“For the past 15 years I’ve been attempting to figure out how to pray. I’ve searched for every ‘Praying for Dummies’ book published, but have come to learn they aren’t much help. Everyone has suggestions on how to pray, from the great spiritual writers to my grandmother. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to determine what prayer style works best.”
That honest assessment about prayer was recently offered by a pastor. He is correct in saying that we are responsible for strengthening our prayer life. No one can do this for us. Prayer is never a “one size fits all” approach. It is up to us to shape it, structure it, and sustain it.
Rightly done, prayer is a highly personal matter resulting in a richer and more vibrant spirituality. British clergyman William Law noted, “He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life.” Here are seven ways to deepen your prayer life.
Pray in a way which feels natural for you.
In her book God Alone Is Enough, writer Claudia Mair Burney offers this worthy reminder: “People don’t all pray in the same way, just as not every plant in the garden needs the same amount of moisture. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. We need to try on a few prayer styles to see what fits.”
Customize your prayer life. If you like to write, then keep a prayer journal. If you are a person who enjoys reading, then read from a prayer book. If you are a person who enjoys walking, then pray while you walk. If you have a long commute to work, use that time for prayer. That is what Toronto resident David does. “It takes me an hour to get to work using the bus and subway. I used to bring books and magazines to read for the trip downtown every day. Then I realized that was an ideal prayer time, so five days a week for nearly an hour at a time I make use of those 60 minutes for prayer.”
Pray like Jesus.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus included this sentence: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). Also, during times of deep distress, he asked that his time of trouble be removed but added these important words: “Yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).
Pray like Jesus prayed by placing your life in God’s hands with the confidence that “God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28). The fact is that we cannot always know what is best for us and that what appears to be a burden can become a blessing. A fascinating example comes from a man who was asked to put together a list of things he was grateful for. Though he was a person with many admirable achievements and accomplishments, his gratitude list was as remarkable as it was unusual. This is what he wrote:
• His first job upon graduating from college as a high school janitor.
• Being laid off from a job due to a bad economy.
• A diagnosis of melanoma.
• All the people who did not believe in him.
While the list does not appear in any way to qualify as a gratitude list, he explained that each one of those “burdens” was actually a blessing in disguise. Here’s why:
• Working as a janitor led him to his future wife, the daughter of a fellow janitor.
• Being laid off forced him to jump-start his career as a book illustrator.
• His cancer diagnosis prompted him to organize events promoting melanoma awareness.
• All the people who were negative, cynical, and critical further fueled his determination to succeed.
The lesson in that man’s approach is a powerful example of “thy will be done.”
Pray without words.
This is called meditation and is highly recommended by the composers of Israel’s psalms. Some examples include: Psalm 46:10—Be still and know that I am God; Psalm 4:4—Search your heart and be silent; Psalm 143:5—I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.
The practice of meditation was also recommended by John of the Cross who advised: “Learn to abide with attention in loving waiting upon God in the state of quiet.” In his book The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, Father James Martin, SJ, says: “Being silent is one of the best ways to listen to God, not because God is not speaking to you during our noisy day, but because silence makes it easier to listen to your heart and listen very carefully when your friend (God) is trying to make a point. . . . If your environment (inside and outside) is too noisy, it might be hard to hear what God, your friend, is trying to say.”
Set aside time, preferably daily, when you will sit quietly and pray. Consistent, consecutive, continuous prayer will never be present in our lives unless it is made a high priority. Spiritual writer Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, observes: “Prayer is not a matter of mood. To pray only when it suits us to want God on our terms, to pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority on a list of better opportunities.…The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about.”
Pray like Jesus prayed by placing your life in God’s hands with the confidence that “God works for the good of those who love him.”
Whenever you see a need, offer a prayer. Don’t hesitate because prayer delayed is almost always prayer denied. According to Saint Augustine of Hippo, such spontaneous prayer characterized early Christian communities. He noted: “We are told how the monks of Egypt prayed very frequently, but very briefly. Their prayer was sudden and ejaculatory so that the intense application so necessary in prayer should not vanish or lose its keenness by a slow performance.”
One who seized an opportunity to pray spontaneously is a woman named Carol who was working as a waitress on Thanksgiving Day at a 24-hour truck stop. That day, one of her customers was a solo driver. When she brought his plate of food to the table, she noticed the man was weeping quietly. “I wanted to be helpful so I returned to his table asking, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’” The man responded with an “I don’t think so” and explained his wife was asking for a divorce. “I wish I could talk to her about it in person, but I’m on the road for three more whole days.” Knowing those three days would be excruciating for the man, Carol said: “I want you to write your name and your wife’s name on this piece of paper,” she said placing her order pad and pen down on the table in front of him. “I am going to pray for the two of you.” He wrote the names down and Carol reassured him of her prayers. She didn’t see him again for an entire year, but twelve months later, on Thanksgiving Day again, he was back sitting in her station. “Thank you for your prayers. My wife and I worked things out. In fact, we recently had our first baby,” he said with a smile.
Jesus teaches that one model for prayer is brevity. In his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-17), it is clear that the Pharisee’s prayer is a far too long-winded and pompous prayer. It is also clear that the other individual in the story—the reviled tax collector—is the one whose prayer is effective, both in its sincerity and in its brevity.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus specifically taught: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt 6:7-8). Recalling these teachings of Jesus about prayer, Saint Augustine later wrote: “It was our Lord who put an end to long-windedness, that you would not approach God in too many words, as though you wanted to teach God by your many words. Piety, not verbosity, is in order when you pray.” Simple, brief prayers such as these are appropriate to offer throughout the day: God, help me. God, strengthen me. God, guide me. God, grant me wisdom, patience, love, insight, etc.
Pray when you don’t feel like it.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton observed: “True love and prayer are learned in the moment when prayer has become impossible and the heart has turned to stone.” Don’t permit discouragement, despair, and dismay to keep you from prayer. When you just don’t feel like praying, tell yourself, “I will do it anyway!” and then proceed to do so.
Consistent, consecutive, continuous prayer will never be present in our lives unless it is made a high priority.
Writing on his blog, one man said: “Sometimes even I don’t feel like praying—and I’m a pastor. It’s normal. Human beings are very fickle. One day you feel like you can take on the world. The next day you feel like you don’t want to be in the world. When I don’t feel like praying, here’s what I do: I pray anyway. And I find that just like a lot of things in life, once you start doing something, the feeling will follow. First motion, then emotion. The main thing is to settle in your head that you absolutely need to pray.”
Finally, let your whole life be a living prayer. Saint Frances de Sales advised: “Aspire to God with short but frequent outpourings of the heart; admire his bounty; invoke his aid . . . give him your whole soul a thousand times a day.”