Of course, "prayer" can mean many different things, and I do not mean all of them. But - despite my disliking for the activity of prayer - I practice several kinds of prayer.
Petition and Intercession
I spend most of my prayer time asking for things. This probably sounds foolish on more than one level. Here's the thing: I use the language of asking because it's what comes most naturally. I'm not an expert at this. But this asking is, for me, like stretching my muscles before a run. If I stretch well, I can run further and faster, and I do more good than harm. Stretching prepares me to do more than I could have done otherwise. It expels stiffness and inertia and inaction.
Asking God to do good in the lives of others could be a cop-out, where we dump our problems on the divine and then proceed to ignore them. What I try to practice is a kind of asking where I'm not giving up on being part of the solution. Frankly, I think a lot of the big problems in the world will take more than just me, so I have no shame about asking God to do some of the heavy lifting. But it's also important that I take some time out of my day to practice being less concerned with my own worries and more concerned with others. This is not the run; it is the warmup, the stretching. The stretching does some good all on its own, but it also prepares me to do other good.
One part of this I have a hard time sorting out is whether and how to tell people I am praying for them. Some people are grateful for it, others are bothered by it. I understand both of those reactions. There are times when we feel the weight of grief less heavily when we know others care enough to devote part of their day to the contemplation of our suffering. And there are times when it seems like people tell us about their prayers so that we will think more highly of them. I have yet to figure this all out. I'll just say it now: if you tell me of your sorrows, I will do my best to remember those sorrows in my quiet time, and I will bring them, in silent contemplation, into the presence of my contemplation of the divine.
Make Me A Blessing
My main prayer each day is one I learned from actor Richard Gere. Years ago, after he became a Buddhist, he said in an interview that when he meets someone he says to himself, silently, "Let me be a blessing to this person." This has stayed with me, and it seems like a good prayer. (He might not call it a prayer, which is fine with me.) I begin my day with that prayer, in the abstract, something like this: "Let me be a blessing to everyone I encounter, to everyone affected by my life. Let me be a blessing, and not a curse. Let me not bring shame on anyone, and keep me from doing or saying what is foolish or harmful." This is not unlike the well-known prayer of St Francis, whose story I have loved since Professor Pardon Tillinghast first made me study it in college years ago.
We Become Like What We Worship
What lies behind all this is my hunch - and I admit it's just a hunch - that we come to resemble the things that matter most to us, the things that we treasure and mentally caress in our inmost parts. And I think this happens subtly and slowly, the way habits build up, or the way our bodies slowly change over time, one cell division at a time. The little things add up to the big thing; our small gestures become the great sweep of our lives.
So in prayer I'm trying to take time out of each day to at least expose myself once again to the things I think are most worth imitating: love of neighbor, love of justice, peacemaking, contentment, hospitality, generosity, gentleness, defense of the downtrodden, healing, joy, patience, self-control. So much of the rest of my day I wind up chasing after things that take up an amount of time that is disproportionate to their value.
If prayer does nothing else than force me to remember what I claim is important--even if this means exposing myself to myself as a hypocrite--then it has already done me some good. And I hope this will mean I'm less of a jerk to everyone else, too. When I'm honest with myself (and let's be honest, that's not as often as it should be) this leads me to what churches have long called confession and repentance, the acknowledgement that I'm not all I claim to be, that I'm not yet all I could be, that I have let myself and others down, and that needs to change. Perhaps this comes from my long interest in Socrates: I think it's probably healthy to make it a habit to consider one's own life.
Musement and Contemplation
There is another kind of prayer that I find quite difficult most of the time, but sometimes I fall into it, and when I do, it is always a delight. It happens sometimes when I am walking, or in the shower, or while reading something that utterly disrupts my usual patterns of thinking. It happens sometimes while I lie awake at night. Charles Peirce talks about this as "musement," a kind of disinterested contemplation of all our possible and actual experiences.
Emerson called prayer the consideration of the facts of the universe from the highest possible point of view. I'm not sure I get anything like the highest possible point of view when I pray, but contemplative prayer does feel like an attempt to at least consider what such a point of view would be like.
Perhaps the best part of this Peircean/Emersonian kind of prayer is the opportunity for rest. Oddly, Peirce says that this is not a relaxation of one's mental powers but the vigorous use of one's powers. The difference between this and hard work is that musement doesn't try to accomplish anything. Peirce says that we could call this "Pure Play." Play may be physically tiring but it is mentally and spiritually refreshing, and it often shows us things we would not otherwise have seen. At least, this is my experience in the outdoors - I climb mountains and wade in rivers and snorkel in the ocean in order to experience the moment when what is possible becomes actual, when what I have not yet seen becomes a fact in my existence. The novelty of it makes life delicious.
Why I Pray
This is a good deal of what drives me to pray, anyway: I want to love my neighbor and my world more than I actually do, so I spend time preparing to do so; I want to become more like the best things and the best people I know, so I spend time dwelling on them, in the belief that worship shapes my character; and I know it is good for me to have my patterns of thought disrupted, so I try to allow myself to enter into a playful contemplation of the world and all that it symbolizes. None of this is easy. It is like any other exercise, sometimes rewarding, often difficult, and nearly always a preparation for the unexpected.