Why Pray? — Some Thoughts from Karen Armstrong

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Why pray?

Apparently, I’m not the only person asking that question. No less a light than author and student of religion Karen Armstrong took up the question in an essay first published in 1998 and reprinted in the April issue of The Sun magazine.

Don Fausto Perez recorded his prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe on a small retablo picturing her appearing to him.  Photo c 2009 B.F. Newhall

Don Fausto Perez of Mexico recorded his prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe on this retablo. Photo by B.F. Newhall

If God is the all-knowing, all-good and all-caring Almighty of traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam, then surely God knows what we want and need before we ask, so what’s the point in asking?

And if the Ultimate Reality  is not so much the Person of the Abrahamic religions, if it is more an all-pervasive Creative Force than an Other with whom one could have a relationship, then maybe there’s no point in striking up a conversation with It.

Yet every religion worth its salt recommends the discipline of prayer, Armstrong notes. Why? What good is prayer? And what good can it do those of us who are skeptics, who can’t really say we believe any of that religion stuff?

Armstrong responds by pointing out that, actually, most religions don’t imagine God as something that is strictly “out there.” Most teach that God is “a reality that is encountered in the depths of our own beings.” And it is in those depths that we become acquainted with ourselves. We encounter there our vulnerablities and our failures.

“By putting our unutterable weaknesses into words, we make them more real to ourselves but we also make them more manageable,” she writes. We shatter our defenses, which allows the Sacred to penetrate our beings.

Prayer also pulls us out of our busy, literal, habituated daily lives. By offering prayers of thanksgiving and praise — by expressing gratitude — we remind ourselves that our lives are miraculous, that each day is a gift. “Such prayers help to hold us in the attitude of wonder that is characteristic of the best religion.”

You can find Armstrong’s original essay in Every Eye Beholds You, edited by Thomas J. Craughwell, 1998, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

What do you think? What good is prayer anyway?

 

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