What is Christian prayer?

Photo by Leland FranciscoTo pray is to enter into a two-way conversation with God, sometimes using words, sometimes in silent thought. Prayers are often requests, but may also be in praise of God, saying sorry or meditations. Traditionally, Christians have kneeled to pray, since kneeling before one's ruler was a sign of respect. See Big ideas: Prayer

This is why, when Claudius tries to pray in Act III scene iii, he tells himself: 

‘Bow, stubborn knees.'

Seeing him kneeling, Hamlet is well aware what Claudius is doing (or trying to do):

‘Now he is praying.'

However, as Claudius knows only too well, it is not just the saying of words that is involved when praying; the words must be meant, and felt in the heart. When he first attempts to pray for forgiveness, Claudius tells himself:

‘Heart with strings of steel, /Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!'

But when he finds he cannot repent, he sadly comments:

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.'

The Prayer Book

The Book of Common PrayerIn sixteenth century England, English became the language of worship in churches, replacing Latin. A new book of prayers and services of worship, which simplified and translated the Latin services, was drawn up by Archbishop Cranmer. (For further detail, see Social/political context: Protestant versus Catholic).

This Book of Common Prayer was used in all church services at the time Shakespeare was writing. It is a prayer book of this sort which Polonius gives Ophelia to carry in Act III scene i:

‘Read on this book,
That show of such an exercise may colour
Your loneliness.'

In other words, reading a prayer book would give a reason for Ophelia to be walking alone and meditating. Hamlet certainly thinks this is what she is doing when he comments: ‘Nymph, in thy orisons/ Be all my sins remembered,' as ‘orisons' are prayers.

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