Prayer is often defined as conversation with God. However, often our prayer gets degraded to a dead ritual rather than a live conversation. A rethinking of the basic questions of why and how about prayer may help us keep it a live conversation.
It is not easy to keep a live conversation with God. In fact it is not easy to keep a live conversation with anybody. If it is not easy to keep a live conversation with a human being-- friend or a family member or a spouse, how can it be easy to keep a live conversation with God, whom no one has ever seen. The conversation can soon become a dead ritual unless we know why it is important to keep the conversation alive and how we can do so.
Why do we converse with God?
Why do we converse with a friend? We do so for the sake of conversing, for we enjoy doing it. It does not have any other purpose. Sometimes we feel like our heart bursting with a lot of feelings, and we feel the need to converse with someone.When we converse with a friend, we open up our hearts fully and completely without hiding anything, and it effects a healing of hurt feelings.
A friend may not be available for us each and everyday to open up our hearts. If we can see a friend in God, who is ever-present with us, we can open up our hearts and clear it out everyday or even several times a day. Having God as a friend has another advantage. With God we can open up our hearts fully without hiding anything. but with a human friend, we may not be able to do so. Opening our hearts fully to God has the immediate effect of healing. If we continue to do this on a daily basis, it heals our hearts of layers of hurt feelings accumulated from the past, which makes our hearts clearer and purer day after day. Jesus affirmed that the pure in heart shall see God. Like a mirror, the purer our hearts become, the clearer we see God within us.
In order to do this, we should be able to see God as a friend-- someone who loves us unconditionally without any judgment. Apostle John begins his epistle talking about having fellowship with God. Fellowship is another word for friendship. God-human relationship is often related to the close relationship between lovers. When you fall in love, your loved one fills your eyes, and the rest of the world disappears. God has to become a lover for us, and we need to enjoy the company of God.
Other than this immediate effect, prayer has a more lasting effect. When we share our problems to God, we expect solutions to come. There is nothing wrong in expecting solutions because it is God we are sharing our problems with. But it is our experience that often we get disappointed, for solutions don't come as we expect. When it happens so, we often wonder if there is something wrong with our prayer. We also wonder if God hears our prayer or if God exists only in our imagination.
God is often thought of as a king seated on a throne in heaven listening to our prayers. When we get disappointed with unanswered prayers, it is time to reconsider our understanding of God and of how we are related to God. Although we know nothing of God, we know that the world depends on God for its existence. God is the source of the energy that keeps the world dynamic and alive. If the world is like a flame, God is the source of the fuel that keeps it burning. We, human beings, are related to the world like the cells are related to a body. Thus we exist as a part of the world, and the world exists in God.
Each individual human being has life and personality of his/her own. The individuals combine to form a community, which has life and personality of its own. Each community in turn is a member of a larger and higher level community. Imagine a cell in the index finger. The index finger is a part of the hand. The hand is a part of the arm. The arm is a part of the body. Thus each human individual is like a cell of the living being called Planet Earth. The earth is a part of the living being called the world, which receives its existence from God.
Imagine how a cell in my index finger communicates with me. Its communication reaches the index finger, then the hand, then the arm, and then the body. Similarly, when a human individual communicates with God, first it reaches the human community it forms a part of, then the earth, and then the world. Within the human body the communication takes place through the nervous system. Within the body of the world, communication probably happens in a telepathic way, which needs its own time, which explains why the answer to prayer takes time.
When an individual human being prays for the resolution of a problem, the resolution won't always come as the individual wants and expects. The resolution has to be agreeable to the higher levels as well. If a resolution for an individual is to be approved as he/she wants, it should not be against the interests of the human community and to the wellbeing of the world itself. Even though a resolution doesn't always come favorable to a human individual, he/she should not stop conversing with God.
A response to a prayer usually comes as coincidences. When we earnestly present a problem, and seek a divine solution, a solution does come, but in its own time and in its own ways.
How should we converse with God?
