The Meanings of Prayer: Barbara G. Walker

by Barbara G. Walker

When I was a child, my Catholic friend Patsy told me that her parents were paying a priest for special prayers to get her grandparents out of purgatory. I was fascinated. I asked, How can you tell when they’re finally out?”

Patsy didn’t know. I continued, “And why do you have to pay? Can’t people say their own prayers for free?”

Patsy said they could, but ordinary people’s prayers don’t work as well as priests’ prayers, because priests can talk directly to God.

“I thought anybody could talk directly to God,” I said. “Yes,” Patsy answered, “but God listens to priests.”

“Well,” said I, “if God won’t listen to you, why would you bother to pray?”

I had been wondering about this. I had conducted some experiments of my own, and found God largely indifferent to my various pleadings. I had prayed for good weather on the day of a scheduled picnic, and God sent rain. I had prayed for a fast cure for the flu that kept me from performing in the school play. But God wasn’t listening; he kept me sick, and I lost my theatrical debut.

Patsy said prayers failed because it wasn’t God’s will to answer them. I thought about this. If God willed everything that happened and knew it all in advance, what was the point of begging him to change his mind? Who was I, or Patsy, or a priest, or anyone else to alter God’s plans for him? It seemed that bad things happened whether people asked God to stop them or not; and good things happened whether people prayed for them or not. We children were taught to pray for all sorts of things, but the success rate of these entreaties seemed no better than random chance.

I learned in both church and school that prayer could also serve as an assertion of authority among grownups. School officials publicly prayed at the beginning of assemblies and sports events, though it was clear that when they prayed for our team’s victory, God often ignored them. Nevertheless, the rite of sonorously addressing the supreme creator of the universe before a captive audience of bored, itchy, impatient children seemed to make them feel important.

When I went with Patsy to her church, I saw priests doing the same thing. Often, they spoke incomprehensibly in Latin, which Patsy said was God’s language. I had thought it the language of the ancient Romans, who had pagan deities both male and female, quite different from Patsy’s God. But I didn’t argue the point.

Patsy claimed that priests knew certain Latin prayers that would absolutely force God to do whatever was wanted. If that were so, I asked, why hadn’t they used such prayers to remove all evils from the world, to stop wars and crimes, to put an end to diseases, want and all other social ills and afflictions? Patsy’s answer was that God wanted people to suffer so they could earn a place in heaven.

It puzzled me that Patsy managed to view such an unpleasant deity as a god of love, especially when he had arranged for his “dearly beloved” son to be tortured to death on the cross, a symbol of agony that Patsy still wore on a chain around her neck. The bible told me that Jesus had prayed in the garden of Gethsemane for God to spare him, and God had ignored even this prayer. I thought God a very cruel father, certainly not a loving one.

Years later, I learned that Patsy was correctly repeating a time-honored tradition regarding priests’ infallible prayers. During the Middle Ages it was believed that any priest could compel God to grant any request by conducting a so-called Mass of the Holy Spirit, incorporating a mention of God’s secret name.1

The secret names of deities had been the common coin of allegedly sure-fire prayers since the earliest civilizations. Egypt’s Goddess Isis used the secret name of the sun god Ra to deprive him of his power and destroy him at the end of his cycle.2

Brahman priests claimed to control their gods’ actions by mantras using their secret names. Some of this lore was embodied in the Upanishads, meaning literally “Secret Names.”3

The Islamic Allah was lavishly equipped with 99 secret names, and would be compelled to answer any prayer that pronounced all of them. The Hebrew Yahweh had a somewhat more modest suite of 72 secret names, and it was said that “God brought Israel out of Egypt by means of a Name which consisted of 72 Names.” The 72 secret names of God were sometimes written in medieval grimoires or magic texts, because it was believed that sorcerers as well as priests could effect infallible prayers, spells, charms or curses by speaking them. (For anybody who wants to try them out, they are given on page 716 of The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.)

Priesthoods usually kept their name-lore to themselves, the better to control not the gods so much as the credulous laity. Hence the biblical taboo on taking the name of the Lord in vain. According to rabbinical tradition, God’s real name was a closely guarded secret, and its correct pronunciation could be communicated only once every seven years by an elder priest to a younger one.4 According to the Christian Gnostic gospel called Pistis Sophia, Jesus told his disciples to guard the mystery of a great secret name whose mere pronunciation could dissolve all evil, and “blot out all sins, knowing or unknowing.”5

This kind of thing is what identified early Christianity as one of the then-popular “mystery cults”–the mysteries being esoteric rites and the powers of divine names, revealed only to initiates.

The medieval magic textbook, Enchiridion, allegedly written by Pope Leo the Great, spoke of a miracle-working name of Jesus, the pronunciation of which would have the following effects: “The demons take flight, every knee is bent, all temptations, even the worst, are scattered, all infirmities are healed, all disputes and conflicts between the world, the flesh and the devil are ended, and the soul is filled with every heavenly delight.”6

What a pity that the Pope preferred to keep this wonder-working secret only to himself.

