'Gods change up in heaven, gods get replaced, prayers are here to stay.’ So wrote the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Anyone not sharing his conviction might consider a visit to the Blue Lotus Buddhist temple in Woodstock, Illinois. There, in a converted church, worshippers take their places between a massive new statue of the Buddha and the original stained-glass Christ, solicitous of his sheep. A series of actions takes place that could be focused on either image: a bell rings, the people stand, the clergy enter, and everyone bows in reverence. Then the work of prayer and meditation begins. The people chant their desire to take refuge in the Buddha and set themselves to focus on loving kindness.
Prayer is a concept that baffles and beguiles. It eludes definition, comprehending wildly disparate and even contradictory practices. It includes humane self-fashioning and bitter imprecation, strict formality and total improvisation, wordless meditation and lengthy monologue, the intention prolonged in a spun wheel or a lit candle. And to the extent that prayer is not now, and perhaps never has been, understood as a way to cajole and influence the power that governs the world, it is not always obvious what prayer is supposed to accomplish.
As anyone who has successfully abandoned a regular prayer practice can say, it isn’t hard to get by without. Yet this particular gathering and focusing of consciousness must be doing something. Prayer is religion’s hermit crab; it scuttles recognisably from age to age and purpose to purpose, while attempts to refute or confirm are left to grasp its shells. It endures, shaping the mind, altering the body, or reflecting and resisting the forces of modern life. In its irreducible variety and seeming gratuitousness, it remains a puzzle. But if prayer itself resists explanation, it can still be illuminating to map its dimensions.
In one of its most common and controversial forms, it takes the form of a petition made to the almighty for, well, all kinds of purposes, public and private, physical and spiritual. Public intercessory prayer has been a consistent feature of Christianity since its early days. Registers were kept of clergy, civil leaders and people in need, and intercession was made for them in the community’s worship. Common practices included anointing the sick and praying for healing. Over time, the anointing ritual was formalised as extreme unction and largely confined to moments of final illness. Intercession, however, lived on.
Put into theological terms, intercessory prayer was an appeal for God’s ‘special providence’ – an exceptional intervention beyond the ‘general providence’ that governed natural processes. Doubts and dissents on that principle were common, but they did not contaminate public worship, which dutifully pleaded for the health of rulers and bishops (always by their first names).
The 19th-century statistician Francis Galton, writing with an almost roguish scrupulousness, decided to test the efficacy of such prayers with a statistical study of the longevity of British royalty, clergy and other elite groups. He found that members of royal families – the most interceded-for class of people in Britain – had a shorter average span of life than other, less prayer-lavished cohorts. ‘The sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence,’ Galton concluded in 1872. ‘The prayer has therefore no efficacy, unless the very questionable hypothesis be raised, that the conditions of royal life may naturally be yet more fatal, and that their influence is partly, though incompletely, neutralised by the effects of public prayers.’ Clergy fared a bit better, but not much, and Galton explains their relative longevity by their ‘easy country life and family repose’.