Q: I feel like I'm just not good at praying - how can I do better?
A: Your question is a good one and reveals that the Holy Spirit is at work within you and moving you to seek a deeper relationship with God. Authentic prayer is essential for that relationship to develop and grow.
We should be clear about what prayer is and is not. There are some very good resources that can also help you in your spiritual growth. Two that I recommend in particular are "Beginning to Pray" by Anthony Bloom and "Time for God" by Jacques Philippe.
Prayer is not about changing God’s mind. Nor is it about telling God something the Lord doesn’t already know. Prayer is not just a matter of reciting words. Prayer is also not just a way to be at peace. When we approach prayer in any of these ways, we run the risk of being like the people in the Gospels who pray to themselves rather than to God. (see Luke 18:11)
Prayer is first and foremost an authentic communion with God. It is our response to God who is calling us to himself. Like children who are just learning to speak, it will take us time to respond with grace and clarity, but that is part of a mature spirituality. As St. Augustine said it, “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst and ours.”
Recited prayers (the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary) can be effective aids to help us enter into an experience of opening and offering ourselves that leads to communion with God. There are many excellent prayer books to help us delve into the church’s rich 2,000-year spiritual tradition of holiness expressed in the prayers of the saints and liturgy. If you do not have a good prayer book, I encourage you to get one and read through it. You will discover that some prayers speak more to your heart and life experience than others. That’s fine. Use those that are meaningful, and as your prayer life deepens you will find that other prayers start to become meaningful as well.
Recited prayers should not be the only ways we pray. Prayer should always be a conversation, not just a monologue. In the conversation of prayer, we are changed (literally “converted”) by our listening and attentiveness to God’s word. God speaks to us in very real ways, which is why it is important to foster moments of prayerful silence, spend time meditating on Scripture, place ourselves in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and pray for the grace to see our daily events and situations as God sees them.
Prayer, then, is not so much what we do but how well we are responding to what God is doing, and wanting to do, in us. To help us respond better, I always recommend that a person pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us we don’t always know how to pray but that the Spirit can pray in us. (see Romans 8:26) It is the Holy Spirit that will sanctify our lives, open our hearts, heal our wounds and remove our deafness so that we can be attuned to the presence and self-communication of God throughout the day. That’s why St. Paul says we should “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) He wasn’t referring to continuous recited prayers (although the famous “Jesus Prayer” is a great way to do just that). Rather, he was encouraging us to live throughout the day with a prayerful disposition, always aware of and responding to the presence of God with us.
That daily prayer will take many forms. Perhaps it is praise, or adoration, or thanksgiving, or petition, or atonement. It doesn’t have to be one kind or another, but every person’s day should probably have some elements of each type of prayer. If you find that you seem to be held back in your ability to grow deeper in prayer, I encourage you to seek the sacrament of reconciliation and receive the healing and freeing grace of confession. The presence of sin can be a real obstacle in our relationship with God, and sometimes our prayer life can’t develop until we allow God to remove that obstacle through the grace of the sacrament.
Jesus promised to be with us always, and the Lord was very clear about specific ways in which we could experience him. Just as for the disciples on the way to Emmaus in Luke 24, the Eucharist and the Scriptures will always be privileged places of encounter when we seek the Lord in prayer. Jesus is also present to us through his witnesses — men and women of holiness who live out the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. And Jesus is present to us through the Holy Spirit so much so that he promises us the Father will not deny the gift of the Spirit to anyone who sincerely and persistently asks for it. (see Luke 11:13) We know where to find Jesus — Our Lord has told us that much. Now it’s up to us to make time to spend time with him.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - January/February 2018
Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.