tibetan Buddhists believe the dead move through intermediate states called bardos until the time of their rebirth. Since these states can be terrifying to those who are unenlightened, prayers for the departed help ease and hasten the transition.

O you Compassionate Ones, defend this one who is defenseless. Protect him who is unprotected. Be his force and his kinsmen. Protect him from the great gloom of the bardo. Turn him from the red storm wind of karma. Turn him from the great awe and terror of the Lords of Death. Save him from the long narrow passage way of the bardo.

O you Compassionate Ones, let not the force of your compassion be weak; but aid him. Let him not go into misery. Forget not your ancient vows; and let not the force of your compassion be weak.

The In Paradisum, recited as part of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, echoes the same desires for comfort and peace we find in the Muslim and Tibetan prayers:

May the angels lead you to Paradise. May the martyrs receive you at your coming and conduct you to the Holy City, Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive. And with Lazarus, who was once poor, may you have eternal rest.

In all the major religions of the world, prayers of this sort abound. Although they conceptualize the afterlife differently, all traditions enjoin the divine to bless and protect the departed.

A World of Prayers Index
| Prayers of Petition | Prayers of Gratitude

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