Prayer: What does it do?

Earlier this year, a Sentinel editor was manning a Christian Science booth at an outdoor festival. The centerpiece of the booth was a “prayer tree”: a spreading branch that had been planted in a large pot, with dozens of small hooks covering the branch. Passersby were invited to write down their prayers—for the community, for others, for themselves—and add them to the tree.

The prayer tree attracted a reasonable number of responses, and the morning passed without incident until a young girl stopped at the table with her parents. After the editor explained the prayer tree to her, she pointed to it and asked, “But what does it do?

Now that’s a question worth asking again and again! What, exactly, does prayer do? Certainly a request for health, peace, or prosperity doesn’t get priority status from God just because it’s been hung on a branch. And our desires for these things, while usually honest, aren’t specially uplifted simply by asking God to grant them. In the very first chapter of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy writes, “We can do more for ourselves by humble fervent petitions, but the All-loving does not grant them simply on the ground of lip-service, for He already knows all” (p. 2 ).

It’s helpful to remind ourselves from time to time what it is, exactly, that happens when we pray.

Prayer is a practice. It’s a way of articulating our deepest desires, identifying God as the source of all spiritual substance, and then humbly recognizing that He is already supplying our needs, perhaps in a way we haven’t yet perceived. Christ Jesus is our role model for a life of prayer; he showed us how we can bring ourselves in tune with the divine and acknowledge the wisdom, supply, courage, and discernment that are always ours as reflections of God.

For more than 100 years, this magazine has been filled with accounts of answered prayer. To the question, “What does prayer do?” we might truthfully answer: Prayer brings safety in the midst of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes; it reveals financial supply when employment is scarce; it enables physical healing; it brings comfort to devastated lives and enables them to be rebuilt stronger; it succeeds when other means fail.

The accounts in this issue of the Sentinel, and every issue preceding it, confirm these statements. Prayer does everything.

All this makes for a heady response to a child’s inquiry, but it’s helpful to remind ourselves from time to time what it is, exactly, that happens when we pray. Prayer doesn’t enable the exercise of any special personal power, and it doesn’t amount to a favored petition to God. Put simply, it reminds us of God’s power and presence, and allows us to affirm His operation in our lives and the lives of others. And when we’re open to this divine activity, we see illnesses healed, fear overcome, and supply found.

There’s nothing especially complicated about prayer—and yet we can safely say that there is no more potent force in the world.

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December 16, 2013

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