What Happens When Americans Pray

What Happens When Americans Pray May 4, 2023

Recent research shows Americans pray in droves! I don’t know about you, but I am surprised and delighted by this. I’m also surprised to find I’m surprised. After all, prayer is almost as old as humanity. Americans do affiliate less with formal religion than in centuries past. But why would I—why would anyone—surmise that they also pray less? And people surveyed pray for the reasons people have always prayed: foremost, to connect with the divine. Secondarily, to lift up those who are in need or distress, especially loved ones. In this sense, love motivates people to pray: love for God and love for one another.

I myself have a complicated relationship with prayer and have long resisted notions of prayer that can seem to me manipulative, or that seem to put control in our hands. But I do value prayer deeply. To resolve my conflict, I long ago developed an image of prayer as joining my energy with the divine flow of love that is God. As you or I pray in love for others or for ourselves, we add our drop to the ocean that is God. In this sense, prayer is not some sort of manipulation of the divine. Rather, by joining our intentions with God’s energy, we cooperate with the essential force of love and repair, strengthening it as we go.

Joining our intentions with the divine intention can take many forms. And indeed, the research referenced above finds Americans do use different forms of prayer. But in most cases—70% of the time—we pray to connect with God.

Praying to connect with God doesn’t have to be ‘saying prayers,’ as we’re taught as children, or reciting certain prayers like we do in a faith setting. Prayer can be ‘holding someone in the light,’ as the Quakers say, and this can be wordless. Recently, I had two friends in one day write—out of the blue—to express that they were thinking of me. Besides being moved, I was struck by how thinking of someone in this way is a kind of prayer. When someone comes into focus in your heart and mind and you surround them with the warm glow of your love, it is prayer. And indeed, when survey respondents were asked what they most often ‘pray for,’ 76% of respondents said they are praying for loved ones in times of crisis.

Prayer as a stirring of love

The movement of our hearts to depths of feeling as we ponder different people or concerns has a unique sort of potency and sacredness, a sort of bonding. The stirrings that cause us to transcend life’s distractions and focus on a need or person, often a beloved or a stranger in pain—these stirrings are love.

Yet sometimes the stirrings that cause us to lovingly think of a loved one or need can also be entangled with fear, indeed can even be motivated by fear for ourselves and the pain we will feel if harm comes to those we love. We fear our own losses. This knot is part of being human. Part of why we think of someone especially close to us, such as our children, is because we are worried for them in a way that involves worry for ourselves. Still, we do love them as much as we love anyone. So our motivations in prayer, as our motivations in everything are muddled.

On the other hand, in prayer I sometimes need to get away from words because of such mixed motives. So I use practices like reciting mantras in my head (short repetitive phrases); using ‘thank you’ as a prayer—simple expressions of gratitude; or understanding wordless experiences as prayer (hugging my cat; studying a bird; relishing warmth on my skin). I am not alone in this. Apparently many Americans—especially young people—use objects in prayer, items like imagery, candles, music, or aromatics or incense, that help create a connection to transcendence that is wordless.

Objects of Devotion

Often we can experience connecting with other souls in a transcendent way through art; and art—especially music—has a powerful resonance in the prayer life. How often have you listened to a minor-key song and suddenly, out of the crystal blue, been in tears? Author Susan Cain, in her book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make us Whole, describes music as a “transcendence delivery system” (referring specifically to the music of Leonard Cohen). I consider these moments of connection through song to be the Something More of prayer.

The outcome of all of this prayer? Survey respondents say prayer brings out in them everything from gratitude, to humility, to a sense of being accepted. I find this encouraging and inspiring. ‘Prayer is everywhere,’ as the American Prayer Wrap 2023 summarizes. This rings as very good news.

"I am finding that to be true. Such a wonderful discovery!"

Bridging Distance: Discovering the Joys of ..."
"I cannot imagine it either! It's one of the best things in life."

Love Beyond Our Species: Relationships that ..."
"I can't imagine going through life without the unconditional affection I have received from my ..."

Love Beyond Our Species: Relationships that ..."

Browse Our Archives