Comedian Rowan Atkinson (a.k.a. Mr. Bean) ignited a controversy when, in his parody of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he infamously said, in a video comedy sketch: “Keep on praying – it doesn’t work, but it’s a good part of a getting-to-sleep routine if you’ve got insomnia.”
This statement may be partly true. It is also partly false. Whether prayer works, or does not, depends on several factors, particularly on the conditions and dynamics of the prayer itself.
Prayer is not a magical formula. It does not work by mere incantation. True prayer is not hocus-pocus. It is not mumbo-jumbo. It is not superstition. It is an act of mental and spiritual concentration, of visualization, of inspiration, of incentive to action, of increasing one’s capacity for accomplishing a goal.
Prayer will not work if stated as a mere wish. God is not a megalomaniac in the sky who, imagined anthropomorphically, scratches His (non-existent) beard, pausing to reflect whether or not to grant a prayer request.
Prayer will also not come true if it asks for a miracle which suspends the laws of nature. Like asking Santa Claus for presents, prayers don’t work as mere wishes, either.
If that’s the case, then how will prayer work? What do the Baha’i teachings tell us about its dynamics? What role does God play in prayer, and what about the role of the person saying the prayer?
Here’s the main way that prayer works, according to the Baha’i teachings:
Know thou, verily it is becoming in a weak one to supplicate to the Strong One, and it behooveth a seeker of bounty to beseech the Glorious Bountiful One. When one supplicates to his Lord, turns to Him and seeks bounty from His Ocean, this supplication brings light to his heart, illumination to his sight, life to his soul and exaltation to his being.
During thy supplications to God and thy reciting, “Thy Name is my healing,” consider how thine heart is cheered, thy soul delighted by the spirit of the love of God, and thy mind attracted to the Kingdom of God! By these attractions one’s ability and capacity increase. When the vessel is enlarged the water increases, and when the thirst grows the bounty of the cloud becomes agreeable to the taste of man. This is the mystery of supplication and the wisdom of stating one’s wants. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, pp. 93–94.
In other words, sincere prayers already have potential answers awaiting them. Prayer, then, actualizes this spiritual potential:
He [God] answers the prayer of this plant. The plant prays potentially, “O God! Send me rain!” God answers the prayer, and the plant grows. God will answer anyone. He answers prayers potentially.
Before we were born into this world did we not pray, “O God! Give me a mother; give me two fountains of bright milk; purify the air for my breathing; grant me rest and comfort; prepare food for my sustenance and living”? Did we not pray potentially for these needed blessings before we were created? When we came into this world, did we not find our prayers answered? Did we not find mother, father, food, light, home and every other necessity and blessing, although we did not actually ask for them? Therefore, it is natural that God will give to us when we ask Him. His mercy is all-encircling.
But we ask for things which the divine wisdom does not desire for us, and there is no answer to our prayer. His wisdom does not sanction what we wish. We pray, “O God! Make me wealthy!” If this prayer were universally answered, human affairs would be at a standstill. There would be none left to work in the streets, none to till the soil, none to build, none to run the trains. Therefore, it is evident that it would not be well for us if all prayers were answered. The affairs of the world would be interfered with, energies crippled and progress hindered. But whatever we ask for which is in accord with divine wisdom, God will answer. Assuredly! – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 246–247.
Abdu’l-Baha counsels that prayer works when “whatever we ask” is “in accord with divine wisdom,” then that prayer will result in God’s answer.
I did not learn this as a Christian. No criticism intended. But I was raised believing in miracles. By wishing for extraordinary miracles (whereby God will exercise discretionary power in suspending the laws of nature), I missed the true miracles of prayer, where we potentialize the power that God has already made available, in accord with the laws of nature and with social and spiritual laws.
Can prayer engage any other forces or agencies as part of its dynamics of fulfillment? In the next article, I will explain how Baha’i prayer works “With a Little Help From my Friends.”