IT SEEMS AS IF PRAYER SHOULD BE EASY. We speak to God and He speaks to us. We probably already speak to Him daily. Quick prayers ask for patience in a stressful situation, seek wisdom when a friend asks advice, and offer fervent thanks when an accident was avoided. Those bursts of prayer are one part of conversation with God. We already love Him or we wouldn’t turn to Him in the first place. However, prayer on-the-run can’t provide the solid foundation we need to respond faithfully to God’s love and deepen our own love for Him.
Jesus gave us the example of rising early and going alone to pray. The saints all spent long hours in prayer. Every spiritual book, beginning with the Bible, recommends frequent prayer. Yet we still ask, as the disciples did, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Step 1: Stop
Prayer is a slow, gentle process. It takes patience and daily perseverance. Above all, we must give up control and let God steer the conversation. We must have stillness to notice His gentle nudges and quiet comments. None of these requirements are exactly prized in our busy world.
So the first step to prayer is to stop. Stop the busyness and add time for prayer. Put 15 minutes into your daily schedule and stick to it. By all means, increase the time or add another session elsewhere in the day if you can. It may not seem productive at first but God will be working with you in ways that may not be obvious until later. That can also be a problem because modern people tend to be very results-oriented. For instance, Max wondered if he was wasting his time sitting on his porch every morning thinking about Bible verses before breakfast. “I began to feel like the world’s worst pray-er,” he said. “Then one day, I handled a difficult situation at work completely differently than I would have before. I realized that a very gradual change had come over me in the two months I’d had a dedicated prayer time. Now I look forward to ‘wasting time’ each morning because I know God is doing the work.” God’s ways are not our ways, so we also must “stop” looking for immediate responses. Relax into experiencing the process. Gradually, the ability to step out of a busy world into one of prayer will become something that we prize, but that takes time.
Step 2: Begin
Now we have 15 minutes to talk with God every day. What do we do? The disciples had a similar problem. They already understood daily prayer time after seeing Jesus regularly rising early and seeking solitude for long conversations with the Father. As faithful Jewish men, they also would have had communal prayer required at least three times each day and possibly as many as seven. Despite all this, they still asked, “Lord, teach us to pray...” (Luke 11:1) Jesus’ response was not to teach a technique or method. He taught them the Our Father [Lord’s Prayer]. It is the only prayer on earth that God Himself taught us to pray, which is a rather mindboggling thought.
Following Jesus’ instructions, the second step is to begin. Don’t talk about prayer. Just do it. Pray. You don’t have to pray the Our Father, though it is an excellent place to begin.
Step 3: Look
We can’t have a conversation if we’re not paying attention to the other person. Therefore, we turn our attention to God. By turning our minds, hearts, and attention to God, we open the way to learn more about the One whom we love. Distractions may arise and we suddenly realize that we’ve been thinking about something else altogether. That’s a chance to offer them to God as a source of conversation and then to put them to one side until later, returning attention to Him alone as best we can. We won’t succeed every time, but the effort itself has its own value. Lars found the best way to set distractions aside was to write them in a small notebook so he didn’t have to remember them later. This not only provided him with a “To Do” list, but looking back over the pages unexpectedly gave him a record of recurring issues in his life. Armed with this knowledge, he was able to begin to make changes he wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
Step 4: Listen
Obviously, in a conversation, we listen to the other person. First, we must stop talking long enough to listen. We’re used to doing the talking during prayer already so this can be a hard habit to break, but it is worth the effort. Cindy took neighborhood walks every morning for her prayer time. She often found herself back home again before she stopped talking long enough to let God have a part in the conversation. Remembering how she worked hard at listening to a friend during their weekly coffee dates, she began imagining Jesus at the coffee shop, stirring His coffee and listening while she prayed. Halfway through the walk she would say, “But that’s enough about me. Tell me about You.” No matter what technique you use, you will find yourself repeatedly grabbing control of the conversation. Don’t feel bad if you have to turn again and again to God saying, in essence, “Sorry I interrupted You.” The point is to continue to give yourself the chance to hear what God is saying.
Where to Look and Listen
Sometimes prayerful looking and listening are so intertwined that it can be hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Here are a few timehonored ways to proceed in prayer that may prove useful.
Nature is the book that God wrote for us long before humans invented writing. Take a stroll, sit in the garden or simply gaze at the clouds, feeling the air on your skin. Let your “self” drift away and be receptive to what God is showing you. Threaded through every sight, sound, smell, and experience, God reveals Himself. He has painted for us with a palette of unimaginable delicacy and beauty. The regularity of sunrise and sunset are contrasted with boundless combinations of light, clouds, and colors—infinitely beautiful, always changing, and impossible to pin down. Something as small as watching an ant struggle carrying a magnolia blossom may bring an added dimension to your prayer, especially when you consider that, just as “His eye is on the sparrow,” God loves that valiant, little ant too. We are reminded that we are not really the masters of all we survey, that we have no control over the elements, and that there is someone larger than us who conceived all of this in the first place. Such thoughts can bring us to our knees with gratitude or humble us into seeing our lives with true perspective.
Reading the Bible while listening for God’s voice is a very old form of prayer. Begun around 400 BC by desert monks, this “holy reading” is often called by its Latin name, Lectio Divina.
Although ancient, Lectio Divina is extremely simple.
• Place yourself in God’s presence.
• Read a section of Scripture slowly and attentively several times.
• Reflect on the reading. Give yourself as much time as you need to see if a word or phrase resonates, and what thoughts or feelings arise.
• Share your experience and reflection with God. There is no specific goal from Lectio Divina other than helping us to find God as we read His word. You may find this spilling over into other reading as well, even in ordinary books outside of prayer time. God is not picky about where and when He chooses to begin a conversation.
Imagination is like the playground of the mind. It is a place where we can be playful, creative, try out ideas, and wonder “what if...” St. Ignatius of Loyola used his imagination to put himself into Gospel stories and began an entirely new way of praying which became a key part of his spiritual exercises. For that reason, you may hear imaginative prayer called Ignatian spirituality.
• Read a Gospel story through slowly
• Imagine that you are at the scene of the story:
Do you feel a hot sun beating down? Can you smell food cooking nearby? Are you jostled by children running past?
• Now picture the story you just read:
Watch it unfolding in front of you. Hear the conversation. See the actions. Feel the mood of the crowd, of the disciples, of Jesus. Are you taking part? Don’t try to control the details that may occur to you. If the story is that of Mary traveling to visit Elizabeth, you may “see” Mary sleeping in a modern tent with a sleeping bag. This prayer isn’t about accuracy but about letting your imagination paint the picture so that you are in the scene. God will use your imagination to reveal himself as you enter His word. You may find yourself, as one man did, standing with the crowd during the Sermon on the Mount. Thinking that the Beatitudes were hard to understand, he was astounded when Jesus suddenly stopped talking, looked his way, and patted the ground next to him in invitation to sit closer and understand better.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 1-4
You may fail at any or all of the steps to prayer. The great thing about prayer is that it is available all day, every day. All you have to do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.
Remember that immediately after Jesus taught the Our Father to the disciples he told a parable about the value of persistence in prayer. Basically, He was telling us to never give up, never surrender. Pray today and every day. God is waiting.
O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth will proclaim your praise.