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  • Ian Gulland

To Be Human Is to Pray (July & August 2022)


From American presidents to Irish poets, from rock stars in London to single mothers living down the street, prayer has been the argument ​“that cannot be proven,” the ​“gaping need” of every human soul since the very dawn of time. Cave paintings dating back more than thirty-five thousand years at Maros in Indonesia and Chauvet in France functioned, it is thought, as spiritual invocations. In modern Turkey, the hilltop ruins at Göbekli Tepe are reckoned to be the remains of a temple six thousand years older than Stonehenge, which may itself have been a place of prayer some three thousand years before Christ.


And what of the future? Is prayer just the diminishing shadow of some primitive dawn? Survey after survey answers no. Three hundred years after the Enlightenment the world is, if anything, becoming more religious, not less. England is considered one of the more secular nations in Western Europe, but even here, one quarter of those who describe themselves as ​“non-religious” admit that they ​“take part in some spiritual activity each month, typically prayer.”


Eminent surgeon David Nott illustrates this apparent contradiction well. He operates in three British hospitals but chooses to spend his holidays in the world’s most dangerous war zones. ​“I am not religious,” he assured Eddie Mair in an interview:

But every now and again I have to pray and I do pray to God and I ask him to help me because sometimes I am suffering badly. It’s only now and again that I am able to turn to the right frequency to talk to him and there is not a doubt in my mind there is a God. I don’t need him every day. I need him every now and again but when I do need him he is certainly there.


That interview in its entirety had a profound effect on its listeners. In fact, experimental artist Patrick Brill (better known by his strange pseudonym ​“Bob and Roberta Smith”) was so moved by Nott’s testimony that he spent the next four months transcribing every single word, letter by letter, onto a vast canvas which was then hung in the central hall of London’s Royal Academy as the centrepiece of its Summer Exhibition — the most popular annual display of contemporary art in the country and the oldest in the world.


From primitive cave paintings to the whitewashed walls of the Royal Academy, the universal impulse to pray permeates and pulsates through human anthropology and archaeology, sociology, and psychology. It is no exaggeration to say that to be human is to pray. The question, therefore, is not so much why we pray, but rather how and to whom. For billions of people today, the answer to such questions is to be found in the revolutionary life and teaching of Jesus Christ.


The Bible and Prayer

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. — MARK 1:35

The greatest person who ever lived was pre-eminently a man of prayer. Before launching out in public ministry, he fasted for more than a month in the wilderness. Before choosing his twelve disciples, he prayed all night. When he heard the devastating news that his cousin, John, had been executed, ​“he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” After feeding five thousand people, he was understandably tired, but his response was to climb a mountain to pray.


When the pressures of fame threatened to crush him, Jesus prayed. When he was facing his own death in the garden of Gethsemane, bleeding with fear and failed by his friends, he prayed. Even during those unimaginable hours of physical and spiritual torment on the cross, Jesus cried out to the one who had apparently forsaken him.


Jesus prayed and he prayed and he prayed.


But it didn’t stop there. After his resurrection, Jesus commanded his disciples to follow his example so that the church was eventually born as ​“they all joined together constantly in prayer.” And then, as it began to grow exponentially, the apostles continued to follow their Lord’s example, resolutely prioritizing prayer above the clamour of pressing leadership responsibilities.


“Prayer is more than a lighted candle,” insists the theologian George A. Buttrick. ​“It is the contagion of health. It is the pulse of Life.” A real relationship with God means walking with him daily, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It means talking with him intimately, like Moses, with whom ​“the Lord would speak … face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And it means listening attentively to his voice because, as Jesus said, ​“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”


Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Two thousand years ago, the disciples welcomed Jesus back from his regular time and place of prayer with one of the greatest petitions of all time: ​“Lord,” one of them said, ​“teach us to pray.” His response to that simple, humble request was astonishingly generous. He didn’t make the disciples feel small. He didn’t say, ​“You really ought to know by now.” Instead, he gave them the greatest prayer in world history. These were men who would go on to have extraordinary prayer lives. They would intercede until buildings shook. They would spring Peter from a high-security jail by the power of prayer. Their very shadows and handkerchiefs would sometimes heal the sick. They would receive the kinds of revelations that change cultural paradigms. And most remarkably of all, they would one day find the grace within themselves to pray for their torturers at the very point of death.


The disciples were to become mighty prayer warriors, but it wasn’t automatic. Prayer didn’t get beamed down on them from heaven. It wasn’t a guaranteed perk of the apostolic job. Prayer had to be learned the hard way, and their schooling was to begin on a particular day with this simple, touchingly vulnerable request: ​“Lord, teach us to pray.”


And so, of course, he did.


Perhaps you haven’t prayed in a while, or ever. My invitation to you is to try it. You can do it anywhere, even in one of our churches, in which thousands have prayed- seeking God and then listen. Prayer, like any conversation can simply start as a “Hello…” “Dear Heavenly Father…”.

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