Teach Me How to Pray: Structured Forms of Prayer

Sep 19, 2010Updated 1 month ago

This series, Teach Me How to Pray, is written for people who want a better, more communicative relationship with God and are looking for direction in a multitude of places, including online. Prayer is both an individual and a corporate act, and learning to pray can be done both alone and with others. The ideas about structured prayer are presented for seekers and teachers alike, with a postmodern respect for many faith traditions.

A Parable Concerning Prayer

The story is told variously as a discussion between priest and proselyte, rabbi and student, pastor and parishioner or master and pupil. It goes something like this:

Student: Teacher, may I smoke while praying?

Teacher: Absolutely not! Prayer is a sacred act.

Student: Well then, may I pray while smoking?

Teacher: Of course! Prayer is appropriate at any time, in any place.

So, too, most faith traditions would say that while not everything one does could be considered prayer, the act of prayer is appropriate at any time and place. Structured forms and formats for prayer are mostly meant to provide encouragement and guidance for one's conversations with the divine spirit.

See Types of Prayer in this same series for more explanation of prayers of Praise, Thanksgiving, Confession, Supplication and Petition. Any of these types may be structured into the general forms discussed below.

Praying by Saying or Reading Together Prayers Established by an Authority

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Catholic Missal, the Siddur (the Hebrew prayer book), are just some of the written prayers compiled and authorized to be used in worship. They may be read by a single leader, in unison by all, or in a litany.

Individual prayers, such as Christians' The Lord's Prayer, or the Jewish Shemah, are beloved, familiar prayers learned, perhaps, by hearing them spoken.

These prayers and prayer books have in common that they are liturgical -- written to be used in worship -- and some religious authority has established the wording and forms of use. Attending worship is one way to follow the discipline of praying the prayers in a Missal or Book of Prayer that follow a worship calendar.

Many practitioners in these liturgical traditions also use prayer books for individual prayer. Some people unable to attend regular group worship services in their faith tradition use established prayer books to keep up with worship practices. Others may turn to a prayer book for a particular occasion, such as a religious holiday or a crisis or the urge to thank or praise God.

Hayim H. Donan, writes in To Pray As A Jew: A Guide To The Prayer Book And The Synagogue Service, “So much significance is still placed on communal worship that if one is unable to attend a communal service, he is advised that the next best thing to do is to pray privately at the same time as the congregation is praying.”

Rosary prayers, in which a string of beads are used as a memory aid in the sequence of prayers, are another example of using standardized language and practice, for both individual and group prayer. Rosaries for children are a common gift to a child at First Communion, signifying a step in spiritual growth.

A familiar example of a prayer adopted by a group outside organized religion is the Serenity Prayer, written by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which is often said in unison at the opening of meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step self-help groups.

Bidding Prayers with a Group

Within a prayer service or prayer circle, bidding prayers are usually conducted by a leader, with responses both spoken and unspoken from the group. The leader often gives instructions about speaking petitions and supplications out loud, and how to signal that the brief spoken prayer is ended. One tradition is to end a prayer with “God in your love (or mercy),” with the group responding, “Hear our prayer.”

Typically, a leader mentions a group or situation to pray for, such as “We pray for those who are sick,” followed by a pause. The individuals in the group are encouraged to pray silently or to utter a brief prayer aloud, perhaps naming a particular person. After a sufficient period for response, the leader moves on to the next area of petition, such as, “We ask God’s support for those we know who are facing a trial,” or “We give thanks for the beautiful things in our lives.”

A variation of the bidding prayer is the “popcorn prayer,” a form popular with children and youth but useful in small groups of any age. Participants hold hands in a circle. The leader explains that each person, starting with the leader, will say a short prayer on a chosen theme. When the person is finished praying, she squeezes the hand of the person next to her. Then that person says his prayer and squeezes the hand of the person on his other side. Those who want to pray only silently may squeeze the hand of the next person without saying anything. When the prayers reach around the circle and back to the leader, he or she ends the prayer.

Praying by Reading Devotions Written by Someone Else

Devotions are written mostly for private prayer. They may be written around a theme, such as Advent (the weeks leading up to Christmas), or healing or strength.

Typically such devotions offer a scripture or quote, a short discussion applying the quote, and a short prayer, responding to the passage and the reflection.

AA and other twelve-step programs such as Al-Anon or Gamblers Anonymous publish books of daily meditation/devotions that include sentences of prayer to one's Higher Power.

Many American Orthodox Christians refer to their church's A Pocket Prayer Book, an official publication of the Antiochian Archdiocese, as "The Little Red Prayer Book." It contains prayers for morning, midday and evening, as well as prayers for such occasions as entering or leaving a church, asking for healing, or giving thanks for a meal or for deliverance from harm.

Many daily or seasonal devotions are available online. One example is d365, which is sponsored by several Protestant denominations.

Online and published devotions with dated selections have the added feature that while one is praying as an individual, many others are reading the same devotions on the same day. This is another way of joining in a group practice while anonymous and alone.

Other forms of structured prayer, such as repeating a sentence or chant or praying through movement, are discussed in other articles in the Teach Me How to Pray series.

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