Action and reaction: prayer
At American Digest, Gerard van der Leun has written an interesting piece on prayer and why it isn't often answered in the way people might want (and sometimes even expect) it to be.
Reading it brought to mind an article I read quite a few years ago on the subject of prayer. It appeared where I would have least expected it--in some magazine like Esquire, or perhaps Vanity Fair, which I think I was probably reading in a dentist's office.
Unfortunately, I no longer recall the author's name or the magazine in which it actually appeared. But the premise of the article was that the writer, a complete nonbeliever who was experiencing some sort of huge crisis (midlife or otherwise), decided in his desperation to pray daily, even though he was without belief. He kept this up for a year or more, not knowing quite where he was going with it, and he found to his great surprise that the very act of prayer had an effect--but the effect was on him.
Prayer didn't necessarily get him what he wanted, not by a longshot. But he ended up changing as a person. He changed what he wanted, and changed what he was praying for, or praying about. He was calmer, more accepting, more "spiritual." And this was true even though he initially felt awkward and stupid praying, and was without any belief for quite a long time.
If you go back to one of my early pieces on change, I wrote:
So here is a somewhat dry (and, mercifully, relatively brief!) introduction to the topic of how therapists view the process of change in therapy.
Of course, like any other discipline, therapy has no lack of theories from which to choose. But the one that made most sense to me when I was studying marriage and family therapy was the idea that change can occur on any--or all--of the following dimensions: cognition, feeling, and behavior (another way to describe the three would be thought, emotion, and action). I would also add a fourth, the spiritual, but for the purposes of therapeutic change or political change we can safely ignore that one...
Intervening to change one dimension could end up changing another, and ultimately changing them all. The idea was that lasting change could start anywhere, but would then (at least, ideally) cause a ripple effect that would end up changing the family or individual on all three dimensions.
To use a very simple example with an individual: changing a thought ("I'm ugly") could lead to a change in behavior (going out more) that could lead to a change in feeling (from depression to joy). It usually seems much easier to start with either a thought or a behavior, because they are fairly easy to define and describe (to operationalize). Usually the change in feelings would follow the other changes.
So, my interpretation of what happened to the author of the article was that he changed on the behavioral dimension, and it sparked a change on the fourth dimension, the spiritual one, and probably on the others as well.
This certainly is not an attempt to take the mystery out of the process of prayer. I think there's still plenty of that left. But it is a framework for understanding part of the more mundane human dimension of what might be happening when a person undertakes a practice of prayer.