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The Power of Prayer

6 spiritual leaders offer advice on how you can pray

Newly elected Pope Francis I waves from the balcony of St Peter's Basilica

Pope Francis I waves from a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. — Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, of Argentina was elected Pope Francis I on March 13 after two days of debate, discussion and prayer by the College of Cardinals.

Prayer plays a role in various spiritual traditions in different ways. Although a majority of Americans say they pray on a regular basis, there's no clear consensus on the best way to do it. We asked a panel of spiritual experts about how to make the most of prayer in daily life — and whether it's OK to improvise.

The late Mother Teresa prays in Calcutta, India, in 1989.

The late Mother Teresa prays in Calcutta in 1989. — Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos

Cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.

Mother Teresa was asked once what she says when she prays to God. She answered, "I don't say anything. I just listen." "What does God say to you then?" they asked. "He doesn't say anything. He just listens. And if you don't understand this, I can't explain it to you." This is a very beautiful notion of prayer: refining the art of listening.  

Prayer is a process of purification. We're using prayer not only as a request but also as a way of transforming our own hearts and minds. This transformation is what we are asking for in prayer: the purification of our hearts from forces that cause suffering, greed, hatred, ignorance and so on. If we understand prayer as having this function, we can work internally to purify things we want to change.

Next page: Pray in your own way. »

"People need to pray in their own ways," says the Rev. Norm Eddy, seen here with a local resident in New York. — Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York

I used to see this guy on Second Avenue. He had usually been drinking too much. One day, I asked him if he prayed. He turned around and shouted at me, "Yes. But in my own way!"

People need to pray in their own ways, depending on the person's personality, situation or beliefs. One thing I have noticed for sure, though, is that when you're going through a hard time, it is good to know that someone else is praying for exactly the same thing you are. Dual companionship in prayer is very important because it works better. The person facing problems knows he's not alone.

Next page: Consistency and confidence. »

People pray at a temple in China.

People pray at a temple in China. — Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

Radio host and pastor of In Touch Ministries in Atlanta

The best way to pray is consistently and confidently. A loving and omnipotent God hears the prayers of human beings asking for mercy and says, "Forgiven." We never need to fear His answer.

Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." This means that we can come to God with all our cries, pleas, pain, hurt and simple requests, and He will listen and respond. Now, we may not get the answer we wanted, but God is a caring Father who wants to provide all the perfect love and wisdom we're willing to receive. God wants us to talk to Him and He promises to answer us.

Next page: Be thankful for what you have. »

"I don't have a prayer, of course, because I don't want anything but what I have," Byron Katie says. — Rick Rusing

Spiritual teacher and founder of The Work in Ojai, Calif.

I often say that if I had a prayer, it would be this: God, spare me from the desire for love, approval or appreciation. Amen. Love doesn't need to change anything. It already has everything it wants. It already is everything it wants, just the way it wants it.

I don't have a prayer, of course, because I don't want anything but what I have. I know the benevolence of life. Why would I pray for something different, which would always be less than what is? God is simply another name for reality. It's complete, it's perfect, it fills me with the utmost joy. The thought of asking for what isn't never even arises.

Next page: Open your heart. »

A woman meditates in a pool.

A woman meditates in a pool. — Colin Hawkins/cultura/Corbis


Founder and spiritual leader of Havurah Sim Shalom in New York

Prayer doesn't have to be formal.  Nor does it only happen in words. Prayer happens in moments of love, in our interactions with nature, the touch of our partners, and children and pets — wherever we can open our hearts to the divine energy that surrounds us all. Although there is no right or wrong way to pray in Judaism, here is one of my favorites. Close your eyes and recall a beautiful, loving and joyful memory. Then reflect on a Hebrew or English prayer, a poem or a song that has ever touched you. Gently speak the words while holding this memory in your mind. Then be still for a moment and be grateful for God's bounty. 

Next page: Ritual prayer. »

Amina Wadud leads a Friday prayer service in Oxford, England.

Amina Wadud leads a Friday prayer service in Oxford, England. — Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP


Muslim scholar and activist

Although we have two kinds of prayer in Islam — purely personal prayer and obligatory, formal, ritual prayer — there is strong emphasis on the latter. Ritual prayer five times a day is really a kind of supplication. Supplication allows a person to be "present" in whatever circumstances they find themselves:  joyous or sad, in need or in celebration. For many people, God is the Ultimate — that which is greater than oneself. Formal prayer connects us humble beings to that Ultimate. In the first kind of prayer, God is called to us. In the latter, we are called to God. 

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