The primary difficulty in conversing with God is the abstractness of God. A conversation is impossible for us without a listener with a concrete form. No one has ever seen God, and it is not possible to give a concrete form to God. Where do we direct our conversation to when we are addressing someone who is invisible, infinite, and eternal? Some people imagine God as Isaiah sees in his vision seated on a throne with angels around. Some others ascribe the face of Jesus to God. Some others direct their conversation at one of the saints. People belonging to various religious traditions direct their conversation at a divine form they are familiar and comfortable with. A Hindu may give the face of Krishna to God. A Buddhist may direct the conversation at Buddha. I sometimes direct my conversation at my father or mother, who have passed away. In short, we have to direct our conversation at a concrete form that we can clearly visualize. Whichever form we visualize, we need to realize that the form we visualize should not become an idol, replacing God, but an icon, representing God.
Any conversation includes talking and listening. So we need to know how to talk to God and how to listen to God.
When we talk to God, it has to be an open-heart talk. Nothing should be left behind hidden. All hidden feelings need to come to the forefront. Nothing can be or need be hidden from God. In order to open the heart fully, God should be seen as a close friend. We need to make sure nothing stands between us and God.
When we listen to anyone talking, we need to concentrate our attention. To listen to God also we need to pay attention in the same way. We need to withdraw our attention from the surroundings, and from all of our senses, and pay attention intently to listen to God. We begin to listen when our attention is centered enough.
A conversation is personal. Each individual needs to engage in a personal conversation with God. We should not follow any written format for this purpose. It needs to flow out spontaneously from an open heart.
Conversing with God as a Community
This is not to deny community prayer. When people get together as a community, they may use a specially prepared format of prayer for this occasion. But this is different from personal conversation with God which everyone needs to do on a daily basis. A community coming to the presence of God is like a group of people coming to the presence of a king to present a memorandum. They may carefully prepare the memorandum in advance before coming to the presence of the king. Prayers of a community are like such memorandums. Thus community prayers should be formal and written, and should follow a well-prepared format. But the prayer of an individual needs to be informal and unwritten, without any well-defined format.
If a community of people can agree on a problem and pray for its resolution with one mind, the response can probably come quicker than when an individual prays. The will of a community of people may have fewer conflicts to resolve with the higher levels than that of an individual.
When one individual in a community utters a prayer while the remaining people remain silent, he/she does so representing the entire community. This person is usually called a priest. The Levite tribe among the twelve tribes in the Jewish community identified themselves as a priestly tribe, with their role of representing the entire Jewish community before God. Later, following this model, Apostle Peter explained the role of Christian community as a priestly tribe representing the entire human community before God.
A community prayer can easily become a dead ritual unless the members of a community are constantly made aware of the why and how of conversing with God. One person reciting the prayer while the remaining members remain silent can create the false understanding that only that person needs to converse with God while the others need only to be present there. Some people even come late to a community prayer meeting thinking that the priest prays on behalf of him. This is far from the truth. Actually the one person (priest) recites the prayer not for God to hear, but for the congregation to hear and pray along with him. God does not care for the sounds that come from our mouth, but for the innermost wishes and feelings and thoughts that rise from the depth of our hearts. A priest recites a prayer to help the congregation express the same feelings and wishes and thoughts as one body.
What should we converse about?
The very first rule of conversing with God is that we need to be fully honest to God and to ourselves. We need to be so honest as to express before God whatever feelings we have from the depths of our hearts. God honors our honesty. God does not care if you can't be good, loving, and righteous. But God does care if you hide your real self and show off a false self before God. Present yourself to God as you are with all the dirt on your soul, and God will surely wash you and clean you. So what should we converse with God? We need to open our hearts and talk to God about everything in there without hiding anything. There should be 100% transparency between us and God.
In order to be fully open and transparent to God, we need to realize that God cares for us unconditionally. Until we know this, we will be like the prodigal son, moving away from God. Once we realize that God cares for us, we will turn around and move closer to God. We will approach God as we are and fall at His feet seeking forgiveness.
Once we are with God, we will develop the mind of God, We will also care for all people just as God does. We will earnestly wish for the wellbeing of all people. Our prayer will become the expression of this wish for others. We will pray "Let thy will be done". We will earnestly wish for the world to become a Garden of Eden, a heaven on earth, which makes us pray, "Let thy kingdom come!"