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The Secret to Praying Better

Leland Francisco-cc

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 07/15/15

Do we truly understand what we are asking?

“Father, would you teach me how to pray better?”  

People are always surprised when I answer, “No,” so I have to offer an explanation.  I tell them that, “Jesus never said, ‘Pray better.’  He never said, ‘Pray well.’  He didn’t even say, ‘Pray often.’  He did say, ‘Pray always’”  (Luke 18:1).

Rarely does anyone find this response satisfactory.  These sincere and well-intentioned souls desire God, want to be pleasing to God, and know that prayer is an indispensable part of the Christian life.  Somehow, however, they’ve picked up the idea that to make progress in the Christian life one must “pray better.”  I’ve come to learn that by “praying better,” they almost always mean, “I want to learn how to make sure that I have good feelings during prayer.” (See how that works? “Good feelings at prayer” = “Good prayer;” “Lack of good feelings at prayer” = “Bad prayer.”)  I tell these folks that the quality of one’s prayer is closely linked to one’s fidelity to prayer—in other words, prayer is good when you keep your promise to pray.

That last observation about prayer (namely, that quality of prayer is linked to fidelity to prayer) somehow often leads to a misunderstanding.  The erroneous reasoning runs like this: “Well, if quality of prayer is linked to fidelity to prayer when it is time to pray, and I want to pray better, then I should prove my fidelity to prayer by spending more time in prayer.”  That line of reasoning can lead to heartache and frustration.

An illustration:  A woman I know lamented to me about her miserable prayer life.  By her description of how she wanted to pray, she clearly wanted to pray as if she were a cloistered Carmelite. A most worthy aspiration, but…she was married and with four children in diapers.  She was lucky if she could use the bathroom by herself.  Hours and hours of meditation were simply not possible for her.  I told her that she would have to learn how to pray when and as she could, within the limits of the state in life to which God had called her, and for which God would provide the grace.

While that’s true, that observation is not immediately helpful to anyone, because it is too vague.  It’s about as non-specific as the exhortation, “Do-Good-and-Avoid-Evil,” to which the answer must be, “Yes, but how?”

Let’s go back to Luke 18:1, where Jesus told His disciples to “pray always and not lose heart.”  How is it possible to pray always?  Don’t we have to do countless things that demand our attention and energy, such as change diapers, cook meals, grade exams, write books, drive the kids to soccer practice, etc.?  Yes, of course.

And isn’t it true that Christian history is replete with examples of people who isolate themselves (hermits), cloister themselves (monks), or withdraw at least a while from daily life to make a retreat? Oh, yes indeed! As a Jesuit, I myself have made a 30-day silent retreat—twice.  Nonetheless, Jesus told us to pray always.  Certainly, it is good that there are retreats, monasteries, dedicated times of private and communal prayer, and the like.  But we must not forget that Jesus told us to pray always.  How shall we do that?

We can take some guidance from my late philosophical mentor, Paul Weiss.  He was asked whether God loves religious people more than others who are not religious.  His response was illuminating.  He asked us to call to mind two infants—one awake, one asleep.  Does a good parent love one of the two infants more?  Not at all.  But the infant who is awake can accommodate the parent’s love in a way that the infant asleep cannot.  Likewise, a religious person is “awake” to God in a way that a non-religious person is not.  The religious person can accommodate God’s love in the way that the skeptic, the indifferent, or those hostile to the divine cannot.  What can we learn from Weiss’ observation?

One who is religiously “awake” can pray always.  Such a person can, as the title of the spiritual classic by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection suggests, “practice the presence of God.”

Brother Lawrence writes, “The Presence of God is our spirit in contact with God.  It is a realization that God is present, made known to us either by the imagination or the understanding.”  By means of understanding, we can accept the truth of the concept that we are always in the presence of God.  (See Psalm 139, as well as much of the Confessions of Saint Augustine.)   God is omnipresent, therefore, wherever we are, we are standing before God.

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