In the midst of a conversation the other day, a friend of mine asked for a definition of prayer. I thought about quoting Webster, "An address (as a petition) to God or a god in word o\r thought" or sharing the ancient etymology from France, "to ask, request." Instead, I chose to discuss what prayer has come to mean in the church--and how it's practiced today.
As Webster puts it, the initial use of the word in French was to make a request; it later came to mean to make a request of God. However, regardless of what the word "meant," people of the Judeo-Christian faith have never defined prayer as simply being the divine request line.
Prayer has traditionally had several parts--adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (the asking part). Of course, there are other parts of prayer including the address, the closing, and so on, but none of these traditional portions of prayer include the most important aspect--listening.
A good many Christians define prayer as, "A conversation with God." In a real sense this is true, with the exception that a conversation implies dialogue, but few of us know how to listen to God. Listening to God is a skill the church hasn't traditionally been busy teaching.
It is unfortunate, but those faiths that have majored in listening to God have pretty well remained in the East. Buddhism, Taoism (which is philosophy more than a religion), and even ancient Eastern Christianity (as well as the worldwide monastic movement today) put great store in "listening to" and "being with" the divine; however, the Western church, especially the church of the masses, has put little emphasis on listening and being.
Perhaps the reason is that since the Enlightenment Western society has been preoccupied with cognitive knowledge as opposed to the experiential.
Today there is a resurgence of interest in the practice of faith through the experiential and through the senses. Indeed, there has been much interest of late in the practice of mystical Christianity, which is primarily a return to some of the methods of prayer in Christianity's first several centuries including meditation and contemplation.
The practice of meditation and contemplation in the church has been greatly hampered by our society's emphasis on busy-ness and by our discomfort with silence.
To listen to God one has to first take the time to be still and listen quietly with the soul. Silence and stillness are difficult in a world where all else around us is in a rush; nonetheless, to listen to God we have to "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46.10). However, stilling the body is easier than stilling the mind, and we can't hear God if our brains can't be still long enough to listen.
Meditating on a word or a phrase, breathing it in and out, can be a helpful tool. I often silently use the psalm above-as I inhale I repeat, "Be still and know" and while I exhale, "that I am God." Others simply repeat the name of Jesus, or pray the Mercy Prayer, "Be merciful to me, a sinner." Any phrase or image in your mind that helps you to center on God will do.
Then, as the mind stills and the presence of God is felt, we have the opportunity, as my spiritual advisor at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit advises, to just "loaf with God," that is, to be still in the presence of God-and listen.
So prayer is many things to many people. For some, it is a speaking to God; for others it is a rote verse or poem repeated in times of need; and for some prayer is a time of conversation with the divine creator-a time to speak and a time to listen.