I truly do not care if a god ever hears me when I pray, but praying together with others is among the most transformative work that I do.
Allahu Akbar, the voice calls four times: “God is the most great.”
And in the teeming streets below, the people stop, life stops. Those who strive to climb ladders cease their efforts. Those who beg for coins put down their cups. Gossiping teenagers in sprawling shopping malls lay aside their bags of designer jeans, turn their backs on Macy’s, and face Mecca. Tyrants and children, hunched grandmothers and glittering celebrities, self-important magnates and the guy who pumps your gas—they all stop, lay out their prayer rugs, and put their heads to the ground in humble supplication to a God whose power to heal and to harm is nearly illimitable, whose name cannot be captured by any human tongue.
It seems rather like a fairy tale, this world where all the people change in an instant. Called out of the rush by some enchantment, they bow their heads to the ground and listen together to the words of invocation that ring out from the highest place in the city. It is, perhaps, the world’s most striking testament to the power of a uniform cultural and religious practice, and it’s no wonder that it feels like magic.
Yet the world of the Muslim faithful stops five times a day not for some magical enchantment, but for prayer. Five times a day, the people turn to face a holy city and reflect together on a spiritual truth that they hold in common. Whatever they are doing, no matter how important, prayer is more important.
What is called out from the lofty towers of the mosque translates to: “God is the most great. I bear witness that there is no God but God. I bear witness that Muhammad is his messenger. Come to prayer. Come to God. God is most great.” And in the morning, a special line is added, “Prayer is more important than sleep.”
To most non-Muslims it is the striking uniformity of practice that makes daily Muslim prayer so poetic and powerful, and at times uncanny. The words connect believers to a story that has been told for a millennium, to their parents and grandparents who prayed in the same way at the same times, each and every day. The prayers invite submission not only to God but to tradition, and the vision of an entire city praying together can be both immensely moving and profoundly disturbing.
After all, prayer is a way to gather power together, to name some deeper truths and to put words to the collective and personal yearnings of people. And when ten thousand voices pray together, the power of their invocations is enough to change them—and thus enough to change the world.
Whether or not those invocations ever make it all the way up to God, the power of that many people stating their hearts’ desires and praising with their whole bodies and souls does something. In a similar but much more modest vein, I truly do not care if a god or the God ever hears me when I pray, but I am here to tell you that praying together with others is among the most transformative work that I do.
Early in my ministry I remember a family whose baby was stillborn. Much too tiny for this world she was, and the mother couldn’t even bear to look at her. Her maternal heart was so broken that there were no words, but she called and asked me—the designated religious person in her life—to sit with that stillborn infant and pray over her.
The mother could not speak the words of blessing and none of us bothered to appeal to anything so trite as “God’s plan”—not here or there or then or later. But she knew somehow that some blessing must be spoken, some honest word said, to mark that moment instead of simply forging through it.
So I sat there and I said a prayer that simply held the holiness and heartbreak of that moment. I spoke to myself and the universe and the silent ears of a little life just lost. The substance of the prayer was the truth that even the briefest flame of her short existence changed things, that they loved her even though they never really met her, that nothing was the same because even for a moment she had moved and been and mattered. And it wasn’t a prayer for miracles, or even to change things, really, but to name things—to say the true names and send them out into the world with love.
Like some of you, I do not believe in a supernatural miracle-working God separate from creation itself. But I pray. In my own life, I pray quite a lot. It’s how I start every morning when I walk into my office, because without it, it’s all just email and phone calls and reports and I have a hard time remembering what all those emails and phone calls and reports point to.
Most of the time my own prayer life does not focus on asking for stuff or protection or safety, but rather on my deep desire to be better, kinder, gentler than I am. My prayers are like that of Eusebius, the Stoic: “May I, to the extent of my power, give all needful help to my friends, and to all who are in need. May I never fail a friend in danger. When visiting those in grief, may I be able by gentle and healing words to soften their pain.”
In my faith life I do not often pray in order to comfort myself, but to agitate myself into being a better version of myself. I pray to remind myself that I have work to do, and it makes what work I do possible.
At its best, as a statement of heartfelt intention, prayer evokes the way we want the world to be. Whether it’s God who answers those prayers or some combination of our own effort and the grace of a willing universe, there is something about stating one’s aspirations that makes them rather more likely to come true.
When we speak our heartfelt intentions aloud or into the silence of our hearts, we can honor life or death, we can acknowledge hope or horror. Prayer is a way not just of naming what we yearn for, but also of harnessing our own power, including what we choose to do with it once we harness it.
Prayer is power. Yet in a world where a few Muslim radicals have used their prayers to bring about violence, and where a great many believers in the Christian tradition and beyond have confused prayer with patriotism, nationalism, and sectarianism, it might seem easier just to write off the whole enterprise as something to fear.
But people are people, and they hunger all the same for a chance to speak their hopes out to a waiting universe. Their prayers are as varied as human hopes and dreams have always been—just as searing, and just as powerful.
In the final measure, it doesn’t matter whether your prayers are called out from a minaret or a pulpit, what color God’s robes are, or if God is even real outside of your own imagining. It doesn’t matter if god gets called Allah or the Great Nothingness. In the broadest sense, it doesn’t matter to whom you pray. It matters what you pray for; and prayers of people the world over, for better and for worse, are far more alike than they are different.
Adapted with permission from Quest (November 2016), the monthly periodical of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
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The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd is senior minister of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland.