Prayer serves many functions: it brings our attention to the fact that God is present. It makes the spot of ground on which we stand holy ground. It quiets and focuses the mind, clarifies intention and awakens the imagination, opening up the heart and lungs as we breathe more deeply and relax into this most intimate of encounters. As a communal practice, praying creates consensus and convergence of focus, teaching us how to be the body of Christ, and how to speak with one voice and one hope.
It is hard for average people to muster the kind of confidence that Jesus expresses in his three-part lesson on prayer. Your kingdom come: The kingdom seems light years away. Give us each day our daily bread: People die of hunger all the time, even in affluent countries. Forgive us our sins: Forgiveness is the exception, certainly not the rule.
While making nursing home and hospital calls one day, I visited several people who were on oxygen. A slim green hose ran from a machine to each person’s nostrils, piping in pure air to make his or her breathing easier. In each instance we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in preparation for Holy Communion, our hands joined and our voices speaking together. I was struck by the strength with which each of these people prayed. Their bodies were weakened in many ways, yet the prayer flowed vigorously from their lips, as if the prayer as well as the oxygen was helping them breathe.
Blaise Pascal evokes a sense of existential dread in this famous line: "The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me." In his poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, W. H. Auden pictures the human being forsaken in a blank, fathomless universe: