What do we mean when we say “our thoughts and prayers are with you”? Has this become so routine in our public discourse as to become meaningless? We in this country along with our neighbors to the south have had a particularly brutal last few months in terms of natural and other disasters. Do our prayers make a difference? Is it enough? What exactly is prayer?

If we are talking about an immediate situation where a boat is needed or an ambulance or a place to sleep and all we offer is prayer, clearly that is not enough. I am thinking of the many times when action is not helpful, when a group of people or someone we know is suffering and we wish to show our concern by praying for them. Do you practice this kind of prayer? How do you feel when someone says they will pray for you? When we offer prayers to someone who does not think of himself or herself as religious or spiritual, is it an affront to that person?

Of course, there are many different kinds of prayers as described in our various religions and spiritual traditions. The kind I am talking about here is commonly called “intercessory” prayer in western religions. It is simply the kind of prayer where one is praying for someone else, or a group of people.

In the last twenty years or so, there have been a number of scientific studies done on intercessory prayer to try and prove or disprove the effectiveness of this mysterious thing we call “prayer.” You may have heard of some of them, for example: do people recover faster from certain types of medical procedures if people are praying for them vs. people who are receiving no prayers. Apparently the results are mixed, as are the methods. Trying to measure something like prayer, I think, is beside the point. To me, prayer is about connection.

Catherine of Sienna wrote that, “Perfect prayer is achieved not with many words, but with loving desire.” Loving desire . . . is this not what we would want from those who care about us, from the creator, from strangers, even? This is, in fact, the golden rule, which every religion claims as an important, if not the most important, guiding principal. To me then, intercessory prayer is nothing more than the golden rule, only perhaps more hidden and silent. It is not a “doing unto” the way we would think of providing the boat or the food. It is, however, just as real, just as powerful. It is our loving desire for healing, for connection.

Some people may wonder how this loving desire translates into prayer. Is it okay to pray for specific outcomes? Is it more effective with certain rituals, or prayer beads, or done in groups? Does this prayer need to be in words, either said aloud or in our hearts, or can it be a kind of feeling or visual image in our minds? Do we need to be in a meditative state, or do we even, in fact, need to think of ourselves as spiritual people to engage in this kind of prayer?

I believe that everyone must find his or her own approach to prayer. If you have a loving desire, I think there is no wrong way to pray. Sometimes, my prayer is simply feeling the pain or suffering or sadness of someone or a group of people. Somehow it is easier to bear pain if we know we are not alone in it. I believe that the willingness to feel the pain, to share in the suffering of someone else, is a gift to the suffering person even if that person does not know you.

I also confess to praying sometimes for specific outcomes, at the same time that I hold in my heart the awareness that there are forces at work that I do not understand. I must let go of any need I have for that outcome to come true. But prayer is a dialogue, and when I am talking to divine mystery and happen to mention this specific outcome, what I am really saying is that this is my loving desire for this person or group of people. It does not mean that I am trying to will it to happen, or that I will somehow hold it against God if the outcome I want does not happen.

As for whether or not prayer is real, I only have my own life as a guidepost. I have experienced so many “miracles” in relation to prayer, both in people praying for me and in my praying for others, that I do not doubt the power of prayer. Willis Harmon said, “Because of the interconnectedness of all minds, affirming positive vision may be about the most sophisticated action any one of us can take.” It is prayer that is our best vehicle for creating and maintaining a positive vision for all of humanity, and for our loving desire to be a force of healing change in the world.

The Rev. Cathy M. Grigsby is an Interfaith minister who teaches at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine, is the co-founder of the Interfaith Ministers of New England, an artist, a spiritual director and a retired art teacher. She can be contacted at: [email protected]