Our language and
beliefs are our own, our prayers to the Divine are universal.
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.
are the words of confession made at the service of the Evening
Prayer in the Anglican
and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from
thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed
and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy
holy laws. We have left undone those things we ought to have
And we have done those things we ought not to have done;
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
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.
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?
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.
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
perhaps that should not be so surprising. After all, humans share
a common stock of fundamental needs and impulses.
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
sense, prayer is making these needs and desires known to ourselves
and to the powers that be and seeking their fulfillment.
Prayers of Petition
most common form of prayer is petition: the request for
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
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.
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
with physical nourishment. Still today, Jews recite an ancient harvest prayer
during the festival of Sukkoth that contains this passage:
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.
Menominee among indigenous peoples of the Americas address the
same appeal to their tribal spirits, the Thunderbirds:
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
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
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:
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.
other prayers for meeting the basic need for water and food
virtually all known religions, a sentiment that reverberates
with that appeal of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this
day our daily bread.”
with our vulnerability to an uncertain food supply
is our susceptibility to disease and accident. Not
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
and the prevention of illness. Today, prayer is often made
in conjunction with the use of modern medical technologies.
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:
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.
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:
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
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
in due season; may there be a rich harvest; may the world prosper;
may the ruler be righteous.
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
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
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
for success in gambling:
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!
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.
for Those Who’ve Died
of request are often invoked at particular points in
time, especially when divine blessing is sought. People
beginning and conclusion of a journey, the start and end of
the day, the inauguration of house-building, at baptisms
marriages, naming ceremonies, puberty rites, and indeed at
any point where ritual is deemed appropriate and divine favor
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
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
death and dying is one of the principal purposes of religion.
In Islam, prayers for the departed focus on
forgiveness that leads to Paradise:
God! Pardon our living and our dead, the present and the
absent, the young and the old, the males and the females. O
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!
and make her, for us, a reward and a treasure, and make her,
for us, a pleader, and accept her pleading.
Buddhists believe the dead move through intermediate
states called bardos until the time of their rebirth.
can be terrifying to those who are unenlightened, prayers
for the departed help ease and hasten the transition.
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.
you Compassionate Ones, let not the force of your compassion
be weak; but aid him. Let him not
misery. Forget not
your ancient vows; and let not the force of your
compassion be weak.
Paradisum, recited as part of the Roman Catholic Mass
for the Dead, echoes the same desires for comfort and peace
in the Muslim and Tibetan prayers:
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.
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