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  Prayers & Essays- a world of prayers by Mark Muesse

Prayers of Gratitude

Entreating the divine for sustenance, protection, healing, prosperity, and blessing are only the most basic and most common kinds of petitionary prayers. Not all prayers, of course, take the form of request. Many are more expressive in nature, yearning to give words to deep-felt emotion. Prayers
of gratitude and thanksgiving are of this sort. Such utterances are often the natural response to answered prayers and unexpected gifts of grace.

Prayers of Thanks

Prayers of gratitude frequently follow successful harvests and are made both at yearly festivals, such as the American Thanksgiving, and at each meal, such as the Christian custom of saying grace. Non-theistic Buddhists also pray before meals, calling to mind not a god who provides but the interconnected web of life that sustains and nourishes the individual:

First, seventy-two labors brought us this food; we should know how it comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering,
we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order of mind to be free from clinging, we must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our way we take this food.
First, this food is for the Three Treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone
We eat to stop all evil
To practice good
To save all sentient beings
And to accomplish our Buddha Way.

In this prayer, the sense of gratitude is carefully transformed into the aspiration to be worthy of the gift of food by developing the virtues of wisdom and compassion. The indigenous Americans have also been especially eloquent about voicing gratefulness, as in this Iroquois prayer:

We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us.
We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with waters.
We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicine for the cure of our diseases.
We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and the squashes, which give us life.
We return thanks to the wind, which moving the air has banished diseases.
We return thanks to the moon and the stars,
which have given us their light when the sun was gone.
We return thanks to the sun, that he has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.
Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness, and who directs all things for the good of his children.

Prayers of Praise

Closely related to the sense of gratitude from which flow these prayers of thanksgiving is the experience of awe and mystery, which frequently pours forth as prayers of praise. In the theistic traditions, such prayers are addressed to the divine and often approach the poetic.
In a famous passage from the Bhagavad-gita, the most beloved and well-known of the Hindu scriptures, the warrior Arjuna is granted the rare opportunity to behold the god Krishna in his naked majesty. Arjuna’s response is prayer of praise inspired by god’s terrible beauty:

O god!

O lord of the universe, O you of all forms, I do not see your end or middle or beginning.
You are difficult to look at, having on all sides the brightness of a thousand suns, and indefinable.

You are indestructible, the supreme one to be known. You are the highest support of this universe. You are the inexhaustible protector of everlasting devotion. I believe you to be the eternal being.

I see you without of beginning, middle, end—of infinite power, of unnumbered arms,
having the sun and moon for eyes, having a mouth like a blazing fire,
and heating the universe with your radiance.

For this space between heaven and earth and all the quarters are pervaded by you alone.

Looking at this wonderful and terrible form of yours, O high-souled one, the three worlds are filled with fear. Seeing your mighty form, with many mouths and eyes, with many arms, thighs, and feet, with many stomachs, and fearful with many jaws, all people, and I likewise, are much alarmed, O you of mighty arms!

Seeing you, O Vishnu, touching the skies, radiant, possessed of many hues, with a gaping mouth, and with large blazing eyes, I am much alarmed in my inmost self, and feel no courage, no tranquility. And seeing your mouths terrible by the jaws, and resembling the fire of destruction,
I cannot recognize the various directions, I feel no comfort. Be gracious, O lord of gods, who pervades the universe.

O infinite lord of gods! O you pervade the universe! You are the indestructible, that which is,
that which is not, and what is beyond them. You are the primal god, the ancient being;
you are the highest support of this universe. You are that which has knowledge,
that which is the object of knowledge, you are the highest goal.

Obedience is yours a thousand times, and again and again obedience is yours!
In front and from behind obeisance to thee!
Obedience is yours from all sides, O you who are all!

You are the father of the world, movable and immovable, you its great and venerable master, there is none equal to you, whence can there be one greater?
You whose power is unparalleled in all the three worlds.

Therefore, I bow and prostrate myself, and would propitiate you, the praiseworthy lord.
Be pleased, O god, to pardon my guilt as a father pardons his son, a friend pardons a friend,
or a husband pardons his beloved.

