On Praying

A man praying at a Japanese Shintō shrine.
Image via Wikipedia

While by no means is prayer a ubiquitous form of religious expression, the saying of prayers is a common action on a multitude of spiritual paths.  Prayers of blessing are said over food and for child, prayers of healing for the ailing, prayers of forgiveness for trespasses, prayers of safe passage for the dying and dead.  Many of us mark each day with prayer, others may find prayer a part of their lives only in moments of crisis or during holy celebrations.

Whatever approach we take to prayer, most of us find ourselves confronted by the desire to pray for someone else at some point in our spiritual lives.  When faced with an urge to pray for another, most people don’t give it much thought, but simply send up their requests.  Prayer, after all, doesn’t require us to obtain the permission of the other person or to even consider their feelings regarding the matter of prayers said on their behalf.  Prayer is, after all, a communication between the practitioner and deity, not necessarily the concern of the person being prayed for. 

Or is it?  Perhaps it’s not as simple as saying “I want this for you,” so I’m going to pray for you.  What happens if what you want for a person is in direction opposition to what they want for themselves?  What if prayers to a deity other than their own is a violation of the tenets of their beliefs?  What are the consequences of acting on someone’s behalf without their consent?

I won’t pretend that I have “The Answers” TM to these questions.  It’s something I’ve struggled with over the years myself.  My thoughts on the matter at this point in my path are:

  • Obtain permission whenever possible.  Ask if the subject if it’s okay to pray on their behalf.  Address any questions or concerns that they may express.
  • If a person declines or appears uncomfortable with the offer of prayers, respect their wishes without questioning their reasons.  Do not argue or debate the point.  Find another way to be of help if you must, but respect each person’s spiritual sovereignty.
  • Be very forthright about the reasons for praying for another.  If the other person asks, tell them not only what you’re praying for on their behalf, but also to whom you are praying and for what reason.  Verify that the content of your prayers is in line with what they want. 
  • In the case of dire emergency where the person cannot respond, I will send prayers on their behalf, with a caveat of “Please answer this prayer only if it would be their will to have it said.” 
  • When the temptation strikes to assume that I know what a person needs more than they do, I refrain from praying for what I want for that person or what I think that person needs.  Instead, I will ask my own deities to give me patience and a clear head to cope with the situation.  “Open my eyes so that I may see, open my mind so that I may know, open my heart so that I may accept” is a frequent refrain in my personal prayers.

There is a certain underlying complexity in our interactions with each other and with our deities.  When faced with the question “May I pray for you?”, it pays to already know the answer, to know ourselves well enough to give an answer that upholds our own paths while respecting those of others.  The same is true when faced with the question “Will you pray for me?”   A simple prayer requires that we simply think before acting.

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