What is the power of prayer?

I believe that the power of prayer is first felt inside of us. It's a sense of God's assent, somewhat like someone answering our phone call....

The Divine Hours

A complete guide to the ancient practice of fixed-hour Prayer

A World of Prayers

Written By Mark W. Muesse

The world in someone's hands
| prayers of petition | prayers of gratitude | conclusion

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
for sustenance | for protection | for divine assistance | for those who've died

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.


Prayers of Gratitude
of thanks | of praise | for divine presence
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

Copyright ©2008 Mark Muesse