Each month of this semester the Faculty Center at BYU is sponsoring a panel discussion of prayer. The participants are Julia Boerio-Goates (Chemistry), Thomas Griffith (University General Counsel), Roger Keller (Church History and Doctrine), and James Siebach (Philosophy). The format of these discussions is that one participant speaks for twenty minutes, then each of the others responds for ten, then we open it up to questions.

Last month, Professor Goates, a Catholic, gave an excellent presentation on formal prayer. She talked about her experience as a faithful Catholic, comparing and contrasting it to what she knows about Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices. She was never in the least bit offensive, and often had things to say that were well worth talking about. A moment that stuck out for me was when she talked about how the ritual and repetition of saying the rosary was such a comfort to her when her father was dying. Formality and repetition filled in, keeping her going when she was unable even to think. As we talked during the Q&A session about whether there is anything comparable for Mormons, one member of the audience suggested that hymns often fill that function.

Today we held our second meeting, with Tom Griffith addressing the question, “Is there an LDS concept of prayer?” This session also went very well. I won’t try to transcribe everything he said, but let me share some of my notes:

Tom went to three sources for thinking about prayer, Joseph Smith’s First Vision (including both the canonized version and the others, especially that of 1832), the prayer circle in the temple, and the Book of Mormon. Drawing on each of these, he talked about different kinds of prayer and different aspects of prayer. For example, he pointed out that Joseph Smith’s prayer was not only a prayer to know which church was the one he should join, it was also a prayer for forgiveness. Indeed, Tom pointed out, Joseph’s consciousness of his need for forgiveness seems to have been at the forefront of his mind quite often, if we are to take the number of times that the Lord tells him his sins are forgiven as an indication. Further, Tom reminded us that the prayer that resulted in the First Vision was, according to the 1832 account, a result of meditation on nature and the human condition, as well as a response to scripture and the awareness of his sinful state.

From Joseph’s experience, Tom concluded that one important kind of prayer, though one perhaps often neglected, is that in which we are alone, kneeling, and speaking aloud with God out of the desires of our heart. (A story about his experience with his daughter illustrated the importance of kneeling: She wanted to say her prayers in bed, but he insisted that she kneel. When she asked why, he responded–in what he described as a rare moment of inspiration–“Because he is our king and we always kneel before the king.”)

Tom suggested that two impetuses drove Joseph to his knees in the grove, and that the same two impulses should be at the heart of our prayers: the desire to repair the breach between God and ourselves that is caused by sin and the desire to discover what or duty is in relation to other persons. (In Joseph’s case, this was the question of which church to join.) Tom referred to a talk by Elder Eyring, in which Elder Eyring said that we ought not to be overly concerned with our own purification. Instead, we ought to be concerned with our relation to God and others, and if we are concerned with that, then the Holy Ghost can purify us. Tom suggested that perhaps too much of our prayer is concern about ourselves and our desires rather than concern for that breach and concern for what we can do in our relations to others.

To talk about the prayer circle without betraying his covenant, Tom went to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

The prayer circle is a part of Latter-day Saint temple worship, usually associated with the Endowment ceremony. Participants, an equal number of men and women dressed in temple clothing, surround an altar in circle formation to participate unitedly in prayer. . . . The formation of the prayer circle suggests wholeness and eternity, and the participants, having affirmed that they bear no negative feelings toward other members of the circle (cf. Matt. 5:23-24), evoke communal harmony in collective prayer–a harmony underscored by the linked formation, uniformity of dress, and the unison repetition of the words of the leader. [. . .] Prayer in circle formation can be traced to many early Christian sources. In the apocryphal Acts of John, for example, participants are bidden to “make as it were a ring, holding one another’s hands, and [Jesus] standing in the midst” led the prayer (James, p. 253). Other texts require the participants to prepare by washing or reconciling themselves, or to receive secret words and signs, or to dress in special clothing; some suggest a ritual ring dance.

Referring to Hugh Nibley’s essay, “The Early Christian Prayer Circle” and to the student manual for the Old Testament, Tom said,

In contrast to the First Vision, which was a solitary experience that led to a journey to a communal experience, the prayer circle is a communal experience that is the near culmination of a symbolic, covenant-driven journey before the veil, and was the final act before entry into God’s presence. Both involve elements of the horizontal at-one-ment, being united to others through Christ, and the vertical at-one-ment, being united to God through Christ.

Finally, Tom spoke of the kind of prayer and answers to prayer we find in the Book of Mormon, of what Terryl Givens has described as “dialogic prayer,” “an individualized, dialogic response to a highly particularized question” (Hand of Mormon 217).

