Prayer: Approaches & Validity

Every time I read a story about a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, or some other tragedy enacted by a damaged or just plain awful person, it’s a veritable guarantee that before I even see calls for “thoughts and prayers”, I see vociferous condemnations of thoughts and prayers. It would be one thing if they were only from the mouths and keyboards of my atheist friends—for them, prayer is an incoherent anathema anyway, so it doesn’t much matter what they’ve got to say about the matter—but the majority of such exhortations against the “laziness” of prayer come from my friends in the magical, occult, and Neopagan communities. Part of this arises from the syndrome of magicians who don’t believe in magic, but a lot of it, too, is a simple misunderstanding of terminology.

The word “prayer” applies to such a variety of human religious and spiritual activity that it’s pretty hard to generalize about it. When celebrity scientists (the closest thing to public intellectuals we have left) come out against everything from philosophy to the very human sense of hope, derisively including prayer as almost an afterthought along the way, it only bolsters the opinions of those who wish to reduce away any spiritual practice which goes against their own demands for “seriousness”—especially when it in any way reminds them of the traumas of their childhood religious upbringings. But many of these people are quite intelligent, and such reductionism ill becomes them.

It’s true that a lot of modern, largely Protestant, prayer is little more than a milquetoast type of intercessory prayer, and that done without anything in the way of discipline or method beyond “tell God what I want or don’t want,” but that does not represent what prayer is and has been to a great deal of humanity. The prayer exercises of the Jesuits, love or hate their intended goal, are the actual, historical basis of what modern occultists call “guided meditation”, complete with projecting oneself in one’s imagination into a complex scene intended to put one in participation with a spiritual reality. The Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodox traditions resembles Hindu Kriya Yoga, with visualizations, prānayāma, and japa-like repetition, all with the aim of diving as deeply into oneself as possible and meeting the Deity there in one’s own psychic core. Among Christian theosophists (not to be confused with Blavatsky’s Theosophy), like Jacob Boehme (Protestant) and Meister Eckhart (Catholic), and some Anabaptists (Quakers, Moravians), prayer is something like meditation, wherein one strives directly to swim in the depths of Divinity, bringing something back from the experience. The theurgy of Martinism resembles Tantric puja—not in its externals, necessarily, but in its general goals and modality, such as ritualizing prayer formulas with a variety of symbolic devices with the express purpose of achieving definite results thereby, whether those be internal or external or both. Lakota prayer contains an elegant and serene tradition of offering tobacco smoke to the four directions in thanks for the blessings of life. In fact, numerous spiritual traditions around the world consider prayer to be a very natural response to existence; even non-theistic forms of Buddhism, such as Vietnamese and Japanese Zen, engage in prayer as a show of thankfulness.

Of course, this may all be pedantry in the face of the fact that many people think of intercessory prayer when they use the word prayer at all. Is there any validity to “prayer for stuff”? That’s not a different question from that of the validity of “magic for stuff”.

At the very least, prayer and magic give us a way to be active under circumstances in which there is not a lot else we can do. But in cases when we can be doing more, it gives us an edge. I will accept the argument that looking to the sky and saying, “God, you’re really big and great, and I sure could use a cure for my cancer,” probably won’t accomplish a hell of a lot on its own—though medical studies of prayer’s impact on dealing with illness and recovery seem to show that even a bit of “humble beseechment” can improve outcomes, so it isn’t all worthless. But the innumerable intercessory practices around the world can boast of sometimes impressive results on a level with that of magical rituals and spells—to the point that no less a magical personality than the infamous Joseph Lisiewski (author of such as Ceremonial Magic & the Power of Evocation) admitted that mysticism (his term for prayer and so-called mental magic) is more powerful than magic in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, and influential Advaitin and Catholic Hermeticist Mouni Sadhu wrote an entire book on effective intercessory prayer under the title of Theurgy. Similarly, Draja Mickaharic, the master witchdoctor and author of numerous excellent collections of the world’s genuine spells, explains in his most famous spell compilation, A Century of Spells, that prayer is the most powerful magic there is, properly applied.

Intercessory prayer is, ultimately, a vehicle for gaining access to Divinity. Whether or not “stuff” accrues from it, for many people it is an important step along the way of discovering exactly who they are in relation to God or Gods and the world. It is a way for the microcosm to relate to the mesocosm and macrocosm. It is possible to argue over how evolved a method any given approach to intercession may be, but the experience of millions has it that there is at least some value in it. While popularity rarely indicates depth, it’s hard to discount the weight of such testimony entirely.

But does prayer make one lazy? I’ve never seen evidence of it. It’s true that many with a political axe to grind will use “thoughts and prayers” as a tactic to avoid having to do anything in the face of preventable tragedies, but that’s no more the fault of “thoughts and prayers” than is a blog writer at fault for the procrastination of his readers. People will make excuses for not dealing with what they need to deal with, and will try to make those excuses sound reasonable or even noble. I would bet that not many of them are even praying concerning the situation in the first place, but “prayers” sounds a heck of a lot better than “sitting here feeling shitty and powerless”, so “thoughts and prayers” it is. Again, that says quite little about what prayer can or cannot do and a lot more about the intentions of the person saying it. Even the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is an indication that the one doing the talking equates those things: for them, a thought and a prayer are equivalent, neither one being more than a sentiment. Those I know with disciplined prayer practices, however, would never draw this parallel; a prayer is a real cause from which we may expect real effects, and if those results are not forthcoming, a reason may be sought and, often, learned from and rectified.

We often get so caught up in our own assumptions that we fail to even try to see into the actual motives, actions, perceptions, and priorities of others. This is bad enough from most, but magicians, occultists, and mystics ought to know a lot better—and be far better acquainted with the incredible possibilities of a magical universe. The laziness of some does not remark upon the sincerity of others, the limiting ideologies of demagogues do not reflect adequately the limitlessness of experience, and the harmful definitions of childhood do not represent the creativity and power of those who know how to do better.