Today, we tend to think of prayer as an individual activity, a chance to talk to God one-on-one. But in each of the three Abrahamic faiths, prayer has traditionally been a communal, structured practice, less a “dialogue” between man and God than a time to approach the King as loyal and humble subjects. These ancient patterns of prayer are an antidote to the atomization of modern life.
In the Abrahamic religions, prayer is a scheduled activity. Each morning, the believer faces a new day with several standing appointments. For Muslims, there are five appointed times for prayer; for Jews, three; and for Christians, anywhere between three and eight, depending on the tradition. Prayer is, most fundamentally, a matter of heeding a call and showing up.
In Muslim countries, the call of the muezzin is loud and piercing, and the ensuing pause in daily activity makes it clear that the summons to prayer is not addressed to individuals but rather to the entire community. In the Jewish tradition, prayer requires a community by law—a minyan consisting of ten adult males. And in Christian religious communities, the entire monastery or convent is called to prayer by the ringing of bells or the tapping of wooden planks.
Once gathered, the faithful recite set prayers in a prescribed manner. The words and the position of the body (standing, prostrating, or kneeling) are important, as is the body’s geographic orientation (toward Mecca, toward Jerusalem, toward the East). The one who prays does so with mind, words, and body, in harmony with fellow adherents. At times set aside for prayer, the faithful are examples of fully integrated persons, positioned body and soul on a vertical axis that joins time and space and unites individual, community, cosmos, and creator.
The prayers themselves shed further light on what these axial realignments are for. Take the Trisagion prayer, which Eastern Orthodox Christians recite at the beginning of morning, midday, and evening worship. The prayer is filled with language drawn from Scripture and tradition, but the essential point is to ascribe glory to the triune God as king and ruler of all.
The language of the prayer is the language of an imperial subject. In the Byzantine empire, one did not approach the emperor unbidden. One came when summoned. And the people who were gathered before the emperor took care not to behave carelessly or casually or to utter anything superfluous in his presence. The Trisagion prayer bespeaks a similar dynamic. The words make it clear that the one confessing God’s glory should not do so in a detached way, as though in some abstract mental space. Rather, in concert with all the faithful and the angelic hosts, he or she approaches the heavenly throne at the appointed time, to glorify God in person. For this reason, the prayer also requests personal cleansing, mercy, and pardon. The final element of the Trisagion prayer is the Lord’s Prayer. It, too, is kingdom-oriented. It expresses not only loyalty and reverence, but also dependence upon God as Father for continued forgiveness, protection, and provision.
Missing from this structural account of prayer is the idea that prayer is “talking to God” or, worse, engaging in a “dialogue” with God. Traditional prayer involves speech, and it involves addressing God, but it lacks a sense of easy familiarity. Regularized prayer is not a conversation with the thrice-holy God but an audience with him that one accepts as both gift and obligation. To the extent that the one who prays also makes petitions, he does so as a suppliant appealing to God as lord and master. Of course, there is a subjective, interior dimension to prayer. As we see from the lives and writings of saints, mystics, and ascetics, prayer has led many truly holy men and women to great spiritual heights. Yet I suspect that the “heights of humility” attained by these persons of exemplary faith are accessed not by shirking traditional prayer but rather by entering more deeply into the spiritual realm that it opens.
Those who live in Western democracies do not know what it is like to live under the authority of a king or emperor. No doubt those who live in monarchies understand the basic structure and dynamic of traditional prayer far more readily. As moderns, we recoil at the idea that a man is not his own, that he lives, acts, and dies at the pleasure of his monarch. We agree with Kant that the best and noblest life is the one we legislate for ourselves.
Modern life makes it hard for us to understand traditional prayer in several ways. First, it encourages us to see prayer in terms of our own agendas. We look for a side-door to the throne room, hoping to enter easily for a quick chat with the Almighty before we return to more pressing obligations. People accustomed to filling their days with meaningful and productive activities do so because they think that these tasks and appointments will contribute to their happiness and success. But if traditional prayer is what it seems to be, then the point is not to “get something out of it” but to offer oneself to the heavenly king so regularly and readily that time not spent in prayer acquires the same offertory character as prayer itself. Traditional prayer is not an item on the daily planner; it is the daily planner.
Another pitfall comes into view when we consider the ways that various media have conditioned our souls. The Internet atomizes. It encourages us to think of ourselves as self-contained individuals able to access goods and information immediately, in customized ways, for self-particular aims, in accord with “rights” to safety, privacy, and free self-expression. Souls like these (souls like mine) do not take commands easily. They do not stand in waiting. They chafe under the yoke of divine obedience.
Of course, prayer has been difficult in all eras. Every generation wrestles with pride, sloth, anger, and malice. Still, we have a good deal to learn and relearn from the tradition. In dwelling with the old prayers, we heed the words of the prophet, who told the people to “seek the ancient paths, where the good way is, walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).
Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor of classics and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University.