The Nature of Prayer

by Joanna Van Der Hoeven

Prayer – it’s a beautiful word.  It looks pretty on the page; it comes softly from the lips. It’s not a word to be shouted.  It is a word that is deeply connected to other words, like sacred, holiness and religion.  For the pagan, as in other religions and spiritualities, it is about relationship, communion; a shared experience.  Going deeper, we tumble over the words and ideas associated with it – and delve into the nature of prayer.

Not all pagans pray, but a great many of them do.  It is done for many reasons – a prayer for healing, a prayer of thanks, a prayer of benediction. Some do not pray – relating prayer with their former Christian tradition.  But for me, prayer is central to my Druidry.

I wake up with a prayer, as I get out of bed and stand at the window – a version of Sigrid’s prayer, which has been much adopted and which I discovered through the Heathen tradition.  I say a prayer to honour the spirits of land, sea and sky before each meal.  Before long travels, in blessing in ritual for all manner of reasons – prayer is a part of my life. Most of the time prayers are spoken aloud, sometimes in my mind, but it is a forming of thought and words to express myself and to hear the other side expressed as well.

For prayer is not only a one-sided thing.  One cannot do all the talking, in prayer.  It is like having a friend who talks and talks and never listens to you – if you are on the receiving end of that, you will get annoyed, or at the very least, disinterested very soon.  Imagine being a deity, and hearing a one-sided conversation, day in and day out. I’m sure they would tune out too.

A friend of mine said “the first prayer should always be thank you” – and that is a beautiful sentiment. It’s important, to keep perspective – for remembering what we do have, even when, and especially when times are tough.  It’s not about being humble, though that in itself is not such a bad thing – it is about being respectful.  Too often we can gobble our food without thanking the spirits of the sun and wind, of rain and soil and the multitude of others that brought it to our lips.  Too often we come home, walking through the door, without thinking of the safety and comfort that our home gives us, without pausing for a moment on the threshold and saying a quiet prayer. 

As an animist, prayer is a deep intention to honour the spirit of all things that share this existence with me, both the seen and unseen.  The key is in the sharing.  All relationship flows in more than one direction – you simply cannot have a one-sided relationship.  My garden feeds me as I feed it.  I tend to the needs of my community as they tend to mine.  I breathe in the air that my ancestors breathed out 10, 100, 1000 years ago.  It is all connected. Prayer is honouring that connection.

We can have altruistic intentions, but ultimately we need something in return – and that is at the core of prayer.  The nature of prayer is to nurture a relationship.  We pray to the gods of wind and rain, of love and compassion in order that we may come to some understanding, or gain some inspiration, as well as offering thanks in return for the gifts we have already received. It begs the question – do the deities feel the same?

In a way, yes, they probably do.  They too need some sort of reciprocity, otherwise there is no relationship. And in another sense, they don’t need our prayers, for they are the Other, other than us, bigger, and perhaps not caring or beyond comprehending human nature.  Still, in any case, it’s nice to be acknowledged, whatever you believe of your deities.

So, if prayer is about connection, to the deities, the spirits of place, or whatever it is that you are praying to, then one must also stop at some point and listen.  It’s not a one-way conversation.  We say our prayers, they may be in honour of the sunrise or sunset, or for inspiration for a problem, but then we must sit back and listen for an answer.  Sometimes there is none – often in life, there is no immediate answer, and we must simply find out as life happens.  But taking the time to stop, to listen, and even if we don’t hear anything, to appreciate the time and place that we are sharing with everything else on this planet is the other side of prayer. 

So what is the nature of prayer? The nature of prayer is to nurture, to keep strong that relationship to that which we are praying to.  It is about communion, and opening channels from all sides in order for that relationship to happen. Another friend said to me, on the nature of prayer, which I think is beautiful is this: “Prayer is love.”