According to Merriam-Webster, the word prayer comes from Middle English and Latin roots meaning “obtained by entreaty.” The modern definition centers on an earnest request or wish to a God or god.
Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion calls prayer the “means by which an individual or group attempts to enter into verbal or mental communication with a deity.”
I believe that prayer can be separated into two categories: prayer with and prayer to. When we are with others, either during a worship service, at a meal, or alongside one who is ill or troubled, we can pray with. Prayer with begins with listening to and caring about those we are with. Our prayers reflect their needs, and the matters afflicting their minds and hearts. The purpose of prayer with is to let others know that they have been heard, that they have had the opportunity to articulate their fears, and that they are not alone in their struggles. Prayer with aims to help others find within themselves, their family, and their friends the resources to cope and to explore the wonders of existence.
If one does not believe in a deity or a specific God or god, then what is the target of prayer to? We are all part of a universe of forces, fields and life. We may never comprehend all of the levels of consciousness that exist in that expanse. As constituents in that enterprise, prayer to simply means asking for help from whatever resources there are — whether those resources lie in the depths of time and space, or deep within ourselves.
So for me, prayer is the act of engaging spiritually with our inner selves, with others, and with the universe by reaching out and asking for help, support, and reassurance.
Today, when we are so beset with challenges in our lives and in our society, we need prayer to but we also need prayer with. With so much distrust, selfishness and sadness in the world, we need to come together in prayer with each other asking for help from whatever source exists to supply it. So, whether you are a theist with a firm belief in a specific deity or an agnostic who simply doesn’t know, or an atheist who resists the construct of god, we can all unite in prayer with each other for peace, for justice and for love. And when help appears, we can unite in gratitude for the grace of the world.