Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

The Power And Art Of Prayer

In 2019, the American Pew Research Center posed this question to 38,426 people in 34 countries: How important is prayer in your life? 53% claimed prayer played an important role in their lives. It is therefore not surprising that many works of art, including those found in cemeteries, depict figures in the act of prayer. 

Praying bronze angel, covered with snow.
Angel immersed in prayer in Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Whether alone or in a community, ritualized or spontaneous, prayer seeks to establish communication between the prayer and their God. The statue below, with her contemplative expression, reflects this connection.

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
― Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Danish philosopher and theologian

Statue of a praying woman, bathed in sunlight.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The Need for Prayer

People pray for many reasons: desperation, helplessness, sadness, and fear — but also joy, gratitude, and amazement. The penitential prayer — a confession of one’s wrongdoing, and the request for forgiveness are perhaps the most popular forms of prayer.

The Latin verb “orare” means both “request” and “speak,” as well as “pray.” It ranges from De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine (Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord), said in a moment of profound sorrow, to a short word of thanks when something unfolds better than expected. As you can see from the photos throughout this post, artists have attempted to capture these various emotions in the faces and positions of their statue.

“You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.”
― Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Statue of a kneeling and praying woman.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Prayer — like meditation — allows us to pause, recognize, and acknowledge our feelings. This is particularly important as the pace of life accelerates, and our ability to “disconnect” from others and the world becomes more difficult. So, what happens when we pray?

Talking To A Friend

Uffe Schjødt, of Aarhus University in Denmark, studies the neurology of social and cultural phenomena. He is the author of several papers examining the biological and evolutionary aspects of religion. Using an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), Schjødt studied the brain activity of devout believers during prayer. 

Bas-relief of an angel's head, hands folded.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Schjødt’s study (Uffe Schjødt for The European, May 2012) determined that four regions — typically active when humans relate to other humans — were engaged during prayer. Thus, the believer’s minds behaved as if they were having a conversation with another person — not dealing with some abstract theory or concept. He also found the regions of the brain associated with critical thinking were less active, indicating those engaged in prayer were more open to suggestions. If believers were asking God a question, their MRI results confirmed their minds were indeed open to receive some type of answer.

Based on the soft glance and gentle smile of the statue below, most would assume she is speaking to a dear friend, just as Schjødt’s study would suggest.

Statue of a woman with veiled hair and a rosary over her arm.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The Impact Of Prayer

Many of us have entertained this thought — I’ve prayed and prayed and yet nothing changes. Do my prayers matter? From a neurological perspective, they do. While immersing ourselves in our conversation with God, our minds have the chance to break from their habitual patterns, if only for a brief moment.

We know from our extensive study of meditation, anything interrupting a negative mental cycle can produce a positive impact on our minds and bodies. Prayer can have a similar effect, even if our prayers are not always answered or at least answered in the manner we expect.

Detail of a female statue, praying
Ohlsdorf Cemtery, Hamburg, Germany

Psychologist Crystal Park, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, states: That peace, that sense of meaning and connection that happens with prayer is what is positive. Those kinds of things have physiological effects on the body, such as calming your cardiovascular system and reducing your stress. She adds: I would recommend that if you have faith, rely on it.

The Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904–1984), one of the most respected religious thinkers of the 20th century, said, “happy is someone who prays over and over again in everyday life!” Rahner believed prayer was a “basic act of human existence… a firm, clear invocation of power in the world and its history.”

Praying hands, equipped with solar cells, that deliver power to allow a little cross to glow.
Praying hands, equipped with solar cells, that deliver power to allow a little cross to glow. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Blessings in Disguise

Of course, the ultimate question remains: Why does God appear to answer some prayers but not others? Is an unanswered prayer an exercise in futility? Some popular philosophers such as Nietzsche would suggest it is. 

“From people who merely pray we must become people who bless.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1888)

Who among us cannot recall a challenging situation that, while not eliminated by our prayers, contained some seeds of growth? And perhaps benefitted us in ways we never could have imagined? Who has not said, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a blessing in disguise”? Some might say it was our prayers that turned that difficult scenario into something good.

Close-up of hands folded for praying
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

In some situations, however, no amount of rationalization can explain why some prayers were not answered, such as the death of a child, the ravages of war, the devastation of hurricane, etc. We struggle to find any logical reason for why it had to be so. It seems inconsistent that a God who loves us would continue to allow so much pain and suffering to exist. We see these feelings reflected in many works of cemetery art, such as this mourner, with her somber, almost pained, expression.

Woman leaning against a cross, in a pleading position.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

An Answered Prayer

During my childhood, our family went to Italy for our holiday. While there, my little sister had a serious accident and was rushed to a hospital in the town of Brescia. As physicians fought for her life, a group of Italian woman, awaiting news about the status of their loved ones, began to pray for my sister.

“In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
― John Bunyan (1628–1688), Pilgrim’s Progress

Little marble angel, in prayers.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

With heads bowed and hands folded, they asked God to save the life of this unknown  German child — a selfless act of humanity in an often deeply-divided world. My little sister survived to become a beautiful person, in both character and appearance. I often think of those women who prayed for her recovery and wonder what role they played in it.

Bas-relief of a female figure with her head lowered.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Prayers Carved In Stone

Whenever I encounter one of the beautifully crafted Grabengel (German term for an angel standing at a grave) or other statues in a praying position, I am reminded of the multitude of emotions accompanying our prayers. Perhaps prayer is one means to overcome the  inner turmoil that often accompanies our daily lives, enabling us to establish a connection not only with God, but with humanity itself.

In this respect, praying is indeed a conversation. As Schjødt’s work suggests, prayer has the effect of opening our minds. The joyous expression on the statue’s face below suggests she has indeed received an answer to her prayers and she is pleased with the result. 

If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.
― Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328), German theologian, philosopher and mystic

Modern statue of a kneeling woman with outstretched hands.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

For those who want to read more about this fascinating topic, I recommend the book, Neurotheology, How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality, by Andrew Newberg, director of research at Thomas Jefferson Hospital and Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Cemetery Art earns commissions for purchases made through links in this post, which are used to offset the costs of building and maintaining this site.

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