Sometime in my early 30s, I eschewed prayer in favor of meditation. Most prayers in my birth religion felt too exclusive, used language that didn’t quite fit my belief system, called on something too specific, or offered an interpretation of Divinity that I didn’t share.
Plus, there was that confusing prayer in public issue. When is it okay to pray in public? Does prayer necessarily exclude people who do not pray? Does prayer have to be attached to a particular religion? When is it appropriate to offer to pray for someone? #soconfusing
Accordingly, I became someone who felt pride in announcing, “I do not pray. I meditate.” For many years, I held this stubborn stance—until I entered interfaith seminary and met Shelley.
She looked just like an angel. And she prayed like spun sugar. Light radiated off her as she spoke, donned in blue jeans and a simple white t-shirt, a silver belt engraved with Christian crosses and chunky turquoise slung low on her waist. She had something I wanted. And I asked her to teach me how to pray.
How Should We Pray?
When I began to practice with Shelley, she told me to say whatever words came to me, unfiltered, and pray in any way that worked for me. But I didn’t know what worked for me. So I did reconnaissance and research for an entire year. I bowed my head reverently in prayer with Catholics, hit the floor solemnly with Muslims, chanted seemingly endless kirtan
with Hindus, and davened
quietly with Jews in a synagogue. I even paradoxically joined atheists in group prayer.
By immersing myself in diverse practices, I learned that prayer need not be limited to speaking a set of words prescribed by a particular religion or directed to a specific deity. From art to poetry to body movements, prayer can be any action that connects you to something greater than yourself. Sometimes to make something useful, we merely need to reframe our definition of it. And for me, that meant my prayer needed to be interspecies.
Fast-forward many years. On most days, you can find me saying a roadside blessing over some passed-on squirrel or praying with someone to welcome the pain of pet loss so they can move through it. And every day at noon, you can find me engaged in petitionary prayers for injured and exploited animals.
Does Prayer Work? Does It Change Anything?
Belief in the healing power of prayer is strong in religious communities yet controversial within the scientific community. While researchers
are confident suggesting there can be a positive impact from religiosity or spirituality on an individual’s physical and mental health, evidence regarding the effect on another person, especially at a distance, is more varied. Further, most studies address distance healing on behalf of humans. However, a bit of research on intercessory prayer and healing touch on behalf of other creatures is available.
For example, one study explored the effect of intercessory prayer (“IP”) in a double-blind, randomized trial group of bushbabies with chronic self-injuring behavior and over-grooming (which, sadly, is common in captive primates). Prayer intercessors were Christians with distance-prayer experience who, researchers reported, endorsed “a belief that ‘God wants all creatures healthy and whole.’”
They were given the names of the animals they were praying for and this brief description: “bushbabies are small—about 2 lbs.—furry brown animals that look similar to a monkey.” Also, they were informed about desired outcomes, such as “medication effectiveness, that the animal’s behaviors become calm and nonstressed, and that wounds heal (i.e., the sores close, skin forms to cover them, fur grows back over the wound site).” They prayed daily for four weeks.
At the end of the trial period, the prayer-group bushbabies’ wound areas were reduced more than the non-prayer group. Their wounds were also less severe. Further, the prayer-group bushbabies spent less time grooming their injuries, which researchers suggested might indicate they were experiencing less stress.
So, it seems possible that prayer can help heal animals from a distance. I was on board!
How Can We Pray for Animals?
If you have an injured or sick pet, you may want to ask others to pray with you or on your behalf. Facebook groups abound for companion animal prayer support. Just search for “pet prayer” or “animal prayer” and choose the right group for you.
Or you may choose to “petition” for the animal on your own. Here’s a thought-starting prayer. (Swap in whatever language feels most comfortable for you.)
To the mystery that creates us,
the source that laughs with us and weeps with us.
To the Divinity who walks with us each step of our journey,
energizing us when our strength fails.
Today my heart breaks with grief,
my voice crying out words of lament.
My dear [pet’s name] is suffering from [description of issue].
And so I ask that you please flow in and around [pet’s name],
bringing your healing energy.
Please also support me as I care for [pet’s name],
guiding me in service to compassion.
If your animal companions are in good health, consider joining one of these online groups anyway and bringing other people’s animals into your mind for healing. Most pet parents post a picture of the cat or dog. Hold that animal’s image in your mind and offer your prayer that they are returned to health or freed from suffering.
Shortly after my Tabby roommate Cocktail underwent surgery, my mother sent me a tiny knitted prayer shawl. Each night as the feline lay curled up at my feet watching TV, I placed the soft green fabric (with a rainbow fringe!) over his bandaged wound.
Prayer shawls have a long history in my mother’s religious tradition, evolving from a story written in Numbers 15:38-41. It is said that God told Moses that each generation should place tassels on the corners of their clothing to remember their commitment to God and their ethical code. This verse led to the Jewish practice of wrapping in a tallit. Some Christian communities continued this tradition. Yet, wrapping in cloth to connect with the Divine also appears in many other religions, from hajib and mantilla to prayer cloths and yoga shawls.
My mother’s church group gathers to knit and then prays over the completed shawls, embuing them with hope for healing. After days of laying one over my injured cat, I was delighted to find he started to seek it out to sit on independent of me. I like to think the shawl brought him comfort and that it aided in his recovery. It’s certainly possible. One study revealed that guinea pigs receiving water that had been “energized” remotely by therapeutic touch healed more quickly than the animals that did not.
If you are crafty, consider how your knitting, crocheting, or quilting might be used in the service of healing for the animals in your home or a shelter nearby.
Beyond Pets: Prayer Circle for Animals
More than 37,400 species are threatened with extinction, and billions of animals suffer from human exploitation. The Prayer Circle for Animals (PCA) is a non-denominational group of people located across the globe who are dedicated to praying a single sentence with focused intention each day at noon in their local language: “Compassion encircles the Earth for all beings.” PCA hopes that through this affirmative prayer, their words will manifest metaphysically.
When I joined this practice, I set the alarm on my phone to go off every day at noon, with the sentence typed in the alert notes. No matter how busy my day is, I take a sacred moment to speak the sentence aloud. Then I envision various animals, praying that they are treated with compassion. Accordingly, today I prayed for geese, moose, and guinea pigs.
An Extra Bonus: Prayer helps the Pray-er
Remarkably, prayer also benefits us humans and helps us treat each other better. In his book, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg explains, “Activity involving meditation and intensive prayer permanently strengthens neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that are involved with lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning.”
Now approaching my 50s, I’m grateful to eschew the stubbornness of my earlier years, proudly stating, “I do pray.” And what’s more, after I’m done, I meditate with squirrels.
Intrigued? Learn what squirrels can show us about mindfulness.