A prayer is more than its words. It’s more because prayer represents the relationship between the soul and the Creator. When we pray we commune with God, we share our innermost thoughts and feelings. In a sense, praying is conversing with God and for many people this conversation doesn’t at all seem one-sided.
According to Muhammad, "Prayer is the faithful's ladder to sublimity." Like a ladder suspended between heaven and earth, prayer helps our spirit to climb towards the spiritual realm. It is a common religious theme.
The Book of Genesis (28:10-19) relates the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob dreams of a ladder that reaches from the earth to heaven and in his dream he sees angels ascending and descending this ladder. When Jacob wakes up, he senses the holiness of the place where he had fallen asleep. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” Jacob says, “and I did not know it.” Awestruck, Jacob realizes that “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Later he names the spot where he had his dream “Bethel.”
The idea of prayer as a ladder is a common metaphor in many religions and connotes movement from one spiritual realm to another. This sense of movement is also represented by Tibetan Buddhist prayer-wheels where a six-syllable mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum” (pronounced by many Tibetans as Om Mani Peme Hung) is recited out loud or silently to oneself, while spinning a wheel or cylinder with the written prayer contained inside. Prayer wheels are normally spun clockwise and each revolution of the wheel is considered just as meritorious as reciting the mantra out loud.
Similarly, motion is related to spiritually with Buddhist prayer flags. Usually produced in sets of five colors (white, red, blue, yellow and green), the flags flutter in the wind; their printed mantras purifying the air and spreading good will and compassion to all.
People pray differently according to their faith tradition. In the West, we’re used to believers sitting or kneeling in prayer with hands clasped, steeple-like, in front of them. But in the Middle East, the faithful alternately bow, kneel and prostrate themselves in supplication to God. Both the turban and fez can be worn during prayer without the necessity of removing them. Western-style hats, or hats with brims, are problematic when it comes to bowing one’s head to the ground. Muslims traditionally use prayer rugs on which to prostrate themselves. The Arabic word for prayer rug, “sajada,” is close to the root word, “sujud,” meaning prostration.
Kneeling, bowing, prostrating and any number of physical acts during prayer are known as genuflections. Taken from the Latin, genu flectere, meaning to bend the knee, a genuflection was a sign of respect in Roman times. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the devout historically stood in prayer with arms upraised. Early in the 6th century, St. Benedict instructed his monks to kneel throughout private prayer when absent from choir.
There are plenty of Biblical references for prayerful genuflection. Solomon dedicates a temple “kneeling down in the presence of all the multitude of Israel, and lifting up his hands towards Heaven” (2 Chronicles 6:13) and “Peter kneeling down prayed” (Acts 9:40).
Again, physical movement is understood in a spiritual way. Movement of the outer form represents a similar internal movement or change. The Shakers, one of a few 18th century English Protestant religious groups that immigrated to America, were originally known as Shaking Quakers for the physically ecstatic nature of their worship.
In “Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah,” the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith writes about the effect of prayer:
“Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrances of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb. Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul.”
No matter the kind of prayer people of faith recite or the different forms prayer might take in various faith traditions, humanity seeks divine assistance through supplication to God.