Why pray? I consider prayer to be an intentional investment of attention into what matters most. As such it is a practice in which every human person engages sometimes, in some or other way. We attend to what matters most because that is what humans do: to be human is to care, to love, to desire, to commit ourselves, to have a point of view with regard to what matters.
In their book on “using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems,” The Moment of Clarity (Boston, 2014), Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen write, “Humans are human because they have a perspective: they care about things. One might call it our ability to give a damn. And it is this quality that allows us to determine what matters and where we stand. … The ability to have a perspective—to respond to what matters and what is meaningful—is at the heart of humanity.”
The philosopher James K.A. Smith writes in his little book Your Are What You Love (Grand Rapids, 2016) that, “We are what we want. Our wants and longing and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. … You are what you love because you live toward what you want.”
Devoting attention to what matters most takes many different forms. To some extent how we devote attention to what we really care about is shaped by what it is that we really care about. For someone who cares profoundly about the beauty of wild places merely talking or thinking about such places is not an adequate way in which to devote attention to that beauty, but hiking in such places might be. For someone who loves their country deeply a small way of devoting attention to that love may be singing their national anthem while a bigger way may be devoting several years of their life to military service.
Conventionally religious people like me enjoy the benefits of the accumulated devotional wisdom of ancient and living traditions. There is a plethora of ways in which to pay attention to the love of God that most deeply moves me. I believe that I am being drawn into the loving embrace of God, and that the love of God is the primary force shaping the story of my life. But I am not always attentive to this reality. I experience those practices that afford me opportunities for the intentional devotion of my attention to the love of God as gifts—graces—that suffuse an awareness of that love throughout all of my life. For me reading, singing, and saying prayers, in the conventional sense, are among the most significant of such practices.