Last year, I went on a 37,000-mile pilgrimage around the planet. I discovered a world of prayer traditions across the Judeo-Christian faith family—including lots of “crazy cousins” and “weird uncles.”
Some prayers were strange, others were beautiful. Here are eight unique places and prayers you can add to your prayer life:
1. New York – Corporate Prayer
My wife and I celebrated Passover in Brooklyn with ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews. A friendly rabbi invited us to join him and his disciples for a Seder meal, and we didn’t leave until around midnight.
Over dinner, he taught us a tradition call Minyan Prayer. “When 10 people pray together in a room,” the rabbi explained, “it’s called a minyan.”
“Where one lacks, another supplies,” the rabbi continued. “We complete each other. Rather than simply praying, each minion tries to help each other with real action. We help each other get jobs, find apartments, start businesses and so on. Everyone helps everyone else.”
2. Israel – Praying for Peace
In Jerusalem, I was struck by the weight of the uneasy tension that exists within the Old City walls.
There’s a neat tradition in Jerusalem involving the Western Wall, just a few feet below that divisive stone. You write a prayer on a piece of paper, slip it into one of the cracks in the wall, and then a caretaker collects and buries it in the Mount of Olives cemetery. Thus, your prayer becomes an “eternal prayer.”
I decided to write the most powerful one-word prayer in the world: Shalom. It connotes a sense of peace, stillness, wholeness, oneness. Just what the Middle East needs. Just what I need.
3. Greece – Praying Without Ceasing
At Mount Athos—an all-dudes “Holy Mountain” on the Aegean Sea and one of the oldest places of worship on the planet—I stayed in a handful of 1000-year-old Greek Orthodox monasteries.
As the monks of Athos breathe in and out, they pray the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The idea is that as every breath becomes a prayer to God, they’ll begin to pray without ceasing. It’s a beautiful idea that we can expand to other areas of our life by finding ways to attach physicality to spirituality.
For example: As we walk, we can pray about our spiritual journey. As we shower, we can pray for cleansing and righteousness. As we put on our clothes, we can pray that we would put on the armor of God. As we watch the news, we can bear witness to the suffering in our world. Find ways to connect the physical to the spiritual.
4. Rome – The Five-Finger Prayer
Through a series of events and a late-night Skype call, my wife and I had lunch at the Vatican and were granted an audience with Pope Francis. I learned a prayer that was supposedly created by the Pontiff, called The Five-Finger Prayer.
It goes something like this: Your thumb is closest to you, so start by praying for those closest to you. Your index finger represents those who guide and teach you. Your middle finger is the highest, so use it to pray for those in leadership and authority. Your ring finger is the weakest finger, so let it remind you to pray for the sick and oppressed. Your pinky is the smallest finger, to help you remember to pray for yourself last.
Pretty “handy,” right?
5. Spain – Active Prayer
After narrowly avoiding a seaside cyclone and a mountain blizzard on the same day, we met a winter pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage route in Spain.
He taught us all about active intercession—that prayer doesn’t have to be a boring religious routine inside a fancy church building. You can pray while walking. Hiking. Jogging. Climbing mountains. Since prayer is a relationship, it can follow us wherever the path takes us.
6. France – Prayer in the Everyday
Many centuries ago, a young monk named Brother Lawrence tried to practice the presence of God as he washed dishes and cooked meals. He became so famous for this discipline that someone interviewed him and turned it into a book—which hasn’t been out of print in over 300 years.
Through many months of research, I discovered his long-lost kitchen in Paris.
We can commune with God in nature, as we laugh or make music or read or do dishes or cook. We can pray anywhere, at any time. Everyday moments become holy and meaningful when they’re infused with prayer.
7. North Korea – Praying Through Song
I celebrated New Year’s in North Korea, though there’s not much to celebrate at the moment. More than 1 million people have starved to death in the past 30 years, and there are over 50,000 Christians in Nazi-style concentration camps in the hermit kingdom.
After refusing to bow before the glass-entombed bodies of the dead leaders, I was so broken for the plight of humanity that I broke open my hotel room window and started praying over the capital city of Pyongyang. But I couldn’t find the words to pray, so I used a song called “God of This City” instead—we can use music as a way of expressing ourselves to God.
8. Maryland – Praying When You Don’t Have Words
I had the chance to visit the oldest church building in North America: a Quaker meeting house in Maryland. Congregants meet every week for a silent service, and they practice a wonderful tradition called “Holding in the Light.”
Let’s say you’ve been praying for someone for a long time and you’ve simply run out of things to pray. Quakers simply hold that person in the light of God’s grace and say: “God, I’m out of words to pray. Help me to see them as you see them, help me to love them as you love them, and please do the work that only You can do.”
As I returned home from my year of living prayerfully, I stopped in England to locate the place where my great-great grandfather first heard the call of God to embark on a lifelong adventure in service of others, as a missionary with Hudson Taylor in China.
As I stood in that place, I vowed that I too would carry on the tradition of prayer and action in an effort to make this world a more loving, graceful, equal and just place. This is the true power of prayer: Not only does it change the world around us, it changes us on the journey.