A question I'm often asked, by people who know I have an interest in prayer and in liturgy is, "does prayer work?" My usual answer is "yes, but it depends on what you mean by 'prayer' and what you mean by 'work.'" Usually when people ask that question, they're talking about personal prayer. And that often means petitionary prayer: "God, please don't let him be sick." "God, please don't let me get a speeding ticket." "Ana, El na, refa na la." (That's Numbers 12:13.)
But as anyone who's ever prayed over an ill friend or relative knows, it's pretty rare for the prayer to manifestly heal the person in need. Prayer doesn't seem to be able to stop sickness or dying, to end war or famine, or to change the mind of a traffic cop intent on raising one's car insurance premiums. So what gives? How can I claim that it works?
Well, if we're defining success in terms of visible outward change, then it doesn't work. Who are we kidding? Maybe Moses could pray a one-liner over Miriam with real results, but we don't have that ability anymore.
The problem is, our expectations are off-base. And I think those expectations go hand-in-hand with a particular notion of God which might be off-base, too. There's something very satisfying about the idea of God listening to our fervent requests and deciding to honor the really good ones. It's the first understanding of God that I learned, and it's comforting and sweet. It's also probably wrong, or at least pretty childish.
I do think God is listening (though I'm fuzzy on the details of exactly what that means, and my conception changes from minute to minute anyway) and I think God's answer is always "yes" if the prayer is said with intent and with an open heart. I just don't think the "yes" always comes in the form of giving us what we said we wanted.
My goal of late is to shift my petitionary prayers. Instead of "God, fix this," I try to mean "God, help me learn from this," or "help me accept this," or "help me deal with this." Petitionary prayer can change me, even if it doesn't visibly change the outside situation.
Another childhood conception of God with which I struggle, especially at this time of year, is the image that recurs throughout the machzor (High Holiday prayerbook): that God is holding the Book of Life, in which our names are inscribed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. That image tells me that teshuvah means asking God to inscribe me in the right book, the book of health and happiness and good fortune, for the year to come.
The writer in me thrills at the fact that God's portrayed with a book and a quill. (Or maybe these days it's a laptop?) But I also find the image troublesome, because it facilitates the kind of petitionary prayer I want to move away from: "God, please write my name in the good column." (It's "God, please fix this" again.) As though asking asking nicely would get me off the hook. Sorry, but I don't think that's how teshuvah works.
Because teshuvah is work, and more than that, it's work only I can do. I need God's help, to be sure, but God can't make teshuvah for me. God is present, God is ready to help me see myself clearly, but I have to make the conscious effort.
This is a good season for personal prayer, and though that usually means praying in my own words (or lack thereof), sometimes it means investing pre-existing words with my own meaning and desire. Psalm 27 is a petitionary prayer that expresses the desire to sit with God, to walk with God, to dwell in God's house. The anthropomorphic images are mental aids; we know God doesn't really sit, doesn't really walk, doesn't have a physical house in which we could dwell. So how do we know if the prayer's working?
If it feels like it's working, it is. If saying the prayer makes me feel different, then I am. And on the days when the prayer hides on the page, when it feels like dry old words with no resonance, I say the prayer hoping that doing so will cause genuine desire for God, and for teshuvah, to arise in me again.