The relics of the past are still with us. If I was a pilgrim, I did not know it. But during my journey in Jerusalem, I would discover much that would make me who I am.

What is history–or even mythology, for that matter–other than a vast collection of stories that tell us who we were, what we believed in and what we cared about. Through the hopes and dreams of those who came before us, we witness the many changes that have occurred through the annals of time.

At some point, we prayed for rain. At other points, we prayed for cattle. If we were to write new prayer books now, what would we pray for? iPhones and software? Imagine if an archeologist were to find a manuscript–a computer tablet, as opposed to a clay tablet–hundreds of years from now and discover that we prayed for iPhones and computer software.

What would they think of us?

What do we think of them?

Are they–those who walked this earth before us–long lost relics of a past to be housed and preserved in museums? Or are we meant to continue, or at the very least preserve, their large legacy? The fascination I once held for the ancient civilisations of the world is beginning to finally flounder. And yet, I feel I must remember how deeply their lives are intertwined and connected to our own.

They, too, prayed–for an abundant harvest, for cattle, for rain; for God to save them from their worries and their woes. It may seem that they–the ancient ones–are no longer with us. That’s until you walk into a museum and realise that although they have passed on; some of their possessions, their writings and their worldview–have undoubtedly shaped our own.

To think I haven’t even started on genetics

Prayer

The major religions of the world all call upon us to pray, in some form or another. For the most part, the process is highly ritualised and requires us to adhere to a strict sequence of actions. In some religions, a restriction is placed on who is permitted to pray under what circumstances.

The dictionary tells me that prayer an invocation. It is an act that seeks to activate a rapport through deliberate communication. The term is commonly used to refer to an act of supplication or intercession directed towards a deity or an ancestor. Prayer can take on a variety of forms. It can be a part of a set liturgy or ritual or it can be performed alone or in a group setting.

In ancient China, it was the Emperor who went to the Temple of Heaven to pray for agricultural abundance. It was a complicated and precise ritual that required considerable preparation and planning.

Others preach that prayer may be practised by anyone at any time. All you need is an incense or a candle. Each according to his own. Others say that even a small offering is not required. All you need is the Word. Others tell me that Holy Communion is only for Catholics, but you can still attend mass.

Prayer should be simple, but it is not. It is a complex process.

The Blessing

In the New Testament, prayer is the appointed method through which we obtain what God has to bestow upon us. Jesus healed through the power of prayer. He expected his followers to do the same. Paul, the Apostle, wrote to the churches and asked them to pray continuously. The failure to pray is believed to lead to big problems. The Book of James says that the lack of blessings in life is a result of a failure to pray.

This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.

1 John 5:14-15

It seems, however, that at certain junctures in human history, we either stopped praying or the prayers stopped working. We even look down at the ancient religious rituals that were performed. We are downright horrified by some of their practises. But how can we judge the past when we only possess a fragment (sometimes literally, mind you) of what happened? We have reconstructed the rest of it based on our own deductions and imagination.

At some point, we even concluded that it was all superstition, especially since it wasn’t ‘working’. We stopped performing these grand rituals. Our Prime Ministers and Presidents no longer perform animal sacrifices, even though this was the norm for a significant portion of history. As we stopped thinking that priests and kings were intermediaries of God, many of these rituals came to a screeching halt. In some cases, we abandoned them entirely.

The rituals surrounding prayer have undergone a tremendous number of transformations through the epochs of time. Sometimes, we romanticise the past. At other times, we conclude that we are better off now. Regardless of how we choose to view our long gone predecessors, the fact remains that every society prayed.

The Unanswered Prayer

If you’ve ever performed a prayer that went unanswered, you might be wondering why. You may have even prayed many times, performed many modern-day rituals and so on–but it seems that no one hears you.

There is much suffering in this world, as there always has been. It also increasingly seems that it is not only the poor who suffer, but also the wealthy and well-off. I recently read the story of an extremely famous pop star who cited abuse and exploitation by those closest and dearest to her.

We all seem to suffer, toil and struggle in this world. Some of us financially, some of us physically, and some of us mentally. And the more we pray–and the more our prayer goes unanswered–the more we begin to believe that, “Nothing goes right for me,” among other cynical thoughts. We just cannot seem to find a path or a solution for our woes.

The apparatus and institutions through which we pray may have changed. But does that mean we do not pray at all? Perhaps in our darkest hour, when we have nowhere left to turn, we begin to pray involuntarily or even spontaneously.

A Life of Prayer

When did you first begin praying? Was it taught to you by a parent or an educator? What does prayer look like to you? Are you kneeling at a church? Are you bowing down at a temple? Are you at a shrine? Are you standing in front of an altar in your home?

Prayer, at first glance, appears to be a universal phenomenon. We seem to do it regardless of our religious affiliation. But what or who are we praying to? If we pray to the ‘wrong’ ancestor or deity, does it mean that our prayers will go unanswered?

When prayer is ritualised, it is recited from memory or read from a book of prayers. It adheres to religious doctrine. The requirements to perform the rituals are precise. While prayers can be composed spontaneously as we pray, the religious leaders of eras past have left us these canons of written knowledge that ask us to adhere strictly to protocol. Some require us to chant or sing. Others have to be done silently. Prayer may be performed privately or the occasion may necessitate that it be done collectively in the presence of others.

For some, prayer is a big part of their daily “thought life”. It is how one remains in constant communication with a higher power. After a prayer, some experience physical or mental epiphanies or breakthroughs. If an answer comes, the time and place it comes cannot be predicted. It still requires us to have faith.

It seems, then, that sometimes our prayers are answered–and sometimes they are not. Or perhaps what we prayed for is simply not what came to pass. A new destiny awaited, instead.

Christ in Gethsemane by Heinrich Hofmann

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