An example: The Hebrew "sh'ma"—"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One"—is a prayer I say every morning. As a person whose belief in the traditional concept of an all-powerful personal God is, to say the least, minimal, what am I doing when I say these words?

For me, religious or spiritual faith means faith that this life, with its pains and losses, its oppression and desecrations, is worth living. That despite everything, the good outweighs the bad. Or, if such a measurement is impossible, that I choose to value what is beautiful even if there is so much that is vile and deadening. But to value existence in this way I need first to see it in its totality—as the "one" which is Sacred, and which may be called "God." To see that I need to be as aware of death camps as beautiful sunsets, of children starving in the Sudan as much as new babies on my block, as all the species humans have wiped out as much as all the wondrous life forms that remain. To affirm the holiness of life in the face of evil—that is the challenge of the Sh'ma. And so when I chant the prayer I try to bring into my mind at the same time both evil and the wonders of life: children dying in refugee camps, the song of the robin, my wife's beautiful eyes, the latest statistics on pollution-induced cancer. And as these contrary images, and the feelings to which they give rise, pulse through my soul, to affirm, to have faith in, the whole—the One.

This may be easily described, but I find it very difficult to do. How much easier to focus on one or the other—on the good to feel unmixed joy and gratitude; or on the bad to sink into anger or despair. But to separate them out is to deny the oneness of God—of this life that I have been given.

This kind of reflection can be extended to any serious prayer. If a devoted Catholic implores Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, she will have to feel the truth of what she has done wrong—without excuses, minimizing, or denial. If a devout Muslim repeats five times a day "I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except God," he must make sure that he is not worshipping money, power, sexual pleasure, or the satisfaction of being "holy." A Hindu may ask of the Godhead: "From the unreal, lead us to the Real; from darkness, lead us unto Light; from death, lead us to Immortality." And then in every situation her spiritual task will be to choose the Real and the Light, rather than the illusory goals or dark pleasures so available to us.

If this is what prayer requires, then learning how to pray is, as Kierkegaard counsels, "a task for a lifetime": To mean the words as we say them, go through the mental activity the prayers call for, and then to choose honesty over self-deception, faith over despair, Spiritual Truth over pleasure or social status when are prayers are done.

Prayer can be addressed to a supreme being, or to our better selves, the vast energies of Life, images of loved ones, or spirits of inspiring teachers. What makes the words into prayers is not to whom they are addressed, but the seriousness with which we take them. I can vow to stop drinking so that my rages against my family go away; promise myself I will be a kinder man; sing out my gratitude that trees grow, birds fly, and my eyes still work. If I attempt to put my whole soul into these utterances, they are prayers.