The Christian Te Deum, one of the oldest extant prayers of the church, praises the divine in some ways not unlike Arjuna’s worship of Krishna, yet it remains unmistakably Christian:

O GOD, we praise Thee: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.
Everlasting Father, all the earth doth worship Thee.
To Thee all the Angels, the Heavens and all the Powers,
all the Cherubim and Seraphim, unceasingly proclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of Thy glory.
The glorious choir of the Apostles,
the wonderful company of Prophets,
the white-robed army of Martyrs, praise Thee.
Holy Church throughout the world doth acknowledge Thee:
the Father of infinite Majesty;
Thy adorable, true and only Son;
and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
O Christ, Thou art the King of glory!
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
Thou, having taken it upon Thyself to deliver man, didst not disdain the Virgin's womb.
Thou overcame the sting of death and hast opened to believers the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We beseech Thee, therefore, to help Thy servants whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy Precious Blood.
Make them to be numbered with Thy Saints in everlasting glory.
Save Thy people, O Lord, and bless Thine inheritance!
Govern them, and raise them up forever.
Every day we thank Thee.
And we praise Thy Name forever, yea, forever and ever.
O Lord, deign to keep us from sin this day.
Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.
Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, for we have hoped in Thee.
O Lord, in Thee I have hoped; let me never be put to shame.

As with the Lord’s Prayer, many prayers and sacred texts throughout the world begin with praise. Thus the Qur’an opens with this most ancient Muslim prayer of divine worship:

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose [portion] is not wrath, and who go not astray (Sura1:1-6; Yusufali translation).

With this keynote, Islamic prayers decidedly emphasize the praise of the god. Salat, the obligatory prayers of Muslims said five times each day while oriented toward Mekkah include these laudatory stanzas:

All Glory be to Thee, O God! And Praise be to Thee; blessed is Thy name and exalted Thy Majesty; and there is none worthy of worship besides Thee…. He is God, the One—God, the eternally besought of all! He begets not, nor is begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him. How glorious is my Lord, the Great!

Among high caste Hindus, the morning begins with a prayer of praise known as the Gayatri Mantra:

Earth, Sky, Heaven,
we meditate on the lovely splendor of the Divine Sun.
May he inspire our minds.

Prayers for Divine Presence

While various religions invoke different names for the ultimate reality and conceptualize it in
numerous ways, all traditions express in similar ways a sense of wonderment in the face of mystery.
From the prayers of praise and thanksgiving, we return now to the prayers of request—but not the request for things. Let’s consider the prayers that simply ask for the deep personal experience of the sacred. These are the prayers that recognize the secondary importance of all things except the divine itself, and they are among the loftiest utterances of humanity. From Augustine’s Confessions:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

It is not always possible—or perhaps even necessary—to distinguish prayers like this from poetry. The deep experience of the sacred that prompts these prayers is a kind of inspiration like that prompting works of art. Writers like the 14th century Sufi theologian Mevlana Jalal’uddin Rumi and the Hindu mystic and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore address many of their prayer-poems to the deity and write of profound yearning for divine intimacy. Tagore opens the Gitanjali with this stanza:

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.

In the following passage, which opens the Mathnawi, his immense volume of spiritual verse, Rumi speaks of his passionate longing to return to god from whom he feels separated. Interestingly, he refers to himself as a “reed,” the same metaphor that Tagore uses, and to god as the reed bed from which he has been torn:

Hearken to this Reed forlorn,
Breathing, even since ‘twas torn
From its rushy bed, a strain
Of impassioned love and pain.
The secret of my song, though near,
None can see and none can hear.
Oh, for a friend to know the sign
And mingle all his soul with mine!
‘ Tis the flame of Love that fired me,
‘ Tis the wine of Love inspired me,
Wouldest thou learn how lovers bleed,
Hearken, hearken to the Reed!


With these verses of Tagore and Rumi, we once again examine two noticeably similar prayers emerging from two very different religions separated in time by centuries. What do we make of these and the many other cross-religious similarities found throughout humanity’s life of prayer? I do not think they suggest that all religions are the same or are pointing to the same realities. The great religions of the world are just too massive and too internally diverse for anyone to make such claims, especially on the slim evidence of a handful of prayers. But I do think we can say that the religions of the world may be much closer than we ordinarily think, especially if we consider only their beliefs and doctrines as we are wont to do. Let us simply say that any conversation, any cooperation among religions, might well begin with prayer.


Thomas J. Craughwell, ed., Every Eye Beholds You: A World Treasury of Prayer. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998.

Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda, Daily Buddhist Devotions. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1993.

Shems Friedlander, Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes. New York: Parabola Books, 2003.

Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., Earth Prayers from around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916

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

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