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Let us pray, said Pope Francis

During his epochal visit to Kenya last week, Pope Francis was repeatedly heard exhorting: don’t forget to pray. Whether we are grappling with tribalism, poverty, materialism or corruption, he told us, one of the answers lies in prayer.

I agree. But only if we try to understand the meaning of the word ‘prayer’ a little more deeply.

If you think all the pontiff meant was for us to kneel down and ask for divine intervention, I am not with you. The problems we face are of our own creation, right here on earth, and must be solved by human beings. All too often, we start praying in our search for an easy cure-all, as an abdication of responsibility, as a way of leaving things to higher forces without doing anything ourselves.

If you think the pope was asking you to show up in places of worship all dressed up with your most pious face on display, to take part in your weekly social gathering so that you can sing more vigorously than those around you and feel a false sense of virtue; or if you think participation in collective ritual takes the place of personal action; then again I am not with you.

If you feel pontifex was referring to prayer meetings in which we try to ask for our favourite politicians to be saved from their tribulations, then we part company even more vigorously. Or if you invite me for a prayer breakfast at a five-star hotel in which we feast on a nice spread, rub shoulders, exchange business cards and do lots of useful personal networking whilst pretending to be partaking in a higher purpose, I will only decline.

True prayer is nothing like that. True prayer is not empty ritual; it is not false piety; it is not politicking; it is not personal gain. True prayer is the ultimate giving: it is a solemn plea for help to solve the problems of this world – not just our own. It is a recognition that many, many seemingly intractable problems cannot be solved just by our weak bodies and weaker minds. We need to go deeper.

For some, going deeper means connecting with a concept of a divine being. For others, it is an attempt to forge a connection with one’s own higher self, a soul that sits behind this frail body and deluded mind. For yet others, prayer takes the form of an appeal to an enlightened human collective, a force bigger than oneself.

The method followed in prayer also differs. Some kneel in supplication. Some sit in deep meditation. Some sing joyfully. Some listen carefully. Some walk in solitary contemplation. Some seek succour in reading ancient wisdoms. Some stay in the hurly-burly of life, examining the nature of the problem in real time, trying to solve it by engaging with it with allies and friends.

To me, all those are forms of prayer. Prayer simply means an acceptance that traditional sources of solution will not work, and that one needs to lose the self in order to gain fresh insight and meaning. If those are the prayers we are going to embark on in response to Papa’s homilies, then I’m all for it.

Certainly, our old means of solving our problems have not worked. Our institutions fail us, for men have set them up to fail. Our votes fail us, for we seem to have no idea what is good for us. Our economy fails us just as it seems ready to take off, for its engine is poorly engineered. Our morals fail us, for we worship the false gods of money and self-centredness.

Amidst all these failures, we should indeed start to pray. Pray that we can find a path into the light. Pope Francis was clear: we have lost our way. We no longer care for the poor; we no longer protect the family; we no longer value humility. Those universal human values must be rediscovered, and we will only find them again if we can blow off the layers of dust that have settled on our consciences.

And then, after we have contemplated, we must act and keep acting. We must all set a fresh example in our spheres of influence. We must all offer kindness and uplift to those in our ambit. Because prayer is nothing if it causes no change in the world while we live in it.

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