I think that he surprised many in our audience when he said that he had rarely, if ever, experienced that kind of answer to prayer. But that surprise was prelude to another: once when he had the opportunity to speak of such matters with a member of the Twelve, Tom told that person of the absence of direct, dialogic answers to his prayers. Elder X responded, “The kinds of answers you are talking about are a gift of the Spirit. Evidently, you don’t have that gift.” After a slight pause, Elder X added, “Neither do I.” Then they talked about the variety of forms that inspiration can take.

If you are in Provo on March 10, consider joining us for the next discussion: 4:00-5:30 in room 455 of the Martin Building.

26 comments for “Prayer

  1. For those of us not in Provo on March 10, I hope we can get another report like this. Thanks, Jim, for posting this. No comment yet — still thinking.

  2. This is why I read T&S — I will be thinking about this for a few days. Or more. I also hope for a report on the next discussion. Prayer still is a mystery for me.

  3. When my son killed himself in the Marine Corps, a young man whose goal was to be a priest, began to write to me. He addressed me as “My dear mother in Christ.” Eladio and I still keep in touch, thirteen years later. He loved God in a way that I could not comprehend and I clung to his letters that year. I remember one thing he said, “do not trouble yourself with form. you must take yourself as you find yourself. God loves you as you are.”

    I have several close friends who are Catholic and they have helped me find God. I have the little precious pamphlet of Brother Lawrence “practice of the presence of God.” What a guy he must have been. He talked to God all day long. I have some books by Teresa of Avila which confuse me because there are no paragraphs, but my friend sent me a funny quote where she fell off her mule and she felt God say to her, “I give my friends these types of problems to help them be stronger” (or a reasonable facsimile) and she replied, “that’s probably why you have so few.” :)

    I have read Imitation of Christ and the words of Thomas Merton and I am convinced that we Mormons emphasize too much works and not enough epiphanies. I think we sabotauge, okay I spelled it wrong, you know what I mean, our own what could be a natural relationship by working too hard for it. I think He’s probably right behind us, chuckling as we look everywhere but where He is.

    I have had answers to my prayers in big ways, I have had streams of “pure intelligence” come in so fast I had to write it down and 20 years later, still find to be absolutely on track. I know He answers prayers, even the tiny whispered ones like, “what did I do with the keys, Heavenly Father? I know you’re busy, but if you could help me, I’d appreciate it” to the big ones, well, the big ones, we’re still working on. That would be “I change my mind, I do not want a body, what was I thinking? I must have been your stupidest child. I want to come home. Forget being a goddess, I will be the toilet cleaner in the spirit world. Just get me out of here.” He hasn’t answered that one yet. Well, the way I’d like anyway. And if He ever does, I already have a whole choir lined out to sing “O Happy Day.” at my funeral.

    I look forward to reading you guys’ wisdom on prayer. Finding God has been my greatest quest in this life.

  4. Jim–

    Thank you very much for this post and please continue your reports. Lack of comments could indicate depth of thought in this case.


    Teresa of Avila is my favorite. She also said, “the Lord walks among pots and pans.”

  5. I found Tom’s comments re the gifts of the spirit involved in prayer very interesting. In my experience, discussing prayer experiences and practices with others (up to the appropriate level) often reveals that experiences with prayers are as varied as they are communally similar and that responses to prayer seem to depend as much on a close relationship with God as with personality types and personal gifts of the spirit. Meaning that I have often interpreted a lack of big answers to prayer or specific styles of answers to prayer to reflect on my personal worthiness or closeness to the Lord only to discover as I discuss with others that perhaps my experiences have more to do with how I personally recieve answers to prayer. This seems a very comforting epiphany when many of us push ourselves to be the best us possible (in all the different connotations of that expression) only to be disappointed in ourselves when results don’t seem to correlate directly with effort.

  6. I find Professor Goates’s point about repetition interesting. Mormons, too, find great power in repetition–in the temple, in scripture reading, in service, in testimony. Her point about the rosary helping her in times when she couldn’t think suggests that mindfulness (as opposed to the usual criticism, mindlessness) can result from bodily repetition. The rituals are a way of gathering thoughts, of remembering.

  7. Jim,

    Thanks for your post. I unfiortunately have no way to get to Provo and would love trancripts of this if it is possible in any way.

    I have come to the conclusion over the years that written and rote prayes are two very different things. Rote prayers are read devoid of meaning and feeling. Written prayers, much like the Psalms, can inspire and connect us with God. I have found, starting on my mission, that written prayers can have a strong effect on people. I occasionally will write my prayers in my journal and over the years I have found great comfort in reading them when I am faced with similar problems. For me, they remind me that I have faced this challenge before, and will make it through. It also reminds me that there is a continued connection to Heavenly Father. if he listened to me before, he will listen to me again. For a Catholic view of rote prayers, visit

  8. Thanks, Jim, for an interesting post. It’s nice for those of us who are now far-flung BYU grads to hear of the interesting sorts of goings-on we remember from undergraduate days.

