What Do We Think We’re Doing When We Pray?

One of the readings assigned for my first program at the Shalem Institute, the Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats program, was an article by Ann Ulanov entitled, What Do We Think People Are Doing When They Pray?  I have often returned to that question, both in my own practice and in my spiritual companioning of others. What do we think we are doing when we pray?

At the outset of every Shalem program, the leaders always bring us back to the foundational assumptions of contemplative living and prayer. First, the Divine is present – we don’t have to somehow make God show up, or invite God to hover over our church meeting, or somehow “move” ourselves into God’s presence. The Holy One is here now always. Second, the Holy One is active – God is not the “unmoved mover,” but rather God is the moving mover. And third, the Holy One’s activity is always for love, by love, with and through love: God’s activity is love itself.

God is present, active, and loving. With these foundational assumptions, we might explore what others have written about what we’re doing when we pray.

Howard Thurman, the mystic, theologian, teacher, and advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about what he thinks goes on when we pray. Thurman wrote, “The experience of communion with God through prayer may elicit an expression of concern for someone whose need is great. When we share our concerns for others with God in prayer, we do two things: we expose the need of the other to our own life and resources, making it possible for us to have new insights of helpfulness and creative [engagement] with the other.” Secondly, Thurman writes, “prayer for others may quicken the spirit of the other to a sudden upsurging of the hunger for God, putting them in the path of God’s loving energies.”

Walter Wink, the biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, writing about what he thinks we’re doing when we pray, said this: “Intercession is spiritual defiance of what is, in the name of what God has promised.” He added: “No doubt our prayers to God reflect back upon us as a divine command to become the answer to our prayer. The change in one person thus changes what God can do in the world.” Communion in and with the Holy One’s active, loving, presence, and obedience to what we experience in that communion, lead us to realize God’s will on earth as it is already and presently manifested in the timeless realms. “History belongs to the intercessors,” Wink wrote, “who pray the future into being.”

Finally, Rose Mary Dougherty’s experience of intercessory prayer, especially in group spiritual direction, where we listen to God on behalf of another, opened her to “Prayer’s potential for transforming our nation, our world.”

Holy One, what is your prayer for the world? How can I join with your prayer for the world? What do you want my prayer to be?

February 02, 2021 by Barb Kelly
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Our mission is to nurture contemplative living and leadership.


In 2025, Shalem will be a dynamic and inclusive community, empowered by the Spirit, where seekers engage in transformation of themselves, their communities, and the world through spiritual growth, deep connection, and courageous action.