Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article “Is There a Right Way to Pray?” (by Zev Chafets) stresses the dizzying diversity of practices among different religious traditions. But even within all this diversity there seems to be a common felt need.
This raises the question of whether the impulse to pray is a universal human experience, an example of what my tradition calls “common grace.” Could it be that we are “hard-wired” to speak our deepest needs, hopes and fears to the Other who transcends us.
Author Frederick Buechner suggests as much when he writes: “Everybody prays whether you think of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky-rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way.”
These are all prayers because in some sense they are addressed not merely to oneself but to an(other.) To use the language of Martin Buber, prayer in any form is an “I-Thou” relationship, where our address, even when it starts as interior monologue, finds the unseen conversation partner. The “I” finds a “Thou.”
My friend and former colleague Rabbi Dennis Ross and I used to talk about this from the perspectives of our respective traditions. He uses this language of “I-Thou” from Buber to explore all our relationships, including the primal relationship with God, in his fine and accessible book God in Our Relationships. Like Beuchner, Rabbi Ross (who is also a social worker) finds prayer not by looking inward to special spiritual states, but by paying attention to one’s relationships. It is here, in the shared quotidian activities of ordinary life that God may be discerned and known. Rabbi Ross says, “The I-Thou relationship comes easily and often, over breakfast or at work, in the classroom or at the gym as well as in turning points of life.”