I was surprised the first time I heard the expression that “Heathens don’t pray.” The idea, it seems, is that prayer is something “those Christians do” and not something for those who are
strong enough to stand up on their own.
There are two basic problems here. The first is that simple empirics show us that historical Heathens did pray. Sigrdrífumál–Sigrdrífa’s Prayer–is a surviving example of a prayer and is not dissimilar from many Christian prayers:
Hail to the Day
Hail to Day’s Sons
Hail to the Night and her Daughters
With loving eyes look upon us here
And bring victory to those who have gathered
Hail to the gods
Hail to the goddesses
Hail to the mighty, fecund Earth
Eloquence and native wit bestow on us
And healing hands while we live
(Translation adapted from the one that Galina Krasskova uses in Sigdrifa’s Prayer: An Exploration & Exegesis)
We see other clear examples of various historical Heathens praying. In Risala: Ahmad ibn Fadlān’s Account of the Rus, we find the following:
When the ships come to this mooring place, everybody goes ashore with bread, meat, onions, milk and intoxicating drink and betakes himself to a long upright piece of wood that has a face like a man’s and is surrounded by little figures, behind which are long stakes in the ground. The Rus prostrates himself before the big carving and says,O my Lord, I have come from a far land and have with me such and such a number of girls and such and such a number of sables,and he proceeds to enumerate all his other wares. Then he says,I have brought you these gifts,and lays down what he has brought with him, and continues,I wish that you would send me a merchant with many dinars and dirhems, who will buy from me whatever I wish and will not dispute anything I say.Then he goes away.
So not only do we see examples of Heathens praying, but we see them engaging in ritualized offerings while asking for assistance. Not dissimilar from certain forms of structured Christian prayer.
The second prayer that I see is that a lot of modern Heathens seem to not understand the purpose of prayer. Prayer is, in short, about connection to the Divine and to our higher selves. It is challenging and difficult to pray well, and the state of mind that we cultivate while praying is useful throughout our lives. It is not about surrendering your will, bringing up a grocery list of things you want but don’t need, rote recitation, or merely cultivating a specific mood or feeling. It, properly, uses focused attention and absolute presence in the given moment. I find that there is a lot of wisdom in what C. S. Lewis writes in Screwtape Letters about Christian prayer, speaking from the perspective of a demon:
The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part. One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray “with moving lips and bended knees” but merely “composed his spirit to love” and indulged “a sense of supplication”. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.
Prayer doesn’t have to be structured, it doesn’t have to be vocalized, and it can be treated as a supplemental part to a meditation routine (as it is treated in certain branches of Buddhism, which does it without supplication). What it does have to be is dedicated. It can be part of the meditation practice itself (similar to the Christian practice of Centering Prayer). It can be used as a form of contemplation: What does each line of the prayer mean and why do we recite it?
There are numerous forms of prayer, and what is a good fit for one person may not be a good fit for another.
Prayer, for me, is a necessary and vital part of my practice. I engage in contemplative prayer, not so much to ask directly for things as to listen and to remind myself of who I want to be.