The Courage to Pray: National Day of Prayer is an opportunity for open-mindedness

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Today 55% of Americans pray daily and 79% pray at least occasionally according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In a nation of 300 million people those prayers must echo across the land but in so diverse a nation what form might those prayers take?

This Thursday, May 5, will mark the National Day of Prayer. The president will proclaim, as presidents have for the last 64 years, that “the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” That language is actually written into the U.S. code. This language can cause trouble between religious and nonreligious people and even between people of different traditions. A national holiday dedicated to faith is bound to kick up some dust, but how can we respect faith in an ostensibly secular government? And how can we as citizens celebrate our faith and the faith of those around us while maintaining sensitivity to those who believe differently than we do?

First, a little context for faith in the United States. Today 55% of Americans pray daily and 79% pray at least occasionally according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In a nation of 300 million people those prayers must echo across the land but in so diverse a nation what form might those prayers take?  Here are just a few you might see practiced in the United States and around the world:

In the religion of Islam, prayer is required 5 times a day (with a few exceptions) with one prayer in each of five periods of time and involves reciting particular phrases and verses from the Qur’an. Muslims also orient themselves so that they’re facing toward the city of Mecca no matter where on the globe they happen to be praying. In Hinduism, prayer takes more different forms. Prayer can take the form of recitation of “mantras” from the Vedas or elsewhere, but practicing Yoga or meditation can be used as devotion to God as well. In the Catholic faith, prayer often involves kneeling and usually involves reciting particular formulas such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary. An important part of prayer for some Catholics is the veneration of saints in the form of statues which are found throughout churches and in some homes.

Prayer like that, real and powerful prayer, has always seemed like a crazy act of courage to me” “There’s a kind of passionate hope in the prayers of children. It’s about lifting your heart up into the dark and being perfectly vulnerable to the reality that you’re probably not going to hear a response”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

Atheist groups have proposed an alternative to the day of prayer which they’ve dubbed the “National Day of Reason.” A day to celebrate the reasoning faculties that we rely on every day, and a day to remind us that religion should not invade public life. This may not sound like a particularly sexy idea, but it has been picked up by several states. Delaware and Nebraska have each declared a statewide day of reason on May 7th last year and there’s a National Day of Reason resolution making its way through Congress right now, but in a country that still proclaims our trust for God on our currency it’s unwise to bet against organized faith, so we shall have to wait and see.

Up to this point I’ve discussed mainly how adults address prayer, which is to say messily and at cross purposes in some cases. When children pray it looks different than how their parents would, but it looks similar to how other children pray, regardless of their tradition. There’s stumbling over the words, and the complaints about kneeling or prostrating, and a constant stream of questions about what the words mean and why they have to say them. For all the false starts, however, children are more fervent in their devotion than most adults can manage to be. There’s a kind of passionate hope in the prayers of children. It’s about lifting your heart up into the dark and being perfectly vulnerable to the reality that you’re probably not going to hear a response. And it’s not about getting a response, but about that act of fierce hope flung out into the void. Prayer like that, real and powerful prayer, has always seemed like a crazy act of courage to me. It boggles my mind. I’ve never really been able to do it, but I am lost in respect and a little bit of envy for those who can.

Now we return to the subject of how to handle a national holiday devoted to faith in a sensitive way. I’m not religious. I don’t know how to raise my heart and pray. I also don’t believe in things like Newton’s laws of physics, though, because they’d be true whether or not I believe in them, so I’d be wasting my time. But, I do not see religious people as a threat. They’re my parents and my friends and my cousins and my grandparents—all of whom I love very much. Religious and nonreligious people often clash and rage at one another, at a worldview so fundamentally different from their own. I hope that on this day of prayer or reason we can let go of the impulse to yell at those who have different religious orientations than us and take a lesson from the children in our lives and maybe open up enough to learn something new.

Opening ourselves up to allow knowledge and understanding to fly in? That sounds uncannily like prayer to me.