What if I don't know how to pray?
Often when people feel they don't know how to pray, it's because they haven't considered the possibility that they're already doing it. Prayer is our relationship to God, pure and simple. More awareness and intention in any relationship is a good thing. If you understand prayer as relationship with God, you can see how sometimes you are watching God at work, sometimes you're listening to God's voice, sometimes you're chattering away, sometimes you're arguing, and sometimes you're just sitting quietly together.
There may be a presupposition that prayer happens in church or by the bed, on your knees, in a set form. It does. All set forms are potential resources. Assuming a particular posture may help you focus. Having set times and places of prayer provides useful structure. However, prayer can happen anytime, any place, and in any manner. People who aren't going to church or saying bedtime prayers are frequently engaged in more informal kinds of prayer than they realize.
For example, perhaps you had a dream, the kind that sticks with you and shimmers. Or you may have come to value your nightmares, having discovered they bear insights into your fears. You hope this morning's dream may yield its meaning, its counsel, its guidance, its truth. You may jot it down for later reflection. When you receive your dreams as gifts, you are thanking your Creator for them. That's prayer.
As you awake, a hope for the day runs through your mind. You hear a fragment of a song, a hymn, a musical score. Someone's face pops up in your mind's eye. You enjoy the daylight streaming in the window. You gaze fondly at the one sleeping next to you. These are prayers of hope, inspiration, love, gratitude. As you begin to recognize these stirrrings as the movement of the Spirit within, you begin to trust the divine companion, who is always with you.
Maybe in the shower, you anticipate the day to come. You hope to untangle a problem with the production schedule. You dread a meeting with a coworker. Your anger rises, remembering yesterday's conflict. As your defenses tense, you realize you will need to be in a different frame of mind to achieve the best possible cooperation. Of course that's prayer. When you recognize your concerns as prayer, you can focus and shape them. You can let go of your fretful preoccupation with them.
As you swallow your toast, you see Uncle Fred's picture on the refrigerator. He's recovering from surgery, and you're relieved about that. You feel a twinge because he's getting old, and you haven't been back home to visit for a while. You remember that your child has a game this afternoon and is nervous about it. Your heart goes out to her. All this is the energy of prayer at work.
Most people tell me they get a lot of praying done in their cars during commute times. Some keep lists. Others just allow things to bubble up. Some pray for the drivers who seem most out of control. Imagine how many people pray for those involved in accident scenes along the road. There was once a moment when I was watching the television news and felt close to despair. All of a sudden, the words of the Kyrie began to pray in me—"Lord have mercy upon us"— lifting my spirit and addressing the situation. I've repeated it ever since, when news stories call for it.
There is also the prayer that happens in times of personal difficulty and distress. "I hope I can get through this. Steady now, stay calm, concentrate. Help! How will I ever get through this?" Understanding such inner dialogue as conversation with the divine companion helps us recognize such terse interchanges as prayers for clarity, strength, direction, deliverance. It has been said there are no atheists in the trenches. We're all in the trenches, if you ask me.
I've also come to hear prayer disguised in swearing and cursing. When someone takes God's name in vain, as we say, I'm no longer so sure it's altogether in vain, since they still remember it and have some kind of distorted relationship to it. Alienated from God, the appeal to God is still made. We can all be estranged from God, mad, sulky and pouting, standoffish, suspicious, or overly polite. We can hold a grudge or stonewall. Or we can trust God enough to spit it all out onto the table and have at it, as some of the pslamists and prophets did.
An amazing thing about prayer is that our capacity for intimacy with God is also our capacity to be close to ourselves and others. It's all connected. And, as with any spiritual exercise, prayer benefits from practice, awareness, intention, reflection, and more practice. But it's still as natural as breathing. By the way, God's voice is heard in creation, in nature, in human nature, in scripture, and in all forms of inspiration. When what you hear carries something like an electric charge, as a special dream does, that's a good clue. It captures your attention, pierces your confusion, arrests your presupposition. It thrills, convicts, consoles, directs. God does talk back.
—The Rev. Dr. Katherine M.
Pray the The Lord's Prayer. In this short prayer Jesus helped the disciples learn that prayer was first of all coming into God's presence. This is where all prayer must begin. The prayer then became asking for their daily sustenance, pleading for their own forgiveness and for the courage to forgive others, and requesting God to keep them from all that would undermine their movement toward union with God. Sometimes it is helpful to have prayers like The Lord's Prayer that you can carry with you in your heart.
We are all beginners at prayer and when we recognize this, we are able to pray well. In its most basic of forms, prayer is simply talking. It is spilling out the contents of your heart to the One who loved that heart into existence. Prayer does not need to be a refined and grammatically correct set of phrases that follow established policies and procedures! Prayer is as varied as each person's personality.
There are times when you will find that prayer arises unbidden from within. Perhaps someone you love is in need, perhaps your life feels overwhelming, perhaps you have inner questions that are disturbing your peace, or perhaps you feel lonely or afraid. Words and even tears rise up within you seeking release. The words flow and you pour out what is inside until you are empty and quiet. A disciple once asked one of the desert fathers how to pray. His answer is refreshing. "There is no need to speak much in prayer; often stretch out your hands and say, 'Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me.' But, if there is war in your soul, add, 'Help me!' and because God knows what we need, he shows mercy on us."
Prayer is not a
science that must be mastered in order to be effective. Prayer at its essence is
re-claiming your right to attend to your inner life. It's collecting the pieces
of life and bringing them to the One who alone can bring your soul back into
All prayer arises out of silence. If you want to know how to pray, step into silence. God is present there, and your heart will pray and God will speak. Here is a simple exercise that may help.
Sit down and become aware of your breath.
As you breathe slowly, allow your busy mind to become centered by allowing it to descend into the quietness of your heart.
Let your heart speak whatever it needs to say.
Listen for the word of God that may come audibly, or as an insight, or as a feeling of peace or clarity.
- After a few minutes, thank God for the time that you have spent together and slowly return to an awareness of your breath.
—The Rev. Canon Renée Miller