Prayer is a concept with which many Pagans have some trouble. The commonly-held attitude amongst members of mainstream religions about prayer is that it is a means of petitioning, praising, and thanking God, and many Pagans do not believe in an exoteric Deity from whom come blessings. Most Pagans’ attitudes about the Universe fail to consciously contain a concept of a Being “out there” who hears and answers, or refuses to answer, prayers. Therefore it is sometimes surprising to those of Pagan persuasions to find out that indeed they DO pray, and to examine closely what that prayer consists of.
Prayer in the form of communication with Deity is probably the most common type of prayer found amongst Pagans, whether or not they use the term “prayer”, or even the term “Deity,” for that matter. Despite the fact that most Pagans have a diversity of belief about the nature of Deity, we are all aware on some level that there IS a difference between “The Goddess” and “the Goddess Within”, for example. As a former teacher of mine pointed out to me, “Yes, ‘Thou Art Goddess,’ but you didn’t make the sun come up this morning, and I KNOW those mountains were there before you moved to Utah.” Most of us do not believe ourselves to be the final authority on the entire Universe, and whether we call it Goddess and God, Spirit, energy, the One, or many another name, most of us find, or postulate, or hope, that the Unseen Force of Existence is one which is personal and benevolent. Whether or not we feel that we have a parent-child relationship, or see ourselves more as Seekers, Scientists or Shamans, we feel a need to ask the questions and contemplate the vastness of the many possible answers. That questioning, or meditation, or contemplation, or ecstasy, or focus, or wish, is akin to what members of other religions term “prayer.”
One Pagan’s perspective on prayer was rendered thus, in an article on Witchvox in 2000:
What is prayer? Webster's dictionary says "1)a) (1) an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought (2) a set order of words used in praying b) an earnest request or wish. 2) the act or practice of praying to God or a god"
My understanding of prayer fits this definition and goes beyond it. There is that wonderful moment when a breathtaking vista of undiscovered beauty opens before you on a hike, when thoughts of praise and thanks fly out to the Goddess even before I am conscious of doing so. There is the discipline of focusing my mind and spirit as I write new rituals for our coven, silently seeking guidance as I work. Then there is the not so silent prayer for patience as I negotiate rush hour traffic. And the sharing of energy as the coven raises power in ritual and celebration. As you can see, for me, there are many types of prayer, many moments of prayerfulness, ranging from serious to humor-filled, all of them a means of connecting with the God and the Goddess in my daily life.
Connection seems to be the most significant element in what this woman refers to as prayer. It may not be obvious at first glance how the focus of such a prayer differs from that of many in mainstream religions, but another source states this more directly:
Do I pray? No, I do not feel that I pray. Prayer is a plea in my opinion, and my Gods to not need me to plea, beg or whine. They just need me to talk to Them. So I talk with my Gods daily. I do not take the role of supplicant, I take the role of what I am, a child talking to a very patient Parent.
Prayer is overrated. At some point, someone decided that in order to speak with a god, it was necessary to bend your knee in supplication (either physically or mentally) and make a plea to that god. This was supposed to be the only way that you could get your god to listen. Then it was labeled as prayer, and it only worked if you showed the proper amount of respect while doing it.
I show my respect by actually talking to my Gods. They are the original Mother and Father, we are their children. I do not expect my children to speak to me in pleading tones in order for me to answer and assist them, so I do not think the Lady and Lord expect that from us, their children, either. So talk to your Gods, make it known that you have not forgotten them, you love them, and they will do the same for you.
To connection, this writer adds mutual respect and a feeling of intimacy and entitlement, almost an egalitarian relationship. This idea is not as alien to Pagans as it may seem to members of other religions, as many Pagans hold to an idea that the Gods are created by those who remember and respect and worship them, so there is a mutual need there.
Most Pagans refer to what Christians think of as prayer as “sending energy.” They have within the concept that there is an Energy in the Universe that responds to their connecting with it, in ways often beyond the power of spoken or written language to convey. They may call this Energy Goddess, God, or Spirit…but they do communicate with, respect and sometimes attempt to interact directly with this Energy. Most Pagans also consider that the Christian custom of petitioning, thanking or praising God is as much an attempt to manipulate Energy as is what a Pagan does, only by a different name. Incidentally, the whole idea of prayer, even the word, has the same implication of giving responsibility over to Deity for what happens to one, whereas the Pagan idea of manipulating Energy seems to imply more personal responsibility for the results. Perhaps this is one reason why most Pagans pursue the concept of, and action of, prayer, whilst disavowing the name thereof.
Occasions of Prayer
Most Pagans do not think of what they do as intercession, but as cooperation, with Deity. For this reason, “praying for” someone is probably far more rare in a Pagan’s life than it is in that of a Christian. Part of the reason for this is the belief on the part of many Pagans that we “choose” our experiences in this lifetime, and that someone may be experiencing illness or hardship by their own pre-life choice, to enable them to grow in some specific way. Some one outside the experience would consider it unethical to interfere with that. Another part of the feeling of not “praying for” people has to do with the kinds of ideas expressed below:
To me “bad prayer” is when the intent is to change or fix the person being prayed for. When fundamentalists tell me they will pray for my soul, it feels like an attack on my soul. These kinds of prayers aren't honoring me as a human being, they are not offered in love (at least not in what I consider a reasonable definition of love). They are manipulative and controlling. I relate prayer like this to casting a spell without someone's consent. Trying to force an individual to behave differently. This kind of prayer is often used as a threat - "I will pray that you find the light and be saved from the torments of hell to which you are surely headed." My translation - "I want you to abandon your uniqueness and connection with the divine because it does not match mine and I feel it is a threat to my world and therefore evil, not just different. If you don't change you will suffer" also can be translated as "I'll have my god beat up your god!" This is the type of prayer that makes Pagans reluctant to use the word prayer. This is the kind of prayer I could do without.
And yet, we DO pray, even if we do not call it that. At every ritual we “call” or “invoke” the Elemental Beings or Guardians, the Lord and Lady, and sometimes other non-corporeal beings. At least in the Medieval sense (as in “I pray you” or “prithee”) we are then praying, no matter what we call it. When we send energy for healing or for spellcraft, we are praying, even if the prayer is directed at the Universe, our Selves, or has no designated object. When we sing or chant in praise of the Beauty of Life, we pray. When we touch for healing, and call upon Spirit to bless, we pray. When we say “So Mote It Be” as a Pagan form of “Amen!”, we pray. Whether we dance in active ecstasy or silently fall into contemplative or oracular trance…yes, we pray.