How do you define prayer?

Prayer is an ancient practice and like other spiritual concepts is difficult to define. Although there is some disciplinary variance, the general understanding is that prayer involves connection between humans and the divine.

Our interest in the expression of prayer in health care includes the prevalence, the conceptualizations, and the varied forms it takes. Already the Canadian spiritual health practitioners we are interviewing are portraying prayer as much more than formal and formulaic incitations. One described prayer as communication (even as two people communicate with each other), and another as breathing (a way of being that sustains daily life). Michael Mason says: “Far from being just one religious practice among others, prayer is the believer’s ‘respiration’, the most vital activity upon which all others depend. It makes the sacred real” (2013, p.9).

We anticipate opening up meanings of prayer beyond those associated with institutional religion or with “the believer”. For example, we have seen that for the non-religious, prayer may connote a moment of silence. In the All Nations Sacred Space, prayer involves smudging. On a psychiatric unit, art therapy for some is understood as prayer.

How is it that these diverse practices could all be interpreted as prayer? The question is particularly germane in Canada’s and Britain’s increasingly non-religious societies. Linda Woodhead, a leading interdisciplinary scholar of religion in the UK, probes this question in her conclusion to the 2014 volume The sociology of prayer (edited by G.Giordan and L.Woodhead). She suggests a helpful idea of prayer as ‘changing the subject’: “prayer as switching the conversation in one’s head, taking a new subject-position or viewpoint (including God’s), moving to a new emotional register, altering focus, or dissociating from one state and entering another ‘higher’ one” (p.213). She goes on to say “contemporary prayer…is a personally-meaningful experience with a close relation to an individual’s own life concerns, hopes and fears”. Prayer thus externalizes the concerns of the person or people who pray. This can be transformative and self-transcendent, to move one’s concerns into a wider context or to find a different meaning in a situation. Such an understanding of prayer begins to create space for less scripted and non-religious forms of prayer, along with the formalized and religious.

How do you define prayer? What are the implications of various definitions of prayer


Mason, M. (2013). Making the sacred real. In G. Giordan (ed) Prayer in religion and spirituality (pp.9-25). London: Brill.

Woodhead, L. (2014). Prayer as changing the subject. In G. Giordan and L.Woodhead (eds.) A sociology of prayer (pp. 213-230). London:  Routledge.

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