There are several different types of prayer:
- contemplative prayer (communing with a deity, usually in silence);
- intercessory prayer (praying for help for someone else);
- petitionary prayer (praying for help for yourself);
- adoration, devotion;
- prayer of approach (preparing to enter a deity’s presence);
- invocation (asking a deity to be present);
- bidding prayer (a suggestion to participants to pray for a particular thing);
- confession and penitence (though I would be surprised if any Pagans do this, as we do not tend to regard wrong acts as injuring a deity, only as injuring the physical person(s) who were harmed by them);
- words of reassurance (for the benefit of the participants of the ritual);
- healing prayer;
- expressing aspiration (e.g. “may we be blessed”);
- reflection (reflecting on events).
Prayer is not just asking a deity to do things for you. It can be used as a means of creating a sacred context for your activities, by opening proceedings with a prayer. An invocation of a deity is a form of prayer. An evocation of an elemental spirit is a form of prayer. Many Pagans dismiss prayer as “passive magic” (as opposed to doing spells, which they class as “active magic”). This reduces prayer only to petitionary and intercessory prayer – but there are many other kinds of prayer, as you can see from the list above (which may not be a complete list).
There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: for example, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer).
Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose one of the Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry, or the Eight Wiccan Virtues, or one of the Roman virtues, to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word.
Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with a deity. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.
Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth).
What is the purpose of prayer? I don’t think it is only for the benefit of the deity being prayed to. I think it is for the benefit of the one doing the praying. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul.
In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,
“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”
To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what contemplative prayer feels like. (Your mileage may vary.)
Ceisiwr Serith produced A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is an excellent starting point if you are new to this practice. The books suggests a lot of different types of prayer, and to many different deities.
Prayer can be personal and private, or collective. When sharing a prayer with others, it can be difficult to express your theological viewpoint without excluding others. One proposed solution is to say “this is a prayer from my tradition” and perhaps invite people to “translate in their heads” if it does not quite work for them.
There are prayers in many different Pagan traditions, including devotional polytheism, Feri, Reclaiming, Wicca, Druidry, and many others. The theological stance of these prayers may vary from monism to ‘hard’ polytheism. A prayer does not have to be to a deity; you can also pray to spirits of place, or commune with Nature. I do not think there is anything wrong with adapting prayers to fit your own theology (as long as you state your sources, to avoid plagiarism, if you are praying the prayer in public).
You don’t have to close your eyes or kneel down to pray. Many people (e.g. Eastern Orthodox Christians) pray with their eyes open and their hands extended to indicate that they recognise the divine in the world. You could experiment with different positions. Some traditions use prayer beads; there are some lovely Pagan prayer beads available.
A prayer can be nothing more than time taken to set an intention for the day, or to contemplate the day’s events before going to sleep. It can be time spent communing with a deity, or holding others that you care about in your awareness and wishing them well. It can take place at your personal altar, or just in your head. It can be spoken or unspoken, formal or informal, and involve stillness or movement. It can involve descending into your own depths to find a connection with all-that-is; or it can be reaching out to a deity or spirit of place; or some other process. Different people experience it differently.