Prayer is humanity's conversation with God. And very often the prayer is a plea. It seems safe to say that in the face of last week's Wall Street drop, more Americans have fallen to their knees than perhaps at any time since the months following Sept. 11.
But how do you pray in times of crisis? After the fall of the twin towers, most prayers for self-preservation also included prayers for the dead and for the safety of all. That sort of bigger, more compassionate plea is not quite as automatic this time around. Is it all right to be straightforward in your imploring to beseech God on behalf of you and your family's personal fortune or is that somehow selfish? And is that all there is? Or is this prayer, too, expected somehow to encompass a bigger and more compassionate principle?
TIME talked to Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim clerics about the kind of prayer that is appropriate in a time of possible economic peril and found strong agreement on some basic advice.
It's OK to Pray for Your 401(k)
"People absolutely need to know that it's natural to ask God's [personal] help in times of crisis," says James Martin, a priest, editor at the Jesuit magazine America and author of the book My Life with the Saints. "It's human and we can't not do it." Martin points out that the Psalms in many ways the Western model for all personal prayer are full of such special pleading. And in the Lord's prayer, Jesus doesn't forget to include "give us this day our daily bread." Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, also recognizes the legitimacy of the "help me" prayer, noting that the third of four prayers that religious Jews are expected to recite after meals asks God to "grant us relief from all our troubles. May we never find ourselves in need of gifts or loans from flesh and blood, but may we rely only upon your helping hand, which is open, ample and generous." Says Shamsi Ali, imam of the huge Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street in Manhattan: "In this kind of situation, Muslims turn their face to God and say, 'Almighty God, we submit ourselves fully to you, heal us and strengthen us. What you give, no one can prevent, and what you prevent, no one can give.' "
Don't Expect a Divine Bank Deposit
Rabbi Nevins cautions, "When I ask God for help, I'm not asking for an extra miracle, for a great hand to drop a wad of cash on my mortgage." Such supernatural interventions may occur, he says, "but I just don't know how to prove that." Says Ali: "God accepts our prayers, but God acts based on his wisdom." Says Martin: "If you imagine that God is like a cosmic gum-ball machine, you have to start rethinking your image of God. The help may not come as quickly or in the exact way that you want it. If you pray that your stock goes back up and it doesn't, it doesn't mean that God is not hearing you; it may mean that your prayer is not being answered in the way that you want it to be answered." He adds that "it's important to be aware of unexpected ways in which he might be responding. Look at the way your friends are helping you, or your church community, and that's a way you might feel God helping you."