If you are feeling stymied about prayer, do not be afraid; it doesn't get any simpler than this
You know that niggling sense of need. You want to pray, but you’re stranded and doubtful. Maybe you think God doesn’t want to hear from you because you’ve kept your distance for a while.
Perhaps you practiced prayer once before, and you know that mature prayer is something more than simply petitioning God, but you’re not sure where to go with it.
Maybe you’re really busy and fear that pursuing “the practice of prayer” involves a commitment you cannot wholeheartedly enter into.
Or perhaps you’re simply hanging back on prayer because you’re afraid of “failing” at it.
Put your mind at ease. The only way to “fail” at prayer is to not even attempt it.
And there is no such thing as God not wanting to hear from you. So hungry is God for your company that he is, like the father of the Prodigal, always seeking the horizon for the merest glimmer of your appearance. God can and will speed up the encounter you seek — again, as in the parable — if you first make it clear that you desire it. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20)
Our God is a great paradox of power and politeness; he is omnipotent yet stands at the door and knocks, courteously awaiting our consent and our opening. Having given us free will, he is always waiting for us to turn to him.
The kiss of God is attainable, and wholly by grace; our own effort need consist in very little more than the wanting to do the right thing, or admitting to the simple desire to pray. “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you,” wrote Thomas Merton. If you can accept that true premise, then you can jump-start your prayer life in very simple ways.
1) Make the Sign of the Cross
When I was a little girl, I thought of the Sign of the Cross as a kind of “key” with which I could open and close my connection to God—a key to a portal, so to speak. My grandmother taught me to make the Sign of Cross whenever I heard a siren or saw an ambulance or any sort of emergency vehicle, and in my imagination that small act became a kind of delivery service: crossing myself became the means by which I pushed the need before my eyes (or ears) into that God-portal—imagine the intentions of strangers shoved into a pneumatic tube of prayer and sent off to heaven! I am older, now, but I still make the Sign of the Cross at those times. And when a name or need pops into my head, as I am working. Or when my own anxiety threatens to own me. I simply recognize what is before me: an ambulance, a need, a fear, an angry thought, and I cross myself and release it all into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a first and fast prayer and a good place to start.
2) Develop a habit of “spouting off” at God
Long ago we called it “ejaculatory prayer,” but we’re living in a much less mature, much more uptight era, so that word is best left unused, which is a shame because the image of prayer being forced from us (like water spurting from a pressured fountain-spout) is very apt. We can “spout off” prayers of a moment, and with just a few words. On hearing terrible news, we might think, My Jesus, mercy! Under stress, my mother used to exclaim, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help!” Those are prayers, and they are valid. But “spouting off” doesn’t always have to be about pressure and stress. We can spout our praise as well. In Henry Morton Robinson’s classic novel The Cardinal, Dennis Fermoyle, the motorman father of a future priest, would several times a day doff his hat and offer an ejaculation of praise as he passed local churches, saying, “Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament.” You can do that too, and easily. As you tuck the kids into bed, say, “O God, great are you and your creations.” Upon starting a chore: “Lord, my best for you!”; upon managing to get the bills paid: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
3) Notice something beautiful
“Beauty will save the world,” wrote Dostoevsky, and this is true. Nothing rushed, nothing hurried, nothing ugly will bring us out of ourselves and give us an opening to meet with God, but beauty can and will. Leaving church yesterday, I noted a pretty red leaf, falling in an autumn swirl and landing just before me. I picked it up and put it on my dashboard and it got me noticing the trees as I drove home, gaudy in their last shout of color before baring their limbs for winter. That got me thinking about death and resurrection, and Christ’s restoration, “See, I make all things new …” The day became full of hope and the drive much more spiritually profitable from one leaf than it could ever have been with a radio-distraction.
Speaking of which:
Turn off the radio when driving. Turn off the TV while dining, even if you’re alone. Turn off everything and give your mind and spirit a chance to connect through a bit of silence. We are so bombarded with noise and images that the “small still voice” upon which God speaks cannot be discerned, or when it is, it seems terrifyingly intimate. It needn’t feel that way. “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven…” wrote Saint Therese of Lisieux. For you it can be the same. In the din of silence, a simple surge: ”You have called me, Lord, here I am.” And then listen.
Saint Augustine said, “Who sings prays twice,” and there is something to that. You know the simple songs and hymns from your youth, and can probably access them easily. Even if you’re not hearing them at church these days, let them be a salve and consolation for you, but also a means of prayer. “Sing of Mary, pure and lowly, virgin Mother undefiled/sing of God’s own son, most holy, who became her little child/fairest child of fairest mother, God the Lord who came to earth/Word made Flesh, our very brother, takes our nature by his birth …” That’s a hymn, and a prayer, and good catechesis too.
If that’s not your speed, you can sing prayer in other ways; you can use the parts of the Mass, singing, “Kyrie Eleison/Christe Eleison/Kyrie Eleison” or a simple and ever-pertinent “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis …”
And if neither option suits, it’s always perfectly acceptable to fall back on something secular but supplicant, like these lines from Paul Simon’s “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy”:
“And here I am, Lord,
I’m knocking at your place of business.
I know I ain’t got no business here.
But you said, if I ever got so low, I was busted
You could be trusted …”
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia