Prayer: Is & Isn’t

[A note: I don’t feed or dialog with trolls, no matter how well-known their “names” may be. I simply have no wish to present attacks as valid opinions or arguments. I have a low tolerance for such people.]

Prayer can look very different from religion to religion and person to person. We have habits we develop associated with our practice as well as smaller personal details (touching a body part, incense blends, lighting, activities we can pray and perform). This final post on prayer is not to say what you personally cannot do but to clear up confusion and misconceptions that often get thrown about or promoted in our communities.

“Prayer is subservient.” If we continue with the common metaphor of prayer-as-conversation, it isn’t (necessarily). IT certainly can be, but it isn’t de facto a subservient act any more than any other conversation would be. Often, people approach it as talking to a close friend, perhaps (depending on the relationship) a distant relative, or even a lover (though we may have to change our assumptions about that word!). Claiming prayer is bad because it places humans ‘below’ a deity misunderstands the nature of prayer to many people and also makes murky, unpleasant territory for certain practitioners. There is nothing wrong with choosing to be subservient to a deity, and vilifying an act simply because it may not always place humans at the top of the food chain is problematic. Assuming that someone who prays ‘denigrates’ themselves is offensive.

“Prayers and spells are the same thing.” Actually, no. Not only will dialog become difficult with this little (commonly said) gem, it demonstrates how little language matters within our communities. Spells may contain prayers, certainly, and people who pray may use spells or witchcraft – but the focus of a spell and a prayer is (usually) completely different. Spells are often focused on creating change through your own magic and will power, where petitionary prayers (the kind ‘closest’ to spells) ask for a god to do something/aid you. It also makes an assumption that all prayers are petitionary in nature, which is not true.

“Prayer is religious.” Yes, it usually is (though plenty of spiritual but not religious [SBNR] folks may pray to something). Especially structured, formalized prayer – it can be taken out of a religious framework, but it usually is in one to begin with. Prayer also seems more common in people who hold some sort of faith or belief, associating it even further with religion rather than a looser spirituality. This isn’t bad – but in communities that are hostile to the idea of religion, it can be made to seem bad. Modern Paganism is still, for the most part, associated with the SBNR. Rituals are seen as positive, but prayer may be seen as harkening too much to creedal religion. This may also tie into the discomfort with having to do something religious, having a script, rather than doing something spontaneously as a spirit moves you to do.

“Prayer is boring.” Cue my sorrowful, slow, and silent shriek. Certain prayers may be boring, but that is entirely a personal opinion. Looking at the House of Vines or Aedicula Antinoi will highlight some incredible prayers. Pagan communities often seem overly fond of poetry, but call it prayer and people hold their nose. Not every prayer is going to suit your tastes, but reading a variety will inevitably turn up a few that sing to your heart. The idea that it is boring may again tie into structure and consistent, repetitive prayer – it seems that for many Pagans, repetitive prayers or daily prayers do not hold any interest. Which is more than fine – which each have our paths – but does not mean that consistent prayer is boring. For mystical folk, consistent, repetitive prayer can be grounding (or ecstasy-inducing, it depends!) and help with keeping yourself from getting lost in your mysticism.

“Scripted prayers aren’t as sacred/special/honest as spontaneous prayer.” Eep, this one is really problematic! Many people don’t want to have a script and feel it is a stifling, but many more can feel just as uncomfortable making up words on the spot. Add in that not everyone is a poet much less feels comfortable making prayers up on the spot and may feel like not having the inspiration is a sign of inadequacy, and we’ve got quite a brew. Even if one is inspired, that inspiration may not even be able to be shared verbally or can only be shared in a way that will frighten/confuse others. As a mystic, there are times when I do not have the words for the level of emotions and sensation I am experiencing, and having a set of words to use that I have used again and again and again is invaluably helpful. Those prayers allow me to focus and can also allow me to tell a god to ‘back off’ if I don’t want those emotions/experiences at the time. When I’m feeling low and don’t have any words that I can roll into prayer, having scripted prayer that I have used before and built power around also allows me to continue my practice and not become frozen because I don’t have anything to give to my gods and spirits.

As always, I look forward to comments and opinions!

Basics: Prayer (I)
Basics: the Clarene (Holy Days)
Some Thoughts on Polytheism
Monday Tarot: 0 the Fool
About Aine

Aine Llewellyn is a 20 year old girl creature currently mucking about in southern Arizona. She enjoys the winters and rain but can’t stand the heat. She is a difficult polytheist that natters on and on about her faith.

  • Kris Bradley

    I’ve very much enjoyed your posts on prayer. I was once, when discussing prayer, was asked, “I thought you were a witch? Witches don’t pray!” Pfft. I know all kinds of witches that do. What I think witches *shouldn’t* do is judge each other based on our own personal spirituality.

    I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

  • Aine

    Thank you!

    I’ve run into that behavior a lot in Pagan circles – even when I make it obvious that I’m not a witch I’m…told that prayer is not something witches do as if that means I should stop praying. It is a bit baffling to me!

    I think the various Pagan, witchcraft, and polytheistic communities could do a little less judging of personal spiritualities, tbh P: I’m sure it’s something we’ll slowly figure out as we continue to grow.

  • Christine Kraemer

    The misconception that prayer and spellwork are the same is interesting. I agree with what you say here, and yet I’ve often introduced the idea of magick to non-Pagans by making a comparison to prayer, since the two often have overlapping functions (for instance, to send healing to a sick friend, one might pray, or do a spell — and as you said, spells often contain prayers, and prayers might involve ritual actions similar to magickal work, so no wonder the distinction gets muddled). I was arguing with my husband about this the other day, actually — I said that in prayer, there’s an assumption that someone is listening on the other end, whereas in magick, there’s often not that assumption. He said, “But doesn’t magick assume a responsive *universe*?” I think he has a point. Anyway, I like your move to differentiate between petitionary, devotional, and other types of prayer — we Pagans could generally use more clarity in our ritual intentions.

  • Aine

    Hm, I disagree about the responsive universe part – but I’ve dialogued with a lot of atheist or secular witches who find the idea of magic seeking a response rather than enacting will power to be problematic to their own craft and perceptions of it. I think with magic there may be an assumption that the world can change if we chose to try to do so – sometimes with softer means than others, sometimes with what amounts to magical brute force. Still, many Pagan magical practitioners seem bent towards the responsive universe idea. Which gets even more complicated if we consider what responsive means (does it mean the universe hears and reacts in accordance with our wishes? or does that mean we are able to affect the world through force or will? interesting thoughts bubbling about…)

    I’m hoping to go more into different types of approaches to ritual and mystical practice as well as religious practice, and how they all can blend into each other but also how distinction of what is or what labels we use is incredibly useful – if only for our own uses!

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    ” There is nothing wrong with choosing to be subservient to a deity, and vilifying an act simply because it may not always place humans at the top of the food chain is problematic.”

    I very much agree with and appreciate this viewpoint.

  • Ananta Androscoggin

    The closest similar point between “prayer” and “spell” is the one where a minister will perform “the Collect” segment of a church service, wherein all of the prayers of the congregation are “collected together” and “sent onward” by him to heaven.
    I once read an article or book or something (too long ago to remember specifically where) that went on about how there are seven basic kinds of prayers. Though I never seem to recall all seven, the list includes prayers such as:
    prayers of thanksgiving
    prayers for intercession
    prayers asking forgiveness
    prayers of adoration
    prayers for the dead
    I can’t promise you that I haven’t accidentally substituted something pulled out of my ear for something which is supposed to be on this list.

  • Aine

    There’s more types of prayers than what occur in church services…