One classic definition of prayer is:
“Prayer is lifting mind and heart to God.”
That’s a wonderful and accurate description of prayer—the problem is we rarely do it. It’s rare that we actually open mind and heart to God in order to show God what’s really there. Instead, we treat God as a parental figure or as a visiting dignitary and tell God what we think God wants to hear rather than what’s really on our minds and in our hearts.
As a result, we have a pretty narrow range of thoughts and feelings we consider suitable for prayer. Most of what we actually think and feel is considered too base for prayer. We feel we are praying only when we have attentive thoughts and warm feelings, when we feel like praising God, when we feel altruistic, when we have good feelings toward God, others, and nature, when we feel the desire to pray more, or when we yearn for moral improvement.
Such thoughts and feelings do make for prayer, but we can’t turn them on like water from a tap. Many times, perhaps most times, we experience other thoughts and feelings: boredom, tiredness, dissipation, bitterness, sexual fantasy, and sometimes even a positive distaste for church, prayer, and moral improvement. We don’t feel it is valid to lift these bitter thoughts and impure feelings to God. Instead, we try to crank up the thoughts and feelings we think we should be having when we pray. Unholy thoughts
There is some legitimacy in this. Classically, spiritual masters distinguished between prayer and distraction. Prayer requires attentiveness, an act of will. It isn’t daydreaming or letting a stream of consciousness occur. But prayer is “lifting mind and heart to God,” and that means lifting up, at any given moment, exactly what’s there, and not what, ideally, might be there. It would be nice if we always felt warm, reverent, altruistic, full of faith, chaste, hopeful, connected with others and nature, happy about who we are and what life has dealt us. But that isn’t the case. We all have moments and even seasons of doubt, anger, alienation, pettiness, boredom, and tiredness.
Our thoughts are not always holy and our hearts are not always warm or pure. It’s at times like this we need prayer, and what we need to take to prayer is, precisely, those bitter thoughts and unholy feelings. All thoughts and feelings are valid material for prayer. Simply put: When you go to pray, lift up what’s inside of you at that moment. If you are bored, lift up that boredom; if you are angry, lift up your anger; if you are tired, lift up that tiredness; if you feel selfish, don’t be afraid to let God see that. Jesus said we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. One quality in children is their honesty in showing their feelings. Children don’t hide their sulks, pouts, and tantrums. A good mother handles these easily, often with a smile. God is up to the task. In prayer, we can be transparent, no matter how murderous or irreverent our thoughts and feelings might seem. A certain awareness
If we do that, it makes it easier for us to “pray always,” as scripture calls on us to do. What does this mean? Obviously it doesn’t mean that we should always be at formal prayer or even that we should seize every possible occasion we can to pray formally. To “pray always” invites us rather to live our lives against a certain horizon. It doesn’t necessarily mean to stop work and go to formal prayer, important though that is at times. The point is rather that we need to do everything within the context of a certain awareness, like a married man who goes on a business trip and who, in the midst of a demanding schedule of meetings and social engagements, is somehow always anchored in a certain consciousness that he has a spouse and children at home. Despite distance and various preoccupations, he knows that he is “married always.” That awareness, more than the occasional actual phone call home, is what keeps him anchored in his most important relationships.
Our relationship with God is the same. We need to “pray always” by doing everything out of that kind of awareness. Moreover, when we do spend time in formal prayer, we need, like children do, to tell God exactly how we feel and invite God to deal with that. Rabbi Abraham Heschel points out how the great figures of scripture did not always easily acquiesce to God and say: “Thy will be done!” They sometimes fought bitterly and said: “Thy will be changed!” That can be good prayer. It lifts mind and heart to God.