Benjamin Dueholm in Aeon:
'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.