Even when the miraculous Name is not known or spoken, in Christian practice the efficacy of a prayer has to be nailed down by an allusion to it. Thus, we have still the ubiquitous formula, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Apparently it doesn’t even have to be made clear whether this means one name or three, or perhaps even the magical 72. The mere mention is enough.

Pope Alexander III forbade monks to study medicine, on the grounds that all sickness is caused by demonic possession, and the only proper remedy could be exorcism through the holy names of the Trinity. Official church formulae of exorcism, absolution, extreme unction, baptism, and every other sacrament and prayer still use name-magic that is supposed to compel God’s attention.

It’s interesting to read some of the prayers given in medieval books of necromancy, where divine and demonic secret names are often mingled in a verbal soup of paganism and Christianity, the old gods apparently being thought at least as powerful in granting wishes as the newer one, and all known formulae are thrown in for good measure. Here are some samplings:

This is the earliest name of Typhon, at which tremble the earth, the abyss, Hades, heaven, the sun, the moon, the place of the stars and the whole phenomenal universe. When this name is spoken, it carries along with its force gods and demons. . . . And when thou hast uttered it, the god or the dead person who hears it will appear to thee and will answer concerning the things you ask. And when you have learned all things, dismiss the god only with the strong name, saying, “Begone, Lord, for thus wills and commands the great god!” Say the name and he will depart.

I invoke thee who created the earth and the bones and all flesh and spirit and established the sea, and shakes the heavens and did divide the light from the darkness, the great ordering mind, who disposes all, the everlasting eye, Demon of Demons, God of Gods, the Lord of Spirits, the unwandering Aeon. Iao ouei, harken unto my voice. I invoke thee the ruler of the gods, high-thundering Zeus, O King Zeus Adonai, O Lord Jehovah. I am he who invokes thee in the Syrian tongue as the great God Baal-zephon, and do not disregard the sound in Hebrew ablanathanalba abrasiloa.7

The related abracadabra was also an invocation of sacred name magic. The general term for magic, hocus-pocus, was directly derived from the priests’ hastily-muttered version of the Eucharistic formula, Hoc est corpus meum, “This is my body.”

Now what do you suppose is the real meaning behind all this word magic, name magic, prayer magic? What are human beings really doing when they seek to change things in their own favor, by so ephemeral a tool as human speech?

Humans are the verbalizing animals–the ones who have a far more fine-tuned and sophisticated way of communicating than any other life-form. Inventing names for everything is the human talent. Teaching words to the next generation is the human legacy. Manipulating each other’s thoughts and reactions by words is the foundation of human culture. Names and words take on a sacredness in all human traditions.

In ancient Egypt, the secret soul-name of every child was the ren, breathed on the baby by its mother when it was first put to her breast. The goddess of lactation, Renenet, also governed the giving of names. Similarly in France to this day, a baby has a nom de lait, a “milk-name.” In India it was said that every god needed a mother to give him a name, otherwise he would pine away and die.8 Indeed, when the name of a god is no longer mentioned, doesn’t that god in effect cease to exist?

When children learn to speak, new worlds open up to them. They can make their desires more distinctly known. They can acquire knowledge without constantly needing direct experience. They can exercise imagination, with plenty of stimulus in their cultural background of words about myth, fantasy, dream, vision, and religion.

The one thing every child knows from the moment of birth, however, is that if it makes the right sounds, a large, comforting, all-powerful entity will take care of its needs. No matter what part of the world they inhabit, a majority of humans seem to have given this entity the sacred name of Ma, or Mah, or Maa, or Ma-Ma, which linguists say refer to “mother’s breasts” in nearly all languages from Russia to Samoa, and also in the ancient tongues of Egypt, Babylon, India, and the Americas.9 The Divine Mother in Egypt had such names as Ma, Ma-Nu, or Maat. The matrilineal clan of Tibet was called mamata, meaning “motherhood” or “mineness.” In Sumer and Akkad, the Creator Goddess was named Mama, Mami, or Mammitu. The primitive Iranian Moon Mother was Mah, or Al-Mah; that same word in Hebrew meant “woman,” not “virgin,” as the gospels mistranslated it in reference to Mary. Latin Ma-ter and Greek Me-ter, “mother,” had the same roots. The Hebrew Mem-Aleph, MA, was said to be a magic charm of great power, combining the ideographs for “fluid” and “birth,” and by extension “mother’s milk.” This was written on Jewish protective amulets from the ninth century B.C.E.10 There are numerous other examples of the magical efficacy of MA.

So if the prepatriarchal mother goddess had a secret name that would compel her to take care of her human children, it probably would have contained this magic syllable, which is rather like the sound any crying baby makes. Before the warlike gods of patrism, people generally wanted deities to treat them with motherly tenderness, that complex of feelings known in India as karuna. Indeed, what have goddesses and gods ever been but “mother” or “father”–the human parent, apotheosized and translated by human words into a divine ideal?

