Column: Why pray?

By The Reverend Stephanie M. Johnson

On Thursday May 5th Greenwich residents, elected officials and clergy gathered together for the national day of prayer. The annual gathering has been beautifully organized for many years by Nancy Henkes as an opportunity for people of all faiths to praise and honor God. Last week’s in-person gathering filled with prayer and music lifted our hearts reminding us that together we can go forth into the world strengthened in love of God and each other. Showered in the power of prayer, we were reminded that even in a divided world, we can unite in the certainty of God’s never ceasing presence.

In thinking about how and why we pray, I’ve been reflecting on my own life journey through prayer. As a young child, my sister, with whom I shared a bedroom would listen to my nightly prayers which would include petitions for those I loved and general wonderings about God. My sister has often remarked that even as an elementary school student it seemed like I was talking to God as if God was fully present. I also recall that my early prayer life was tinged with a bit of transactional requests from God. Often these prayers were more like a list of wishes. Yet with the gift of time and reflection, I’ve learned to experience prayer not as transactional but an ever deepening relationship with God.

Mature prayer is a transformative and transforming way of being centered with God in love. Many decades ago I read for the first of many times, Carmelite Brother Lawrence’s 17th Century book the Practice of the Presence of God. His book gave voice to that feeling I had had experienced as a young child was that “That prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of GOD.” It is a habit steeped in decades of intentionality and focus, opening our hearts to God.

At the same time prayer for most people is not something that comes inherently rather it’s a learned behavior inherited from others. In the Gospels we hear the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus responds with the gift of the Lord’s Prayer, shared by Christians for thousands of years, in countless languages around the world. When our own prayer words fail us, Jesus has given us all that we need to pray. We teach our children to find words to address God with grace before meals to bedtime prayers. Family prayers are often passed down from generations giving us the connection to those we love and from whom we came.

Prayer is strengthened and made more complete when shared in community as witnessed on the National Day of Prayer. In Abrahamic traditions, we repeat the same words that generations of faithful have said in times of joy and mourning. Our burdens can be lightened with the knowledge of God’s steadfastness in the past and present both in the world and in our own individual lives.

As the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said “Prayer transforms us as individuals, but it is also a powerful agent for healing and change in our communities and world as it engages us with God’s creative and compassionate work.”

In a world filled with so much turmoil and chaos and in our own personal journeys which are proving to be challenging in this pandemic era, may we chose prayer today, tomorrow and always.

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