Mon | Sep 24, 2018

The point of prayer

Published:Friday | November 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Continuing its anti-religion campaign, on Wednesday, November 5, The Gleaner treated us to 'Prayer is pointless' by guest columnist Dr Ethon Lowe. One is not sure of Dr Lowe's expertise on the subject, but one hopes the good doctor knows more about medicine than he knows about prayer.

There are, of course, several different types and forms of prayer in Christian tradition and history, yet most secularist and atheist critics of religion seem only to know about 'asking prayer' - prayers of petition and supplication. It could be true that many Christians of a more fundamentalist bent see God as an almighty boops, waiting to dispense favours to wanty-wanty worshippers; and, therefore, believers in different situations barrage the Godhead with opposite petitions: for rain (farmers) or fair weather (outdoor-event planners); and victory in football or elections or war (both sides). That approach is worthy of criticism, but is no reason to declare that all prayer is pointless.

Lifting Our Hearts

Fundamentally, "Prayer is the lifting of the heart and mind to God". If you wanted to be more formal, you could say that "prayer is action that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity through deliberate communication". Prayer is a dialogue, not a monologue; there is two-way communication. It's not about hearing voices or anything so exotic; it is about being sensitive to interior movements of the Spirit.

In secular terms, it is close to what some people call 'intuition'. People who seek guidance from the Lord can explore all the available options and see which choices produce interior positive feelings (consolation) or interior negative feelings (desolation), to use the language of St Ignatius of Loyola in what is called 'Ignatian discernment'.

Many people may be led by their own minds and desires to pray for things that are not good for them, and then wonder why they don't get a positive response. Do they believe that God will give them something which will harm them?

People of faith are encouraged to "pray in the Spirit", praying for things the Holy Spirit leads them to pray for. Well-known biblical advice (Romans 8:26-27) is: "The Spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words; and he who can see into all hearts knows what the Spirit means because the prayers that the Spirit makes for God's holy people are always in accordance with the mind of God."

Prayer, Not Magic

Prayer, Dr Lowe, is not magic. It is not a mechanism to control God or to bend God's will to our own. It is, rather, the reverse. Experiments (such as you describe) into the efficacy of prayer using sick people assume that a cure is the best thing, whereas that may not, in fact, be the case. Sickness and suffering can be opportunities for growth and personal development. Experiments such as these are pointless!

Meditation and contemplation can lead to inspiration. Often as I prepare to preach, as I reflect on the scripture passage, thoughts pop into my head that produce positive vibes when I dwell on them. Or even when I am writing this column, ideas flow into my mind from somewhere. We can call it 'insight' or 'inspiration', but it may be part of the dialogue between the human spirit and the divine Spirit.

These interior movements can neither be proved nor disproved using the scientific method. Genuine scientists must know the limits of their discipline - when to speak and when to be silent. In logic, it is impossible to prove a negative, so to assert that God does not exist (and that prayer is pointless) is illogical and unscientific.

As a scientist, I can prove neither the existence of God nor the efficacy of prayer. As a person of faith, I have decades of prayer behind me, and my ongoing relationship with God is enough to satisfy my doubts. That will not satisfy Dr Lowe. He has had his disappointments in life.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, "God speaks in the silence of the heart, and we listen. And then we speak to God from the fullness of our heart, and God listens. And this listening and this speaking is what prayer is meant to be."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The publication of Ethon Lowe's article - or anyone else's, including Peter Espeut's - is not part of this newspaper's 'campaign'. The voice of The Gleaner is its editorial. Full stop.

The Rev Peter Espeut has academic degrees in chemistry/zoology, theology/philosophy, and sociology. Email feedback to