    I agree with the sentiment of the importance and comfort associated with formality and repetition—I suppose this is all associated with the idea of ritual: such things help us fill our need to know “What is it that I can rely upon?” I have been amazed at how eager our young children are for the rituals of family prayer and scripture reading—even my two-year-old eagerly grabs her paperback copy of the Book of Mormon off the shelf, and wants it turned to the right page, and demands her turn at “reading” (repeating as she’s prompted, two words at a time). Of course she’s not fully understanding the content of the text; but I note the similarity to a prayer circle. I wonder if the communion associated with such experiences—whether one-on-one with oneself or God, or with others—is not even more important than the precise nature (or even truth) of the content. I wondered about this a few months ago when on a whim I attended a Catholic Mass while on a business trip (it was in the morning; the local ward didn’t meet until the afternoon). It was distinctly more ‘ritualistic’ than our meetings; it almost had the feel of a temple session. I could see the impact it had on those in attendance, and I myself could not deny a sense of `holiness.’

    Having commented about dialogic revelation (one of my trademark rants?) on the Terryl Givens thread, I was very intrigued by the anecdote on that subject!

  9. …I wonder what will happen if Elder X becomes President of the Church?….would he be so honest?

  10. Jim,

    An absolutely wonderful post. After reading your comments, it is obvious that I have been too harsh a judge of all things BYU. Still many failings to be sure. But frank discussions like these go a long way to make up for those shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. I anxiously await the next report.

    Steve (#2),


  11. Very stimulating, Jim; thanks.

    Some random thoughts on prayer:

    One night at dinner as I vainly tried to shush my babies for the blessing it occurred to me that this was the first prayer that had been uttered in the house all day: I had risen late and skipped morning prayer, I hadn’t sat down for breakfast with the children and thus hadn’t blessed their food, we were out of the house for lunch. I suddenly felt as though the house had been cut loose from the cosmos, drifting and unconnected. I visualized our many daily ritual prayers as tethers of light binding our house to the heavens, holding it in place and linking it to God. Although I am not yet perfect in instituting our ritual family prayers, I never let an entire day go by without at least a few.

    One day at the temple it occurred to me that communal speech (as in the prayer circle) may be the most clear and certain form of improvisational speech: a single speaker will pause, hesitate, stumble over a word, mumble–but in concert a groups will edit out the pauses and hesitations, correct the stumbles, and articulate strenuously to blend and keep time with the group. This struck me at the time as a kind of metaphor for the clarity and power of communal prayer.

  12. Thomas Griffith is probably the most amazing man I have ever met. He was my Stake President before I moved to my current residence (which, in retrospect, was a bad move) and he never ceased to amaze me with his insight, genuine care, and humility. I honestly cannot give enough praise; I can honestly say that knowing him has changed my life. It is always a pleasure to hear about him. Thanks Jim!

  13. Kevin-you suddenly illuminated a light bulb above my head!

    I had read Jim’s post not taking much note of the names involved, and had just pondered what had been said. But your post helped me connect “Thomas Griffith” to my old stake president and yours, the man I had only known as “President Griffith.” It is funny because in readings Jim’s post about how prayer is not just for our personal purification, I thought to myself that it reminded me of something my old stake president used to say. So then I finally put two and two together,

    President Griffith truly changed my life as well. Kevin, were you present for his devotional on charity in which he showed a video about Mother Theresa? It changed my view of the gospel forever. He spoke about how so often in the Church we think the commandments are for our personal purification. We defines ourselves by a list of don’t. “I’m a Latter-Day Saints I don’t drink.” I’m a Latter-Day Saint, I don’t have pre-marital sex…..or do things on Sunday, or use profanity, ect ect ect.” To many members these rules define spirituality. He challenged us to redefine what spirituality really is. He then expounded to us that the reason we keep the commandments, the reason we “bridle all our passions” is to cleanse our vessels to be filled with the Spirit of love. The Spirit then compels us and enables us to go out and serve. The point of our holiness is that we can have more charity. That is the end of the entire gospel. The point of everything in the Church is to get us to move beyond ourselves and out helping others. He showed how our treatment of the “least of these” is what separates the sheep and the goat sat the judgment day. He taught us what C.S. Lewis once said: that our fellow human beings, next to the sacrament, are the holiest things to cross our senses. It was powerful, revolutionary, and nothing short of amazing. I cannot possibly do it justice here. But I left a changed woman. I have never seen the gospel the same since.

