What is prayer?
Meditation is a medium through which we allow God to communicate with us. Prayer differs in that it is a dynamic conversation between our soul and God.
We may not be too sure what our 'soul' is, and consequently not sure precisely how we can make this direct connection to God. So we use whatever method feels right and appropriate. Clearly our prayer must be sincere (Heb. 10:22) and with appropriate humility and reverence – we are, after all, unworthy sinners. And yet God, as we know, is willing to communicate with us (Matt. 7:7,8, 21:22, Mark 11:24, John 14:13-14). What an honour and privilege!
How we pray is for us to decide. The Bible does not lay down instructions, although it does offer plenty of models and guidance. Our religion, church, or spiritual leader may go further and suggest (even dictate) how we pray. During Mass or at other times, we may be directed to face the east. We may also be told when and even what to pray.
But prayer is from the soul and each individual is alone responsible for their own soul.
For millions of Christians, using their hands to make the Sign of the Cross is an indispensable part of their worship. Postures become such an integral part of prayer that some people feel they are praying by just adopting a certain stance (see rituals for good luck).
Such positions have all passed down from the earliest of religions. King Solomon, for example, prayed kneeling with his hands spread out towards heaven (1 Kings 8:22, 54, 2 Chron. 6:13).
Look at the street beggar or the refugees chasing after the relief food truck. All have eye contact and outstretched hands. Feed me, give me, I'm desperate, I'm needy.
Look at your pet dog or pigeons in the park begging for food. They also have eye contact and if they had hands, they would hold them out ready to catch anything thrown in their direction. These gestures seem to be natural, coming from deep within us. It is animal and human nature to express inward sentiment by outward sign.
Hands may be crossed over the chest ("Help me, I'm in pain."), clasped like a Norman church steeple or with fingers interlocked. Whatever shape or form, clasped hands prevent us from fighting and this non-aggressive position shows submission.
Early man would use a 'help me' sign when pleading, and as religions developed, the early Pagans assumed such postures when pleading with their god. The Christian's version just follows on from that. Sometimes with the charismatic outstretched 'Orans' posture1, and sometimes with clasped hands, like the mudra favoured by Buddhism and other religions as a way to deliver a message to the mind/body energy system.
Just as milk seems to taste better from a glass than from a ceramic cup, so a prayer feels better if we use special words.2
Words are spoken aloud or considered silently, to our god. Man has prayed to the nature gods for millennia; it was certainly not a new invention for modern religions such as Christianity. And it was natural, like many other pagan ways, for Christians to adopt this form of communication3 with their God.
Busy as we may be, we must keep up times of prayer. We must pray with all kinds of prayer, both social and solitary. We must pray confession of sin, for guidance, for thanksgiving. We must pray not for ourselves only, but for everybody; friends, enemies, strangers, the haves, the have nots.
And we must listen.