Every tradition prays. One could say that every religion is bound to pray, for religion is an anthropological way of defining the universe, and prayer is an expression of how far it has gotten in this task. Theistic and non-theistic religions pray. Something else is meant by prayer in the latter case if it has to do with God, yet at the same time something more fundamental is meant by both forms of prayer.

In western scriptural religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), prayer is usually a form of petition asking God for favor. But this is the case with all religions, even more clearly in ancient and primitive religions of multiple deities where aspects of nature are distributed among the gods. After petition, motives of prayer begin to show the degree of the religion’s sophistication: praise, contrition, gratitude. Each form of prayer represents a predisposing psychological state, which in turn is a universal that is expressed culturally. The cultural expression shows a range from simplicity and spontaneity to complex theological justifications.

Yet what is most heartfelt prayer is that which is simple, genuine, and closest to the innate psychology that transcends culture and taps into the universal. The more layers of theology are applied to the phenomenon of prayer (the more “knowledge,” to use Nietzsche’s term) the less genuine the expression of the individual, and certainly of the culture. This is where prayer is most public and also most easily manipulated: prayer for victory in war, prayer for profit and wealth, prayer for good health while abusing the body, for deliverance from pain and sorrow while ignoring reflection and introspection. Ultimately, institutional prayer devolves into the appearance of the contrived and cynical. We think of the ancient Roman auspices, during which an army commander on the eve of battle tells the priest what to say about the signs from heaven in order to reassure the troops of heaven’s favor and upcoming victory. And, of course, this scene can be reproduced in religions and states everywhere, in every era.

Genuine prayer is spontaneous awe. It is an insight into the natural order that glimpses the transcendent order, if only for a moment, and expresses this awe. For that matter it can be a poem or a sigh, let alone a formulaic religious expression. This is the essence of genuine spirituality: to marvel, to stand impressed and overwhelmed but spontaneously, not in a contrived or artificial or second-hand way. Yet most people do not perceive prayer this way, neither those who believe nor do not believe a particular religion. No wonder that mystics do not form collectives or speak freely even in their congregations, for their perceptions are spontaneous and come when they will, and between times they develop an understanding of their insight and experience in order to nourish their own view of the universe. All else is “so much straw,” as Thomas Aquinas put it when he experienced a mystical insight, even after writing his many tomes of theology. This is the touchstone of prayer’s simplicity, yet it eludes the majority of people.

True prayer is gratidue. We experience this gratidue not by repeating prayers but in becoming conscious of moments of spontaniety, as when one sees a rising sun or a flight of birds or a field of flowers or a work of art and is thankful for the experience, for being alive for such moments, even if the gratitude has no object or hearer. These moments we want to bow or kneel or make obiesance to All. No distinction of culture or belief matters to this core sense of gratitude. As long as we appreciate the moment, this very moment –that has nothing to do with the past or future, with the evils of humanity in the past or present, with the impenetrable sufferings of human existence — then this is gratitude. And this is prayer.

Awe and gratitude are the same, after all. The same motive compels the sensitive soul to pray, to be united to everything that seems not to be us. To be completely selfless in this expression means to fully embrace a sense of humility, however, and to acknowledge our complicity with what culture has done to the true sense of gratitude and awe. To pray means to separate ourselves from the accidentals of culture but to fully acknowledge that we are part of everything in the first place.