This is the second installment of a three part series. The first dealt with the nature and necessity of prayer. This second installment will deal with the nuts and bolts description of how to pray. The third will go into greater detail about maintaining an already existing prayer life.
— — —
This treatise is by no means exhaustive. Nonetheless, I hope to put forward a few basic principles in order to foment a rudimentary knowledge of prayer that will bolster someone who is keen to begin or deepen their own prayer journey.
Prayer is wonderfully simple.
In its most basic essence, prayer is a conversation. Like waves crashing on a beach, only to retreat, there is a reciprocal rhythm to prayer. Whereas meditation involves only one person, prayer always involves two. As one speaks, another listens. Each takes up the position at one time as listener, and at another as speaker. The simplicity of this dialogue is plain to see.
However, prayer cannot stop at words. The words are a means to an end.
With time, just as within any loving relationship, the communication that occurs between God, who is love, and the one who prays develops its own idiosyncratic nuances. It is true, on the one hand, that words are needed in order to formulate abstract ideas into concrete expressions of self; yet, on the other, silence is the most profound means of mutual expression—it also happens to be the most unbearable for the uninitiated.
Prayer finds its ultimate fulfillment in mutual indwelling. This residing, one with the other, is tangible and weighty. It permeates every aspect of our universe, and our lives. There is no abrupt line which severs the spiritual world from the physical.
Instead, prayer reveals that we live neither in black nor white, but in a vast grey zone where the principalities of heaven intermingle with those of the earth.
How then are we to journey towards this realisation?
From the Heart?
Many will disparage pre-written prayers as less effective when compared to spontaneous, heartfelt utterances.
This is untrue.
While wrapping our entire psyche around a simple phrase, such as “Lord have mercy,” or, “Jesus, come to my aid,” it becomes possible to mould our earthly thoughts and dispositions into heavenly ones. Frequently, these pre-written prayers are the only coherent thought we can muster during times of great distress.
Likewise, pre-written prayers such as the Our Father are designed specifically to teach us the proper disposition towards God and the world—they instruct both heart and mind within the simple act of recitation.
The “Where” in Prayer
In order that we may decide how to pray, we must first establish where to pray.
Prayer occurs in three locations, two of which are chosen.
The first, the most obvious, is a place of worship. Catholics believe that Christ resides in the Eucharist which is enshrined within the Tabernacle of every Catholic Church. To enter into one of these churches, therefore, is it to enter into a sacred space. Like a sweet fragrance which lingers near the blossoms of a tree, God’s presence resides here in a special way.
The word sacred means “set apart”; the Church is chiseled off of the world in order to be a sanctuary for prayer. It is purely natural, therefore, that we should desire to pass through the shifting veil of mundane reality in order that we might enter into this sacred realm where prayer is facilitated all the more.
Sadly, we do not always have the time to find repose in such a sacred setting.
The second location of prayer is somewhere, anywhere, where we can flee to in order to relax and find some modicum of peace or stillness. We should avoid rooms or areas where the objects or imagery present will snatch away our attention. Ideally, we can set up little, hallowed spaces of our own home, or find a quiet trail away from the busy streets. Even within the downtown of a sprawling city little nooks of solitude are waiting to be discovered.
The third location of prayer is every and any location. Catherine Doherty, following in the footsteps of many great Christian writers such as Jean de Caussade, has emphasised with great passion the need to have our entire lives become a prayer. When our hearts beat with God’s love doing dishes is a prayer, changing a diaper is a prayer, taking out the garbage is a prayer, and on and on.
Formal vs Informal Prayer
Here’s what I mean: permit me to use the word formal and informal in a new sense. I shall call that prayer which arises as a conscious act as formal prayer, and that prayer which occurs within the very way we live our lives as informal prayer. Praying a rosary, conversing with God, and going to Church are types of formal prayer; whereas, burning with the presence of God while we go about His work is an example of informal prayer.
Formal prayer is the means by which we enter into informal prayer. In order to accept Paul’s great challenge to “pray always” (1 Thess 5:16-18), we must tread this path. As a wise man once said, “If you want to pray always, you need to pray sometimes.”
Formal prayer should be done with gentleness and simplicity.
What to Do
When I pray I first take a few deep breaths and center my attention into my body. Gently, I keep my attention within the physical space of my heart and hold it there as best I can. This is done by drawing my attention to the physical sensations that arise from this part of my body.
