What good is prayer?

Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “I have so much to do today I need to spend three hours in prayer.” My historian friends remind me that, like Winston Churchill, Luther is said to have said all kinds of things that he didn't actually say. But this line of his rings true for least two reasons: first of all we know that Luther loved, loved, LOVED hyperbole. Second, and more thoughtfully, is the likelihood that, for someone whose spirituality was formed in a monastery, the notion of spending three of your 24 hours in prayer would not seem odd at all. It would seem completely normal. In fact it might feel like a light day. The Augustinian monks -- of which Luther was one -- prayed “The Hours,” that is, they met for collective prayer at specified times early in the morning, all through the day and into the night. Their legacy is revealed in our little 20 minutes Monday through Friday at the Chapel of the Resurrection. It’s a small sliver of a more robust tradition of prayer.

My initial connection with daily prayer at Valpo was motivated by the expectations that came with my role as a pastor on campus. Going was in my job description and so I went. Students were there and I was also eager to engage with them. Over time, however, I found the habit to be worth my time itself.  This slim 20-minute break became a blessed interruption in my morning, a time in my workday where I put everything down and walk away just “to be” for a little bit. There are many days when I don’t feel like I have specific prayer needs, other days when I don’t have much of a voice to sing or the energy to do so. Nevertheless the time to attend to Scripture in a focused manner and join with a community of prayer has been good for me and that has been enough.

At least until this summer.

This summer, in the course of reading on the current state of resilience studies, I came across a study that suggested that more things are going on when we pray than we first realized. The study suggested that those who practice meditation experience a significant increase in the size and density of a part of their brain had to do with self awareness and compassion and a corresponding decrease in the mass of that part of the brain that has to do with stress and anxiety. You can read a report of the study here.

From time to time I’m asked if prayer changes things or if it’s just a something that we do to make ourselves feel better. Usually this question comes from a perspective that is very aware of the teaching that God is all-knowing. The question essentially becomes, “If God knows everything, then what’s the point of prayer? It’s not like I’m going to change the divine mind.” In the past I’ve responded to that line of questioning by pointing to the fact that Jesus encouraged us to pray and that there are several occasions in the Bible where people are described as actively negotiating with God; Abraham and Moses are my favorite examples.  These accounts need to be taken seriously.

These days, however, I'm more inclined to respond to the question with another question: “Don’t you want to change?”

Pr Jim

Sept. 9, 2015