Five steps to better prayer
THROUGH PRAYER we find meaning, strength, and direction for our lives. We become more and more the kind of person we really want to be. Here are five things you can do to help you on the way.
1. Ask God
Being a person of prayer is not something we achieve by our own strenuous effort. I am reminded of a story from the desert fathers, early Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian and Palestinian desert, that illustrates this point. A young monk asked the old Master, “How long will it take me to achieve enlightenment?” The Master replied, “Five years.” The young monk asked, “But what if I work really, really hard?” The Master replied, “Ten years.”
What is prayer?
Below are 10 statements about prayer. As you reflect on them, ask yourself: Do they resonate with my experience? Do I agree with them? Why or why not? You might also want to talk to God about these observations on prayer. Or you could share both this article on prayer and these quotes with a friend or two. Perhaps you belong to a church group with which you might share reactions and responses.
1. “The wish to pray is prayer itself.” (Georges Bernanos)
2. “A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to a person who is not.” (Anonymous)
3. “Everything that turns a person in the direction of God is prayer.” (Saint Ignatius of Loyola)
4. “The purpose of prayer is good works, good works, good works.” (Saint Teresa of Ávila)
5. “It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without heart.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
6. “Never pray in a room without windows.” (From the Talmud)
7. “Prayer is simply being with God and knowing it.” (Bishop Kenneth Untener)
8. “We don’t pray to be effective. We pray because God is God and we are we, and therefore that meeting is the most important thing in our life.” (Jane Ubertino)
9. “Praying is ‘wasting’ time before God.” (Michel Quoist)
10. “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” (Rabbi Abraham Heschel)
Prayer is a grace God gives us. We must never forget that. But it is a grace God is eager to give. It is also a grace we can make ourselves more likely to receive. We can begin by simply asking God for the grace of prayerfulness. Our request need not be long or complicated. Turn to God in your heart and say something like this: “Dear God, I really want to know you better. Please help me to be a more prayerful person. If there’s anything I can do to help this come about, let me know. Amen.” It is good to ask God for things. After all, the “Our Father,” the prayer Jesus taught us, is in part a list of requests to God. Adding prayerfulness to that list seems very worthwhile to me.
2. Slow down and notice things
We live in an age characterized by busyness and excessive speed. Consequently, many of us are running around like hyperactive chipmunks! You, too, may find yourself busy and rushed. Such busyness breeds impatience. Be honest. Do you ever get impatient because your microwave or computer is “too slow”? Do you get antsy waiting in check-out lines, at red lights, or when a friend is five minutes late?
In the 19th century, historians say, when people traveled by stagecoach, it was not uncommon for the coach to be two or three days late. The passengers just had to sit around and wait for the coach to come. Can you imagine people putting up with that today? No. Today we get frazzled if our airplane—which has just traveled 900 miles in two hours—arrives 20 minutes late!
It is hard to be a prayerful person if we are running around, multitasking or preoccupied with 101 things that need to get done. One thing we have to do to become prayerful is slow down. Try this: Instead of gobbling down your food, savor each bite. Instead of rushing down the sidewalk, stroll leisurely. If you have to wait for something or someone, forgo the temptation to fill that time with work. Rather, use those few minutes to become more aware of the world around you and inside of you.
Prayer begins with attentiveness. And attentiveness is something we can cultivate. We begin by noticing little things: the way the sunlight is streaming through the window, the chirp of a robin in an oak tree, the scent of the soap in our hands, the steady in-and-out of our breathing. Slowing down and being attentive are vital to prayer, for they increase our likelihood of finding traces of God in our everyday lives.
3. Begin to pray
The author E. L. Doctorow once said: “Planning to write is not writing. Talking to people about writing is not writing. Writing is writing.” We can say the same thing about prayer. Planning to pray is not praying. Talking to people about prayer is not praying. Praying is praying. And praying is essentially conversation with God.
I often begin my prayer by telling God where I happen to be at this particular time: “God, I’m feeling great today. . . . God, I’m exhausted. . . . Jesus, I’m sad and I don’t know why. . . . God, I’m so worried about so-and-so. . . . God, I’m really mad.” In prayer, it’s often good to start just where we are and go from there.
An old maxim says, “If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy.” This means we must make time for prayer by making time for it in our day just as we schedule other important activities. We don’t wait to find time for prayer or pray only when we feel like praying. If we did that, we would probably pray very little. No, if we want to become prayerful persons, we pray every day.
What time of day works best? Maybe morning is a good time before things get too hectic. Or maybe you prefer a prayer break in the middle of the day, or in the evening when the day is winding down. Whatever time you choose, prayer must be a priority for you—because God is important to you, because you deeply desire a personal relationship with Jesus, because you really need God.
Sister Melannie’s favorite prayer resources
Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer by Father Thomas Green, S.J. (©1977, released in 2006 by Ave Maria Press). This practical book draws on classical prayer traditions, making them accessible to the reader.
The Song and the Seed: The Monastic Way of Tending the Soul by Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, O.S.B. (© 1995, released in 1997 by HarperSanFrancisco). A guidebook for communion with God, based on Benedictine spirituality.
Living Faith, a publication that comes out four times a year with reflections by a variety of authors on the scripture readings for every day. Check its website for subscription information: www.livingfaith.com.
www.catholicsoncall.org. For “young adults seeking insight on life, wondering what God has to say about it.”
www.sacredspace.ie. A daily, 10-minute guided prayer site produced by the Irish Jesuits.
I said that prayer is conversation with God. That means it is a two-way street. During prayer we talk to God, but we also give God the chance to talk to us. So sometimes we use words when we pray; other times we don’t. Thomas Merton, a famous Trappist monk, once told a friend to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.”
4. Seek help
There are many wonderful resources out there to help us with our prayer. Countless books, for example, have been written about prayer. (I know, because I’ve written a few of them!) Devotional magazines such as Living Faith, Living with Christ, and Magnificat give short reflections for every day of the year. And don’t forget to check out some of the websites about prayer. Just search “prayer” and see what comes up.
We can get help with prayer from other people, too. Talking with friends about prayer can be very beneficial. Actually praying with them is even better. Joining (or starting) a Bible study group or a spiritual book club has helped many people. Some individuals even find a spiritual director, a person with whom they meet regularly to share their experiences of prayer and daily living. Spiritual directors can be priests, sisters, brothers, or lay women and men who are not only experienced in prayer but also have skills for guiding others.
There are many different ways to pray. Experimenting with various prayer forms can be healthy. Some people love to pray the rosary; others prefer to read the psalms. Some like to take a scripture passage every day and reflect on it. Others find listening to music helpful. Some pray while walking or running; others like to sit or kneel. You might also want try the Liturgy of the Hours, Centering Prayer, or other forms of meditation.
In our desire to become more prayerful, it is good to remember, in the final analysis, that prayer is a means, not an end in itself. We pray not only because we love prayer. We pray because we love God. And prayer is one of the chief ways we come to know and love God more. Through prayer we find meaning, strength, and direction for our lives. We become more and more the kind of person we really want to be: a person of love, integrity, compassion, forgiveness, and joy.
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