Thus focused, I repeat the words of the prayer slowly. I repeat them as if my heart was beating these very words in a rhythmic manner—though I do not feel the need to match the actual speed of my heartbeat, which would be far too fast.
Just as a master musician knows to utilise the silence between the notes, we should bring our attention to the silence between the words.
Learn to love that silence; embrace it.
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle.” (1 Kg 19:11-12).
Don’t Fear the Darkness
Initially, all kinds of skeletons will rise out of that darkness and silence in order to threaten you. Make them your prayer too. When I enter into silence and a wave of anxiety or anger overwhelms me, I take them head on, like Superman would plow through a moving train. This is not to say that I fight them, not at all. I just dive into them as if they were a large pool; we can all be like Kevin McCallister who embraces the darkness in the first Home Alone and screams triumphantly, “I’m not afraid anymore!”
Try it! You will be surprised.
When faced directly, our feelings are never greater than us.
It is better to pray one prayer slowly and with due attention, than to pray several with great rapidity. It goes without saying, but the goal is never to achieve some arbitrary number of prayers said or some heroic amount of time spent in prayer.
God’s hand will never be forced by any kind of human currency.
The goal, therefore, is to be united with God in an unbreakable bond of love.
I find it helpful to have a rule which stipulates either a time spent in prayer or a number of prayers and stick to that as faithfully as I can. I prefer to devote specific periods of the day to prayer, in the same way that I would allot time in my day to visiting with a friend.
Entering the Desert Experience
Do not be fooled, however, prayer is not a cake walk.
One of the most common experiences of prayer is dryness. Many days, it will just feel like your chewing on sand and the universe could not be more indifferent to your plight. Remaining faithful to a rule of prayer during these times is essential.
The weightlifter who abandons a workout at the first sign of pain never strengthens. A prayer life that withers at every sight of difficulty never blossoms.
Fidelity in hard times is, afterall, the mortar of true love and, contrary to the prediction of the screaming voice of your emotions, the dryness never lasts forever. Each new time that we re-enter into the tangible experience of God’s sweet dew from heaven, it makes any suffering seem like a petty-already-forgotten annoyance in comparison.
The knowledge that God is present even when it does not feel so will slowly become ingrained within your soul. This growth is at once imperceptible and yet, oddly, known intuitively. It is a little like watching the good guy in a T.V. series get stomped viciously by the villain causing you to lose all hope of his survival and yet something in your head reminds you that, “I know there’s a second season, he must survive this somehow.”
Have a Rule
To avoid losing steam when you choose to pray, set yourself a rule. First choose the amount of time you would like to pray every single day. If you’re a beginner, start small.
I cannot emphasise this point enough: pick something that is definitely achievable. You have your whole life to develop and strengthen your prayer life. The initial goal is get an engine that runs smoothly and consistently, however little power it provides.
Once you have chosen an amount of time, firmly decide upon a moment during the day. Staple your prayer times to other immovable parts of your day. Personally, I prayer consistently immediately after waking and immediately after supper. These are two solid moments in my day that are rarely interrupted. What those moments will be for you, I cannot say. If your days are so chaotic as to have no stable points, perhaps this is an auspicious moment to focus on that simultaneously.
Routine is healthy for our emotional, physiological, and spiritual lives. By stapling my rule of prayer onto these times it grants the same sense of concreteness to the new activity. Likewise, this sense of routine will do wonders for your psychological health.
We should keep in mind that the goal is to develop this vital link between ourselves, as those created for love, and our creator as the Beloved Divine Bridegroom.
What grows in the human heart as a result of the flourishing of this relationship is beyond words. The realisation of this process affects every aspect of our lives and will begin to colour, in a positive light, everyone and everything we perceive around us.
This experience, which is truly beyond words, is recognizable instinctually. At times, it feels like the entire order of our being is set right again. It is simply the experience of the fulfillment of the one true human desire which supersedes and surpases all other human desires. Even in great anguish or suffering, a sense of peace and purpose can exist within us simultaneously via an experience of prayer.
A Final Note
Finally, if you remember only one thing from this entire essay it should be this: never go it alone.
We are made for community, so we should find somebody more advanced in the spiritual life whom we truly trust who can be a sober, second opinion about our prayer life. There are many pitfalls in prayer—most of which stem from our own bravado and pride—a trusty guide will make all the difference and help us to avoid a myriad of troubles and traps.
Likewise, in our zeal to succeed at this endeavour, we miss obvious warning signs that we are actually headed in the wrong direction. An outside perspective is invaluable during this process.