    Of course that devotional was enough for me to love President Griffith forever, but another devotional also completely endeared me to him. He gave a talk on the temple. He said he wanted to speak on his first experience with the endowment ceremony. He invited a few comments from the audience on what they had experienced with their first endowment. The replies were typical, “It was wonderful!” “It was so peaceful.” “I never felt such peace and love.” Of course they had all fallen into his trap. “Well,” President Griffith said with a smile, my experience with the temple endowment was different.” “I hated it,” he said flat out. “I didn’t like it at all. It made me question my faith. I came looking for Jesus Christ and couldn’t find Him anywhere in the ceremony. I felt lost.” Of course he then went on to explain how he ended up reconciling the ceremony to himself. But his brutal honesty made him my hero. As a fellow convert, at the time I truly feared the day when my own endowment would be taken out. He allowed me to see it was okay to have questions, and to have doubts, and that it would work out in the end.

    All this and he would also quote Eugene England in Sacrament meeting! Is there a cooler man in all of Provo? I have often thought how he could single handedly change the whole vibe of the church if he was called as an apostle.

    Well sorry for all this rambling. This is a post about prayer after all and not the virtues of Thomas Griffith. But I am always looking for an opportunity to sing his praises!

  14. Not to thread jack, but my first visit to the temple was disappointing also. First, I’d lost my husband and 2 year old son 6 month before in an accident. The stake president said God was in the temple. I took him at his word and truly fully expected to see God or at least an angel and certainly my husband and son when I stepped into the celestial room. I honestly thought somehow I would be beamed into heaven. It’s funny, now, but I thought, “what a gyp.”

    And there were other things that bothered me. It didn’t take me long to understand and reverence the temple ceremony, but that first time sure gave me room for pause.

    Now I truly do feel the weight of the world leave me when I go there.

    I wish I had you guys’ stake president, although mine is also pretty cool.

  15. Katie: Yes, I was at that presentation. “Pres. Griffith” stands among my heroes and I really miss having him as my SP. That’s one of the reasons why I’ll probably move back into my first ward this summer. As for his honesty, yes, it is very refreshing. Often I wish there was more candor in our wards/stakes; it seems, more often than not, any candor is made into a joke so its full force is not felt among the laughter.

  16. wow, that is cool.

    You know, you guys, you have been a blessing in my life. I really thought I was a freak of nature, one who could question without questioning my faith. I am so blessed to have found people whose minds work like mine, although I know, some of you would hasten to correct me, okay, better than mine. :)

    I am feeling like there is room in this church for me after all. Thank you.

  17. Thank you for relating that story about dialogic prayer as a spiritual gift, Jim.

    Since I was a young child I have regularly sought and received very specific answers to specific prayers. I have regularly taught in Sunday school and elsewhere that we should all consistently be involved in dialogic prayer — that it is one of the primary benefits of being Mormon. In fact I just taught it over the last few weeks with D&C lesson 5. I admit to some bewilderment on how easy the process seems to me and yet how hard it seems to so many other righteous saints I know.

    I had resolved that perhaps it was just one of those skills that just came more easily to some people than others. Something like doing that super loud two-finger whistle everyone else (including my lovely wife) seems to be able to do at football games etc. but I still can’t get right after years of trying.

    If it is a spiritual gift than the whole subject makes a lot more sense. It also means I probably owe Christian an apology on this subject. We have disagreed on the subject in the past and I sort of had the attitude “try harder”. But spiritual gifts or lack there of aren’t a matter of effort — they are free gifts from God.

  18. Geoff’s comment reminded me that I wanted to thank Jim for sharing these insights and thoughts, and particularly those of Brother Griffiths. He sounds like someone I–and anyone–would benefit from knowing.

    For quite a few years I’ve struggled with the fact that I have not in my life, to my knowledge, outside perhaps one or two very distant experiences at most, received any sort of spiritual confirmation or answer to an act of prayer. And yet, I still believe that God answers prayers; it has always seemed right to me, though that belief hasn’t spared me from a lot of anguish over why my own life does not, so far as I can tell, offer that belief any support. My tentative conclusion has been that having such dialogical and confirmatory experiences isn’t my gift. It’s nice to hear of someone else who has come to a similar conclusion.

    I don’t think the fact that knowing and hearing the counsel of the Spirit directly is a spiritual gift that some lack is reason to be content to live without such hearing and knowing; Givens makes the point that the BoM portrays dialogical revelation as a model applicable to every Saint; to comfort oneself about the absence of such from one’s life by saying “it’s not for me” doesn’t seem to be an option. We’re all supposed to be seeking after that gift. But still, God will give gifts to whom He will; it’s the seeking that matters most, after all.

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