Prayer has been called the heart and soul of religion. Without prayer, religion would be stripped of its main means for connecting individuals to God, the gods, saints, ancestors, or whatever is taken to be a divine or spiritual source of power. Prayer, then, is connection via communion. As such, prayer is what establishes a relationship between individuals and a spiritual power or the Divine.
To simplify matters, is to focus here on individual, petitionary prayers directed to God. Public, institutional prayers serve their purposes; however, it is the individual, personal prayers that are most significant for the process of connecting and establishing a relationship. The focus on petitionery prayers (prayers where specific requests are made and wishes are shared) is justified given that this is by far the most common type of prayer. As for the focus on prayers directed to God, such prayers have a similar, if not identical form to prayers directed to gods, saints, and ancestors-so we may assume that there is carryover with respect to what prayer means for these other prayer contexts.
Prayer as a form of communion and relating follows similar patterns to those found in relationships between persons. Therefore, we gain a better understanding of prayer if we see prayer from the point of view of how human relationships develop. One of the most striking features of children's ways of communicating and relating to others has to do with the difficulty they have in distinguishing their own perspective or point of view from that of others. This difficulty has been referred to as children's natural egocentricity. Here, then, egocentricity refers not to selfishness but to relative inability to distinguish and coordinate perspectives.
We see this egocentricity in the way prayers develop. Children's prayers are striking for the charming way they assume that God is there to answer their wishes. That is, children who have an active prayer life usually demonstrate a naive faith that their will and God's will are one in the same.
Contrast this childlike faith with that of a spiritual exemplar. For example, during the American civil war, one of Lincoln's generals once said to him, "Let us pray that God is on our side"-to which Lincoln responded, "No, let us pray that we are on God's side." The contrast being drawn here is, then, a contrast in general attitude. For children, the attitude is that God exists to hear and answer our wishes and requests. For spiritually mature adults, however, the attitude is that we exist to figure out and respond to God's wishes and requests-not our will, then, but " . . . thine be done."
Prayer develops also as a shift away from taking a passive to taking an active stance toward life's problems. For example, the great 19th-century abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who was raised a slave, said, as a child, he prayed asking God to free him. Later on, he said, "Prayer got down in my feet, and I ran away." This passive-to-active shift in prayer is most commonly seen in the shift away from asking God to change external reality (e.g., "Make my grandmother get well") to asking God for support needed for the praying individual to have the hope, courage, wisdom, or whatever to act more responsively or effectively. Praying for strength, then, marks a significant shift away from the more passive type when it is God's strength, not the individual's, which is the focus of the prayer.
A third distinction defining prayer's functions and development has to do with feeling God's presence. In all faith traditions with a concept of God, there is the dilemma of keeping God transcendent and powerful but not at the expense of feeling disconnected from God. That is, in being kept "on high," God is always in danger of becoming so remote as to be irrelevant. Prayer serves to manage this dilemma by insuring a sense of God's presence, for people do not pray so much because they believe in God but, rather, people believe in God (feel His reality and presence) because they pray. In sum, prayer functions and develops to make God's reality and presence felt because that feeling can empower. This last statement, that prayer can empower, brings us to the last major issue defining prayer and its development, namely, the issue of prayer's efficacy or effectiveness. For children, there is no puzzling about this issue because for children, God always answers prayers or if he doesn't, children assume it is because there is something wrong with the person or with the way the person prayed.
Only later on do individuals puzzle about this issue of efficacy. Furthermore, the way older individuals puzzle reveals the fact that they have overcome their childish egocentricity. Prayers work, they say, not so much because their own wills have been served but because they have found ways to serve God's will. Furthermore, prayers work not solely or even mainly in terms of mere appearances (e.g., a sick relative becomes miraculously cured) but in terms of deeper, more spiritually meaningful transformations occurring (e.g., a family comes together around a relative's illness and becomes stronger spiritually). Older, more mature individuals make, then, a distinction between appearance and a deeper spiritual meaning or reality.
In sum, prayer begins as an effort to bend God to our will. It functions first and foremost to change the reality outside of ourselves. It begins as a talking at rather than with God. But with age and development, prayer becomes a way to discover and mold ourselves to what is felt to be God's will, to feel connected to God in order to cope with or change troublesome feelings, and to experience closeness with and the presence of God and thereby become empowered.