Roxane B. Salonen, Published February 21 2014
Faith Conversations: What is prayer? Seven people, seven answers
My need for that communication with God never waned, though my commitment has flickered on and off through the years. What I do know is that prayer and a vibrant faith go together, and our relationship with God must be cultivated.
St. Therese of Lisieux described prayer as “a surge of the heart,” “a simple look turned toward heaven,” and “a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.”
Curious how others define prayer, I asked seven area faithfuls of different religious perspectives to share their thoughts.
David Myers, 69, was raised in Texas as a Christian of the Methodist persuasion. He was something of a skeptic from early on, however, he says.
Later, as a professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, he taught world religion, and during that time, “fell in love with Judaism.”
Judaism, he says, is more about practice than belief, which, for someone for whom belief does not come easily, works well.
“Judaism welcomes questions, and many Jews struggle with belief in God. It’s as much about living a compassionate and just life as it is about any kind of creed.”
The word for prayer in Hebrew, he says, is “self-evaluation” or “self-judgment.”
“Both prayer and the study of Torah should lead to acts of kindness,” he says. “It comes back again to deed.”
Though moral transformation is one objective of prayer, he says, there’s another just as important.
“It should sustain in us a radical amazement – the very fact that we exist, that there’s a world at all – and also instill in us a gratitude for everyday things.”
Ahmed Kamel, 50, grew up in Egypt immersed in the religion of Islam, which incorporates two types of prayer – formal and informal.
Formal prayer, performed five times daily with prescribed actions and sayings, is “essentially an act of worship,” he explains.
He likens informal prayer of Islam to that of other Abrahamic faiths.
“That is where people essentially talk to God directly, and ask for help, guidance and forgiveness,” he says. “Muslims are encouraged to do both.”
The formal prayer involves different positions, beginning upright and declaring intent to perform the prayer. It includes reading parts of the Koran and other postures of kneeling and bending.
“It’s a form of showing deference to God, and the constant reminder to us throughout our busy day that there is a supreme being that we are praying to,” Kamel says.
Amy Bjerke, 39, a Lutheran Christian, looks at prayer as “a conversation throughout the day with God.”
“I used to pray only when I needed something or was in a panic,” she says. “Now it’s a daily thing, giving thanks for all we have. It’s my road map to living my life.”
But life for Bjerke, a wife and mother to six children – three living – hasn’t always been roses. In April 2010, after 20 weeks of pregnancy and nine hours of labor, she gave birth to a son, Matthew, who had died in her womb. A miscarriage both preceded and followed this tragedy.
With this suffering came a shift in her prayer life. Bjerke says she felt peace in surrendering everything to God and asking him to turn her sorrow into something good.
One closed door led to the opening of another as the family entered the journey of adoption and were connected with their daughter, Malia, an orphan from China.
“It’s amazing how out of 150 million orphans, God can pick the right one for you,” she says, adding that prayer was central in the family’s journey toward adoption. “It’s a lifeline with the giver of life.”
Katie Dubas, 37, grew up in Nebraska, where she sometimes felt alone in her yearning toward God – even while attending Catholic high school.
“Most of the kids didn’t seem to care much about their faith. It didn’t seem to really bleed into their daily lives,” she says. “I think it was more a lack of urgency to know Christ because their lives were filled with so many other things.”
As a teen, she began attending 6:30 a.m. daily Mass with her father. “Dad would knock on my door about 10 minutes to, and I’d get up and throw my hair into a ponytail and go.”
Though she can’t attend Mass everyday these days, it remains “a stabilizing point” for her. “It’s a huge blessing to say, ‘OK, Lord, here I am in all my brokenness and weakness. I’m here to receive your strength and presence.’ ”
Prayer can happen in many forms, from traditional, memorized prayer to a spontaneous conversation with God, she says.
“The purpose is to basically draw close to the source of life.”
Mark Bourdon, 60, converted to Tibetan Buddhism in January 2005. Though he has strong Christian roots, he says, growing up he always felt something lacking.
As an adult, Bourdon stepped into a Tibetan center and immediately felt at home.
“I knew right away that this was my path. It was like a lightning strike.”
He likens the Buddhist religion to rain. “When it starts to rain we like to find a shelter,” he says. “The Buddha is shelter from the pain of life.”
Unlike a god, Buddha isn’t worshipped, he says; there’s no expectation of a deistic outcome. Rather, Buddha is “an ideal, a reference point based on the fact that all the qualities that Buddha exhibits, like inherent generosity and loving kindness, are already within us.”
When the Christian is in prayer, God enters in, he says, but for a Buddhist in meditation, the contemplative state allows for a discovery of the true nature of one’s mind.
“It opens our hearts so we can be more fully present, loving and compassionate toward those we’re interacting with on a day to day basis.”
Willard Yellow Bird, 61, an Arikara, grew up in a large Christian home, but was introduced to his traditional Native American ways through his grandparents.
When his father passed away in 1997, he became the family’s spiritual adviser, taking on the name Bear Shield to reflect his new role and spiritual gifts.
The Arikara approach to prayer, he says, is to ask the Creator for protection over one’s family and people and for forgiveness for the body’s weakness.
The religion goes back 10,000 years, he notes, and is still practiced through ceremonies like smudging and praying through sweat lodges.
At the ICU unit at Sanford Hospital, Yellow Bird helps Native patients deal with illness and death.
“I work with the family first, to change their sadness and hopelessness, to look at the miracles,” he says. “Then we all go and see the patient, because we want that good energy to be in there; that’s going to help the healing.”
Sometimes the body revives, but not always. “I’m just an extension of the Creator. It’s his decision,” Yellow Bird says.
Marian Kadrie, 84, grew up in North Dakota as a farmer’s daughter, but one whose parents had come from Syria and were Muslim. She recalls her father reading the Koran cover to cover several times a year, and taking time out of every day to chant.
Kadrie also was exposed to Christianity, and while seeing the merits of both religions, felt dissatisfied, she says. Then, as a teenager, she was given a little booklet on the Bahá’í faith. After a five-year search, she knew she’d found her spiritual path.
“Our purpose is to know and love God and to serve mankind, and prayer is the foundation of everything,” says Kadrie, who practices obligatory prayer in the morning, noon and evening.
Bahá’í attracted her because of its inclusion of all the major world religions, she says, and incorporation of texts from the Bible, Koran and Buddhist scriptures along with books of Baha’u’llah.
Work is also elevated to prayer, Kadrie adds. “It is the attitude of our life that we pray in everything that we do.”