Here’s a suggestion to improve your life this year: Revitalize your prayer. This month I’ve been writing a book about praying. I offer you one chapter today that might prompt an idea of how you can enrich your relationship with God by dispelling a misconception you might have about prayer.
• Prayer should be long. No.
I once asked my spiritual director if I should get up during the night, go to chapel, and spend a few hours praying. He wisely said, “No. That’s not your spirituality.” Frankly, I was relieved! As a consecrated religious, my prayer took other forms throughout the day. Prayer is not “one size fits all.” It is an individualized matter.
Jesus spent the whole night in prayer, and some saints were known to pray for hours at a time. These facts might lead you to think that the more time you spend during your period of prayer, the better it is. (Or the more likely it is that God will answer your prayer of petition!) Not necessary so. The quality of prayer depends on your purpose, attitude, and what your mind and heart are doing. Jesus criticized the Scribes for praying long prayers for the sake of appearance (Luke 46:47).
Short prayers can be effective. What do people cry out when their house is on fire? They do not scream, “A conflagration is devastating my abode.” They yell, “Fire!” Your most frequent prayer might be, “Help!” Someone suggested that the first prayer occurred when a person observed a blade of grass emerging from soil and exclaimed, “Oh!”
Keep in mind St. Augustine’s comment on the length of a prayer: “A long speech is one thing, a long love another.”
• Prayer should result in a torrent of wonderful thoughts. No.
Don’t worry if your meditation doesn’t yield a slew of original insights. It doesn’t matter if at Mass you fail to glean enough knowledge to write a book. So what if as you pray the Rosary, God doesn’t reveal a course of action to undertake? Knowledge is not the goal of prayer. Love is.
Perhaps the grace that comes from prayer is not an idea at all. Instead, you may experience a moment of joy that is precious and consoling. Your prayer may leave you with a tear in your eye because you are moved with love for God or contrition. Maybe a sense of peace will come over you while you are in the midst of a maelstrom. Maybe a new desire will be born in you or a resolution.
Prayer shouldn’t be an ego-trip. What you get out of prayer is not important. Just being there, making yourself available to God is genuine prayer. It pleases God who craves your attention.
• Prayer should be formal. No.
St. Teresa of Avila advised, “Try not to let the prayer you make to such a Lord be mere politeness . . . avoid being bashful with God.” In Fiddler on the Roof Tevye’s conversation with God is a good example of informal prayer. To him prayer is not so much a duty but a visit with a friend. You don’t address a friend as “thou.” Prayer can be as simple as that of one little girl who was learning to ride a bike. She said, “God if you push me, I’ll do the peddling.”
Forget about trying to impress God with grand words and lofty ideas. He knows you through and through and loves you even when you stutter or speak in monosyllabic words.
Being real and honest with God might mean giving full play to your emotions. This is how the psalmist spoke to God in the psalms of lament. For example, repeatedly in Psalm 13 he complained, “How long, O Lord? How long?”
• Prayer is difficult. No.
You don’t find it hard to talk with a loved one or good friend. Surely God is your best friend. Probably the most difficult part of praying for many people is finding a free span of time to do it. However, just sending God quick “arrow” prayers throughout the day will keep your relationship intact. You could also pray rote prayers or prayers that other people have composed.
As for various prayer methods, you needn’t strive to master them to perfection. James Finley reports that the Trappist Thomas Merton once gave him insight into prayer. He recalls, “Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.’ You needn’t struggle to pray. Recall that Jesuit Thomas Greene describes the higher form of prayer as floating as opposed to swimming. Meister Eckhart advised, “Get out of the way and let God be God in you.”
The most satisfying prayer is simply being in God’s presence. An elderly married couple is content to sit together silently for hours. No words are necessary. They bask in the flow of their love for each other.
• I am not worthy to speak to God. No.
True, God is majestic and far beyond our comprehension. You might feel very small in his presence. Still, every person, though sinful, is a child of God, loved even before brought into being. Furthermore, God redeemed everyone, including you. Jesus went out of his way to be with sinners. No matter how underserving of God’s love you feel, he wants you to enjoy being in his company. He doesn’t listen to you only when you are good. It’s said that when you feel far from God, he isn’t the one who moved.
• Deep prayer is only for great saints. No.
Yes, St. Teresa of Avila was overwhelmed with ecstasy, St. Joseph Cupertino levitated, and St. Catherine of Siena had visions. These were extraordinary graces. All of us are called to be holy, to be saints. You were redeemed and baptized. You do not have to be super intelligent or super good in order to experience deep, profound prayer. God showers his gifts, including the gift of prayer, on whomever he wishes.
It could be you were rapt in wonder at the starry sky or a newborn. Maybe a glorious Mass or a passage from Scripture moved you to tears. Those instances are deep prayer. You possibly are a great saint in the making.
• What is your favorite way to pray? What new method would you like to adopt this year?
A LOVELY CHRISTMAS DUET
In honor of the Christmas season, here is a video that you might enjoy: