By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
29 Mar 2018
Understanding the Meaning of Prayer and how all prayers are indeed answered.
How many of our prayers have been granted? Not even one in ten thousand, to speak in general times. But we are told that every prayer is answered. And it seems that it is no longer, ordinarily, possible to pray for certain things the way our elders prayed – praying for rains tomorrow when weatherman has predicted sunny weather, praying for this or that gender or health status of newborn when tests report otherwise, and hoping that praying for solution to Kashmir will be soon answered. Once upon a time popular prayers for destruction of other communities like Jews or nations like Americans have become unpopular. Doctors rather than Pirs or special prayer sessions/prayer-food culture/khatams are more popular now. Explaining the problems with interpreting different kinds of prayers such as prayer as petition, how prayer distinguishes believer from nonbeliever and what really is prayer is what theologians and philosophers specialize in.
Scientific criticism leaves untouched, as William James noted, the essence of prayer that consists in “every kind of inward communion or conversation with the power recognized as divine.” How can science change the fact noted by Schuon “The very fact of our existence is a prayer and compels us to prayer, so that it could be said: “I am, therefore I pray; sum ergo oro.” “It is not enough for a man to formulate his petition; he must express also his gratitude, resignation, regret, resolution and praise.” “Resignation is the anticipated acceptance of the non-fulfilment of some request.” Prayer as request is only one department of prayer. The other and higher department is simply gratitude. Imagine any question on theory and practice of prayer and read Schuon in Prayer Fashions Man and Maulana Thanawi’s crisp and profound remarks in diverse contexts on prayer and one, generally, finds the answer.
Theognis said, “Do not ask God for something that you have; for God gives everyone what suffices him. You should rather ask God for something that you don’t have – that what you have may suffice you.” Heschel substantiates the same point “It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centred thoughts, which constitute the art of prayer.”
Why is prayer so fundamental? Even more fundamental than love in a sense, as has been noted: “We need love absolutely; but the love we need is agape, the love that only God has and is; so unless we go to God for it, we won't get it. And going to God for it means prayer. So unless we pray, we will not love.” Indeed “prayer is like love. Foreplay is, or should be, most of it.” Difficulties in life or seemingly unanswered prayers should be seen as a foreplay and waiting for a moment of touch from God that dissolves all complaints we might have had harboured. One moment in heaven or in loving embrace of the Beloved cancels or formats for good all woes, all unfulfilled desires and one can say one finds all prayers answered.
Making requests or petitions is not the primary purpose of prayer as noted by Heschel. “The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men.” Our role in this partnership is to pray and God’s is to fulfill them though not necessarily by fulfilling them in the particular ways we seek. In Bedil we find rejection of those who believe or claim that all their prayers are granted here and now. Noah’s prayer for son and Abraham’s for father was not accepted. We can say that all our prayers are granted if we achieve complete detachment so that what God does we own or we will what God does.
Let us read Kierkegaard for his penetrating insights on prayer: “God possesses all good gifts, and his bounty is greater than human understanding can grasp. This is our comfort, because God answers every prayer; for either he gives what we pray for, or something far better.” “…the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God is asking for.” “In proportion as one becomes more and more earnest in prayer, one has less and less to say, and in the end one becomes quite silent... until the one who prays hears God.” Prayer does not change God; it changes the one who offers it. If you complain of your enemies to God, he makes short work of it and opens a case against you, because before God you too are a guilty person. To complain against another is to complain against yourself. You think that God should take your side… If you intend to have God judge someone else, then you have made God your judge as well.” “The important thing is to be honest towards God, until He himself gives the explanation; which, whether it is the one you want or not, is always the best.”
There are people who don’t think of themselves at all and thus are unconditionally pleased with what God/Other/Universe does. They can’t imagine advising God to do this or that or bend the universe in their favour. There are others who have taken a vow not to request God for this or that end but to seek the Kingdom of God and that alone and, as Jesus implied, all things are later added as a bonus. There are others who have special relationship to God so that their every wish is granted – their wishes are God’s wishes.
One of the deepest secrets about prayer is that one has to sincerely pray for being able to truly pray in a way that God can’t afford not to grant it. This station has been reported of certain Companions and saints. All of us have, at times, witnessed the power of prayer and if we can take the witness of numerous studies by scientists on prayer as petition, it stands amply confirmed. The secret is our attention to anything we seek does the wonder and the reason is we are no longer ourselves when we are deeply concerned or attentive to some object/other. The Spirit descends when we become deeply attentive or meditative or selfless or committed that something has to be/should be done anyway. The principle that facilitates our endeavour to seek heights in any realm we are deeply committed to is called God and the way to it prayer.
We need to learn the language or idiom of prayer that works as it is learning to get properly attuned to the workings of the Spirit. And the Spirit is what we all know as the power of awareness, of spontaneous zeal to work or seek, of love and joy. When we are in love, all things seem possible. All works of genius, all discoveries involving intuition of some sort, all breathtaking feats of athletes, all great poetry or art works, all that impresses us by sheer excellence involve the miracle of prayer understood as attuning to the higher intelligent world by taking leave of ourselves as ordinary imprisoned mode of consciousness and letting the Spirit take reigns. One falls in prostration or yells out of joy or looks towards heavens or bursts with tears of gratitude after achieving some great feat because one acknowledges, deep down, that one is only an instrument, and the power or grace has descended from unknown quarters or above.
Gandhi said: “When every hope is gone, 'when helpers fail and comforts flee,' I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.” If we knew how to pray and what to pray for, there would be no complaints regarding unanswered prayers and we would choose God answering them in His own way or delaying the answer and converting our sighs or patient waiting into flowers of joy in the “other” world – learning to wait on God‘s terms and not ours is a superhuman gift and blessing at which prayer aims at – and note that life forces us to learn waiting or perish in despair. If we were really decent, we would hardly afford to hanker after this or that gift of God and would be content with God as the gift – that is why Eckhart said that “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” What do we really need apart from God? Nothing. And that is why things apart from God/gifts from God may be withheld for our greater glory by the All-Merciful in finding the treasure or source of all things we should really treasure.
The questions raised in the beginning are dissolved if we note that we are required to pray that it is not ours but God’s will that is to be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Prayer attunes us to higher intelligence that science itself seeks through another route, albeit dimly. Let us conclude with a prayer for an attitude expressed by A.W. Tozer thus: “Sometimes I go to God and say, "God, if Thou dost never answer another prayer while I live on this earth, I will still worship Thee as long as I live and in the ages to come for what Thou hast done already. God’s already put me so far in debt that if I were to live one million millenniums I couldn’t pay Him for what He’s done for me.”