I recently listened to an interview with Process Theologian John Cobb, one of America's greatest theologians of the last century. You can listen to the full interview yourself (I recommend it), but here I am just going to throw out a few thoughts about the nature of prayer from a Process perspective.
Here I offer three different Process-influenced answers to the question "What is happening in prayer?"
1. Prayer changes us. The first and most significant aspect of prayer is that it mysteriously affects the one doing the praying. Recent neurological studies of the brain during meditation and prayer reveal that prayer changes our brain - for the better. But more importantly, from a Process perspective, prayer alters the relationship between the pray-er and the prayed-for. When one prays to God for the world to be blessed, it "is a way of saying that the world is important to us." (Cobb) Prayer then has the power to change the way we see the world and how we interact with it. Through the act of prayer the one doing the praying is transformed toward a better relationship with what is prayed for. (Consider the effect this might have by praying the Lord's prayer: "Thy will be done on earth...")
2. What about intercessory prayer? That is, praying for other people? A Process perspective suggests that prayer changes interpersonal relations. This is complex and has two parts. Firstly, in Process thought, there is no such thing as a separate individual; so the benefits of prayer explained in #1 are truly a benefit for others because we are all interrelated. When prayer affects the individual doing the praying, it mysteriously affects others as well because I am a product of who everyone else is. (Hence, someone else's prayers for me make me who I am as well)
Secondly, prayer may truly affect the other person through what Dr. Cobb calls "parapsychological" activity (i.e. beyond the mere sensory. More here). This is a cutting-edge idea, but it is finding more and more support through discoveries in both psychology and quantum physics. We live in a world of mysterious interrelatedness and prayer may actually have the power to affect others through parapsychological phenomenon. This, I might argue, is what is happening when two people have the same idea at the same time. Or, when a person who is prayed for "senses" that s/he is being prayed for and thought about. Or, perhaps this is what is happening when a person who is doing the praying suddenly feels the need to pray for a particular person. Indeed, it is mysterious, but I - as well as Process thinkers - are open to it.
3. Does prayer affect God? This is the most complex question of all; about which we can only theologize. But Process Theology offers a very interesting answer. Allow me to do my best to summarize this answer: Yes, our prayer affects God. The heart of the matter is how. God is always and already doing all that God can do to increase the value of life in the world whether or not we pray. Remember: from a Process perspective God's power is limited. God always does all that God can, but that does not mean "fixing" everything with a snap of God's [anthropomorphic] fingers. In a very real sense, God needs us. And that is where prayer comes in.
Dr. Cobb suggests that "our very act of praying enables God to do some things that God would not otherwise be able to do. It changes the situation in the world to some slight degree." The Process perspective proposes that our prayers open up possibilities for God that would otherwise not be available to God. And this goes for both the one who is praying and for the other person (e.g. if it were a prayer for healing). In a very real sense, prayer opens up the world to/for God.
The major difference in the Process view of prayer is that God is not a Being "out there" who intervenes for a moment of miraculous healing or for some other reason. Instead, God is very much here and involved and, most importantly, yearning to be more involved if the world becomes more open to God.
Whether or not you can jive with these views of prayer, there can be no doubt that prayer is the heart of our life in God. Mother Theresa said, "No prayer, no faith. No faith, no love. No love, no devotion. No devotion, no service." The way of prayer is the way of belief (lex orandi lex credendi).
A friend of mine once said, "We do not know what prayer is, we only know that it is." Indeed, prayer is a universal human phenomenon; an existential cry to the depth beyond depth. And, I argue, that it is one of the most profound and efficacious ways of being connected to others. Prayer, as a Process view might suggest, is foundational to our interrelatedness.
Like most people I know that prayer is not an easy habit to maintain. But it is an act - nay, an event - worth attempting as often as we can because something happens in the event of prayer. Henri Nouwen wrote, "What is happening in prayer is not measurable by human standards of success or failure." My challenge to you, dear reader, is to attempt more prayer. Name the names of people in your own life (in whatever fashion you prefer; to whomever you prefer). Try this. Perhaps you will notice change; perhaps not. But I guarantee that you will become more deeply aware of your place in the world.