What Do We Pray For?

What Do We Pray For? October 19, 2011

Recently I was talking with a colleague about how to interpret a survey item on a major sociology study which asks respondents “How often do you pray?”  He said that, as a person who doesn’t hold supernatural beliefs, he sometimes finds it hard to deal with life’s difficulties. However, since has nonetheless made it through many challenges without becoming a religious person, people who pray a lot must be people who are biologically more prone to anxiety and hence need to pray when life gets tough.

His hypothesis that people pray because they are biologically prone to anxiety and find comfort in prayer rests on a particular idea of what people are praying for. I must admit that when I started my fieldwork among Haitian Catholics some years ago, I also thought people must be praying to deal with anxieties and challenges, but my interviews taught me otherwise.

One day about a month into my fieldwork at Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in Miami, I was feeling frustrated that, despite my warm acceptance into the community, people thought my questions were odd. Questions like “Does the church help you get social services?”; “What about legal papers?” “Health care?” elicited very few replies.

I also noticed that people who came to the church often prayed, sometimes for long periods of time, in front of the tabernacle or a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since no one seemed to want to talk to me about how the church’s large social service center helped them resolve their many problems, I figured they must be asking God to intervene.

So one day, I finally asked a woman I had been helping tutor English to, who I call Julia in my book, “Julia, what do you ask for when you pray?” Her reply really surprised me. “Ask for?” she queried me in return. “First, I give God thanks for all the things I have. We have to be grateful because we are God’s children.” But surely, I insisted, you must be asking God to help you? “I pray for others first. I pray for peace in the world; for an end to violence. Only when I’m done all that would I ask for what I need.”

So before jumping to conclusions that praying means asking for things or trying to relieve anxiety, let’s think more broadly about prayer. Part IV of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes various forms of prayer: blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. Similarly, an Evangelical colleague told me he grew up learning that prayer consists of “ACTS”: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.

Ok, so how many Catholics have read the Catechism’s beautiful discourse on prayer in the Christian life? Fair enough. As enthusiastic as he was about “ACTS”, my Evangelical friend admitted he wasn’t sure how widespread this practice is among evangelicals. But millions of Catholics do read sites like the Irish Jesuits’ site called Sacred Space. I opened their page today in the middle of my hectic workday today and got a nice reminder that prayer is God’s invitation to me­, not something I do first. Certainly, millions of Evangelicals likewise are reminded to give thanks for their blessings and to praise God.

So, back to my question: why should sociologists care what people are doing when they pray? Because our assumptions about what prayer consists of can influence our fieldwork and our interpretation of survey items. The question “How often do you pray?” may be an easy question to put on a survey, but it tells us nothing about what type of prayer people engage in. So if we think that in our consumer culture many people approach God primarily to ask for things, then why don’t we simply ask, “How often do ask God to help with your needs?” And, just to see how many people are grateful, let’s also ask “How often do you give thanks to God?”

Haitian Catholics taught me many lessons on prayer—perhaps the most important one being that prayer must encompass gratitude. An excellent piece of religious journalism, featured on the front page of the New York Times on Thanksgiving Day 2010, captured much of the richness of Haitian Catholic Charismatic prayer. But, as I noted in a blog entry for the University of Notre Dame, this otherwise wonderful article missed the centrality of gratitude to Haitian Catholics’ prayer lives. On Thanksgiving Day, I surmised, we would do well to ponder what newcomers to the U.S. can teach us about gratitude.

My hunch that academics don’t seem to really know what people do when they pray was confirmed by a new Templeton-funded research initiative on prayer announced in September 2011. Their RFP states, “While in the past much attention has been given to questions concerning the efficacy of prayer, much remains to be discovered about its sources, varieties, and relations to other important aspects of modern society and culture.” Amen.

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  • Laura Olson

    Thank you for this interesting posting! It is so revealing to hear a bit about Haitian’s disposition in prayer as being gratitude and generosity of spirit in prayer for others. It really highlights some truth in how Americans may be overly focused on trying to “plug God into” their needs, rather than making God’s plan the overarching (and joy producing!) theme of our lives.

  • Great post. I have had similar conversations with my peers. I think that many non-religious people view prayer as some kind of genie-wishing, and don’t give it too much thought after that.

    I’m just a graduate student in psych of religion so I’m not sure if sociologists use measures like this, but in psych of religion there’s a cool measure done by Spilka that addresses a few different dimensions of prayer. It might prove useful (if you didn’t already have it)!

    • margaritamooney

      I would be interested in seeing the scale. Would you send it along?

      One difference I find between sociology and psychology is that a lot of sociological studies of religion have a very large sample size, but the trade off is fewer questions about any one topic. With psychology surveys, they usually go more in depth on a topic with a smaller number of people.

      • If you have access to JSTOR you can pull it up under that link I embedded under Spilka’s name. I believe the measure is at the end of the study. If not, I can try to dig it up.

        • margaritamooney

          Thanks! I will try that.

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    • margaritamooney

      Thank you for your comment, Javier.

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  • Mel Suarez

    Nice post, Margarita. Great to see their faith being so giving.

    IMHO one of the things that ACTS leaves out is just sitting with God. It’s pretty obvious to me that God created the universe because nothing can create itself (causality argument). And if the universe has intelligent beings then it makes sense to me that God would want to interact with them.

    It’s heart-warming to me to think of God not just as the creator but as a friend, kind of like when your father or mother is also your friend.

    Friendship to me is one of the greatest gifts in life. I told my step-son, you are not just my step-son, you are my friend. We pick our friends. Therein lies the some of the power and echantment of the friend relationship.

    • Mel, I like what you say about “sitting” with God. I’ve heard the ACTS acronym for years now, but I had never thought about what it was missing. Thanks.

      • margaritamooney

        Thanks Mel. It’s true that just sitting with God, like sitting with a friend, is an important part of prayer. But it’s one that is hard to explain or live in this world of constant mental and physical activity.


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  • Manolo

    Margarita, congratulations on your research and article about “Prayer.”
    For me prayer is a dialog with God. When I wake up in the morning my first priority is a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, offering my prayers, activities of that day, my work, my sufferings and my joys….another to the blessed Virgin Mary, and another to my Guardian Angel, and pray for my wife, children and grandchildren; for peace among relatives, friends, and for Peace in the World,
    and also an Spiritual Communion, even if later I may go to Mass that day.
    I find the automobile to be a great place to pray, like when driving in front of a Catholic Church, and a great opportunity to pray the misteries of the Holy Rosary. In the evening before going to sleep, an Act of Thanksgiving for all the blessings received during that day and a brief Examination of Conscience, concentrating mainly on what I could have done better, through out that day.
    Attending Holy Mass several days during the week, I feel receiving special graces, spiritual joy, and the best method not to fall into temptentions, and to live in the “Grace of God.” Another excellent practice is to talk with your Spiritual Director, every other month, including confession and asking for his blessing. For me participating once a year in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatious of Loyola, (three days in silence), listening to the points of meditation given by the Retreat Master and having a dialog with God and on the last day of the retreat, make Personal Resolutions, to be reviewed once a month, and to
    prepare for the Spiritual Exercises for the following year. A.M.D.G.