When I ask people what prayer is and how people pray, I get a range of responses:
“Prayer is something I do sometimes at church (if I go).”
“My grandma prays (and so do monks).”
“Prayer is only for Christians and Muslims.”
For many of my friends, prayer is context-specific and profession-particular. It is something you do in certain places and only niche identities participate. I wonder if this is why so few young adults take part: Praying feels exclusive, inaccessible and boring.
Rarely are we taught how to pray, and when we decide to try, prayers tend to emerge exclusively during desperate times. We pray for a loved one to be cancer-free, for a low GPA to miraculously rebound, for employment. Sometimes we shove atheist convictions aside to pray to an elusive god when disaster strikes. We might pray during a house fire, by the roadside after a car accident or teary-eyed at the bedside of a dying loved one. LSAT test-takers pray before their exams, as athletes also do before a big game. Even Richard Dawkins—adamant atheist and hater of all things religious—admitted in an interview that he isn’t sure how he’d respond during a life-threatening disaster. He hinted at the possibility of him screaming “Oh God!” before dying. Prayer is a sort of human reflex—a shot in the dark to check if something’s out there—and maybe even the Richard Dawkins isn’t immune.
In the last few years, I’ve discovered that prayer can be more than an occasional cry during a crisis; it can be a constant, dynamic conversation with a living God. Some of my most meaningful moments in college have been in prayer circles. I can testify to prayer’s power not only in my life, but my friends’ lives. Vassar—of all places— is where I first started really praying. I stopped using it as a crutch during a crisis, and started integrating it into my life as a daily dialogue.
In my first year at Vassar, Gloria Park ’18, a junior at the time, led a Saturday morning prayer group through this deep, restorative, vulnerable form of prayer for the first time. I wasn’t sure why I decided to go, but I found myself coming back. At first, nothing really happened. We said some words about our recent histories—annoying assignments, sick stomachs, fights with friends—and offered our words up. We prayed for students and faculty at Vassar. We circled up to pray for systemic change and for each other.
Over time, though, something felt different in me. I felt lighter, more supported—embraced even. I was a participant in this communal, visceral cry for spiritual intervention on campus and in my own life. Those prayers eventually changed how I navigated college. I became more sensitive to injustice, joy and anxiety—and more willing to respond to them. I started to genuinely believe in something I could hardly define: not an art form, but a process so very human that it began to feel like breathing. Deep and necessary and reflexive.
After a few months, prayer became a fierce and transformational force in my life. When I finally decided to fully embrace it, it enabled me to look up and out of myself, and toward something else. Toward someone else. When I pray, I’m not only asking for a change in my own life. I’m advocating for renewal in the lives of others. I pray for Paterson, New Jersey, a city near my house, where high unemployment rates reflect a history of racial injustice and economic depression. I lift my hands for loneliness on college campuses where students eat ramen alone in their rooms while craving community instead. I pray for deeper compassion about issues I’m removed from—struggles I can’t grasp from my place of white, collegiate privilege. Praying reorders my priorities and changes what I want. Maybe I’m important, but not more than anyone else. Maybe my issues aren’t the only ones worth caring about, and my desires are too self-interested.
I now pray continually during the day. Through prayer, I’ve learned to process my thoughts and experiences. Prayer gives direction to my reflections and puts my ruminations to rest. I don’t have to obsess about the professor who interrupted me five times during office hours; I can acknowledge his rudeness and let it go. I don’t have to passively react to my cousin’s recent brain cancer diagnosis; I can advocate for her in the spiritual realm.
Something shifted in me that year when I pressed into my prayer life. I no longer approach prayer as another thing to do. Instead, I showed up in joyful expectation and honest reflection. While in the past I scoffed at the idea of confession, it is now a daily part of my life. I look into the mirror and say I am enough, but that I am also lost and painfully broken, and my actions and judgements hurt people. I’m an imperfect daughter, runner, sister, friend, student, 21-year-old and all the other roles I play, but I am also a vehicle for empathy, reason and joy. I’m whole, but not wholly unbroken. I pray and (try to) love people from this multifaceted self.
I’m gaining these insights as I lead a prayer group on campus. To structure our times, we use the acronym my junior prayer friend introduced called ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanks and Supplication). Together we celebrate a parent’s promotion, lament how we hurt loved ones and offer up thanks and praise. We also pray for healing and help in the day-to-day: broken friendships, loneliness, mounting work. We celebrate bright spots—that incredible late night conversation, a recovering injury, a repaired relationship.
Our prayers encompass the whole gamut of life moments, both remarkable and ordinary. There’s an art to praying, but the beauty of the art is its realness. Prayer ranges from, “How should I spend the next two hours?” to belly cries of “There’s too much injustice in this city, change it!” Prayer isn’t all about fixing disasters in our lives. It’s bigger than that. It’s also about adoring something beyond ourselves. My most meaningful prayers have always started with praise and adoration— they start from a place of plenty, not deficit. We pray because life is a gift, and we’re the blessed recipients. Shame is not invited into our circles.
Last year, I came into my crying friend’s room and plopped down next to her on the floor. I offered to pray for her for the first time in her life. She was not in crisis, her day was just crappy—an accumulation of low-grade anxiety, hormones and B minuses. I didn’t have solutions, but I brought my questions upward—my usual procedure. Together we sat there humbled and connected. After praying we hugged and laughed and felt lighter. Something shifted in her countenance—a hopefulness in her eyes, a rigorousness in her words, and a sense of wonder and surprise that prayer— that outdated, irrelevant and colorless thing—might have transformed her day.
Sitting there on a Thursday night was such an illustration of what prayer could be—just two friends side-by-side sharing everyday experiences and praying about them. All it took was showing up in total humanity on a dusty dorm floor, eyes closed and hands lifted.