A man at prayerPrayer is what the Metaphysical poet George Herbert calls ‘an easie quick accesse' to the presence of God. It can be done anywhere, individually or corporately, silently or aloud, spoken or sung. It is an important part of most religions, and an almost instinctive human reaction in moments of crisis. People gather to offer prayers of thanksgiving at special times, whether personal events like the birth of a child, or national celebrations such as victory in war.

The Lord's Prayer

The most famous prayer in the Bible, and that most widely used by Christians, is the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Jesus gave it to his disciples as a kind of template when they asked him to teach them how to pray. Thus it demonstrates various aspects of prayer.

  • It begins ‘Our Father in heaven', indicating a close relationship with God.
  • It offers honour and submission to God, ‘hallowed (holy) be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'
  • It makes requests, ‘Give us today our daily bread.' It seeks forgiveness, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.'
  • It asks for protection, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'

Ways of praying

Various physical actions may demonstrate attitudes in prayer. In the Old Testament, repentance and confession, by individuals and corporately, is often shown by wearing sackcloth and ashes. Prayer may also be accompanied by fasting (going without food) to emphasise serious intent. Kneeling expresses petition and adoration. Paul in Ephesians 3:14-19 prays for his converts:

‘I kneel before the Father, and pray that … Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you … may have power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.'

Expecting an answer

Christian prayer is based on a belief that it will be answered, even if not always with the anticipated outcome. This belief is based on many promises in the Bible. One of the best-known comes from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount:

‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened' (Matthew 7:7-8).

Prayer in literature

Shakespeare's Henry V

In Henry V, after the battle of Agincourt, King Henry insists his men follow a form of prayer of thanks and praise as thanksgiving for victory in battle. He asks them to share his ‘acknowledgment that God fought for us', and orders ‘Let there be sung "Non nobis" (Not unto us, but to Thy great Name be glory) and "Te Deum" (Liturgy Morning Prayer:Te Deum).'

Shakespeare's Hamlet

Because repentance (asking for and receiving forgiveness) is necessary for salvation according to Christian teaching, it is the focus of one of the most painfully ironic scenes in Shakespeare's Hamlet. See Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace; Redemption, salvation.

Claudius wants to pray but cannot:

‘what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul murder"? …
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?'

Hamlet sees a chance to avenge his father, but holds back because he wants Claudius to go to hell, not heaven:

‘Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven …
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.'

Only the audience hears Claudius' words as he rises, and knows what an opportunity Hamlet has lost:

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.' Act III Scene iii lines 36-98

Hardy's The Oxen

In ‘The Oxen', the poet Thomas Hardy recalls an old tradition:

‘Now they are all on their knees,'
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

Related topics

Big ideas: Christians; Forgiveness, mercy and grace; Redemption, salvation.

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's Hamlet, Henry V

Thomas Hardy's The Oxen

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