What’s the Meaning of Prayer?


In the commonly understood sense today, prayer is difficult to make sense of. It may be tolerated when we are in a state of desperation. No one would mock someone who is facing a terrible crisis if they pray for help. Credible belief collapses. But a bankrupt kind of hope allows us to believe in anything. In desperation, we have to believe in something, however incredible. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, facing the bleak landscape of a life without your loved one, disappointed in love or failed in life, fallen from grace and favour with the world.

But in normal circumstances, prayer in modern culture is generally felt to be amusingly or distastefully self-deceptive, superstitious, superficial or just an embarrassingly cheap escape from reality. Better to sit facing the harsh blank wall of reality like an impassive zen monk, waiting for nothing or for the final end of an endless series of finalities, than to pin up on the wall pictures of false hopes on to which we project weak fantasies drawn from filtered childish memories of people who come to our rescue. In real life there is no escape. In reality, there is precious little altruism directed towards us even in childhood and even less after. In extremis, prayer may be excusable, because it is understandable in the light of human frailty, how hard it is to face reality honestly without false consolation. But, as a regular means of escape from the discomforts or loneliness of existence, it is merely a fantasy that diminishes human dignity.

There is another attitude to prayer. According to the seventh-century monk Isaac the Syrian, a person prays a lot when there is no other help. The more he prays the more ‘his heart becomes humble’ because you can’t cry out from a state of helplessness without acknowledging your powerlessness. This is the wisdom of humility as seen in the first of the twelve steps of recovery. We see here the beginning of a different approach to prayer in extremis. It is not that the person praying is expecting a supernatural divine intervention. But the very act of praying – and here prayer might mean no more than the verbal or mental expression of troubles, feelings and needs – the very act of praying changes us. It brings us to an experiential self-knowledge and self-acceptance that actually transforms us. Here, then, humility and self-knowledge are the same. To be in this state is to gain the happiness associated with poverty of spirit: depending on none of our own resources because we see that undeniably we have none to rely on, except the blessed ability to acknowledge this poor fact.

This is the opposite of passivity and despair. It is a long way from the fantasy of winning the lottery of God’s special attention. But it needs to be worked at and persevered in.

Isaac the monk says that until we have found this humility it is impossible not be scattered. Our imagination is working on one fantasy solution after another. Humility gathers the heart together, he says. It makes us single-pointed, mindful, still.

In this state the very thing that is not expected or fantasised about, happens. A sensation of divine compassion touches us surprisingly in the very poverty of our hopes. If we try to possess this, to manipulate it to obtain what we wanted before we stopped wanting, then God will be scared off and we will be in extremis again. But, let go of the anxiety generated by fantasy and what Isaac calls the ‘strength of trust’ returns.

Prayer then takes on a very different meaning. As indeed does God.

This is why the desert monks used to say ‘pray for the gift of prayer’. It is not that prayer fulfils our wishes but that prayer is the fulfilment of our deepest needs arising from the place of poverty that we usually prefer to avoid entering. This is pure prayer. The prayer that the great masters mean when they extol the fruits and blissful state of prayer.

Now, interestingly, this state of prayer, where words and intercessions, petitions and desires, are completely left behind because they are no longer necessary, can be entered by means of these words and cries from the heart. Provided they come from the heart. When that is, they arise from the pure need or bare desperation itself, not from an intermediary state of fantasy and addictive wish-fulfilment. Then we don’t need to stay long with the words. Or we reduce the words to a bare minimum. We don’t need imagination because the actual experience is more real and present. Then, as soon as they are faced in this poverty of spirit, the feelings of pain and anxiety themselves begin to change. Stay in this place, simple, undemanding, silent, and prayer itself – the direct participation in the presence of God – is the reward.

Meditation? Simply putting this into daily practice. It is the way of making this blessed realism a permanent state. Prayer then is understood not as an escape from reality. Not a lottery of wish-fulfilment. But as not less than a way of life that transforms, enhances and brings our humanity to the highest degree of being. Nothing to laugh at in this which becomes the laughter of the spirit.


“.. when he feels that God is there and that he comes to his aid, immediately his heart is filled with faith and he then understands that prayer is the source of our help, the source of salvation, the treasure of our trust, the port that has been freed of the storm, the light of those who are in darkness, the support of the weak, shelter in time of trial, help at the crisis point of illness, shield that saves in combat, arrow sent out against the enemy. In a word, a multitude of good enters into him by means of prayer. So from then on, he finds his delight in the prayer of faith. His heart glows with trust. ((See, Isaac the Syrian, Spiritual Discourses, 1st series, no. 21)