Interestingly, the universal gesture that accompanied prayer in these early cultures was the same gesture that a baby instinctively makes toward its mother: the raised arms, meaning pick me up, comfort me, carry me, help me, feed me. Even today, we immediately understand the body language of a small child raising its arms to us. And don’t we see preachers making the same gesture toward the sky, which is supposed to represent the abode of God?

If, however, the sky is just sky, with nothing beyond our planet’s atmosphere but the unthinkably vast universe of space, who or what is there to recognize this quintessentially human gesture? Only other humans. Omar Khayyam, one of the first of the great skeptics, wrote:

Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die,
As impotently moves as you or I.

If Omar is right–and modern science seems to indicate that he is–then who or what precisely is the object of prayer? When we are asked to pray for someone in difficulty, or to avert a danger, or to encourage a hope, we ought to know the address to which the message is being sent. Who is listening?

People used to think that if they couldn’t crack the code on deities’ secret names, then perhaps they could make deities listen by repeating the same message thousands of times over. Prayer beads, or rosaries, were invented by the Hindus for this purpose. They were called japamala, the “rose wreath,” used to send repetitive prayers to the ears of Ma Kali. Arabs copied the rosary and called it wardija, “rose garden,” before passing it on to Europeans who associated it with the Virgin Mary.

The Litany of Loreto calls Mary “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary.”

Christians at first rejected the rosary, following the word of Jesus:

“When you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7). However, like other amulets and talismans connected with worship of the Divine Mother, the rosary proved too popular to be suppressed. Its purpose is still the same as when it was invented: it is a string of mantras.

Today in India, Nepal, and Tibet, the very winds are utilized to keep strings of prayer flags constantly flapping, sending repetitive prayers into the air with every flap. The sheer volume of prayers launched into the air by various means, each day, boggles the imagination. It must surely represent a large proportion of human speech. Yet the proportion of prayers directly answered must be comparatively small. One would think that this would tend to disprove the efficacy of prayer–statistically, at least. But believers never consider negative statistics.

If there is any useful purpose to be served by prayer, perhaps it can soothe a troubled spirit by repetition of familiar words, or can help focus thoughts on what needs to be done, and provide inner strength to do it. However, the term “prayer” is much abused. When the television-series doctor somberly remarks, “All we can do now is pray,” it amounts to an admission of defeat. Or if a televangelist claims to be praying for an unknown invalid’s cure, common sense knows it to be just a ploy to get the gullible to send in their money. Like most word constructs, prayer can be as sincere or as corrupt as those who use it.

In prayer as in politics, persuasion, and passion, we should remember Lewis Carroll’s remark that to mean what you say is not at all the same thing as to say what you mean. In past ages, prayer has meant a rather infantile and abject plea addressed to a hypothetical higher power who may or may not listen.

The church attended by my childhood friend Patsy was one that insisted–publicly and officially, at least–on the literal reality of God’s ears. This church demanded belief in a god who could hear every prayer, whether or not he deigned to answer it: a god, in fact, who wanted and needed to have the entreaties of his earthly children rising around his throne always, flattering and pleading, constantly singing his praises and begging for his intercession. I thought that sort of a god was like a petty bureaucrat, vain enough to enjoy making ordinary folks grovel.

I disdained prayer because I thought such a God more contemptible than admirable.

More realistically, we may view prayer as simply putting a hope into words, or communing with one’s inner thoughts. It seems pointlessly self-abasing, and at the same time unwarrantedly arrogant, to imagine that an immortal being is listening to everything you say. If we “pray” for anything at all, perhaps it would be best to pray to ourselves for a keener awareness of our vanishingly small significance in this vast universe, and our human responsibility to take better care of ourselves and each other, because we can’t depend on any other-than-human creature to do so.

Whatever it was that “created” the universe, it was certainly not some kind of male personage sitting somewhere within the atmosphere of our little planet; nor was it any kind of sentient being with humanlike feelings of love or mercy or vindictiveness. We are just one more species on our little planet, and on a cosmic scale our individual lives matter no more than the individual lives of gnats or cockroaches.

We are all here together on Spaceship Earth, but there isn’t any celestial Houston somewhere else to advise us if we foul up. Therefore, it would be a good idea for us to convert all the time and effort expended on pointless prayer to a better use, that of working out for ourselves how to do things right, and how to agree among ourselves about what is right.

Therein lies our only hope for something like real answers to prayers.

1. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan, 1922, p. 61
2. Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., 1968, p. 11
3. Campbell, Joseph. Oriental Mythology. New York: Viking, 1962, p. 200
4. Campbell, Joseph. Primitive Mythology. New York: Viking, 1959, p. 85
5. Malvern, Marjorie. Venus in Sackcloth. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975, p. 51
6. Waite, Arthur Edward. The Book of Ceremonial Magic. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1969, pp. 51-52
7. Legge, Francis. Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity. New York: University Books, 1964, pp. 104-107
8. Erman, Adolf. The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971, p. 296
9. Farb, Peter. Word Play. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 317 10. Albright, William Powell. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968, p. 198

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation