It may be hard and it may seem useless at times, but prayer is necessary for spiritual growth.
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Praying can be daunting. For me, at least, it’s often difficult. This might be surprising given I’m a priest, but it’s true; prayer can leave me at a loss for words and feeling self-conscious, like I’m watching myself go through the motions. Being a priest actually makes the feeling worse, because it’s literally my job to know how to pray and my difficulties with it reveal an inadequacy. For this reason, I find comfort in reading prayers that are already written out like The Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary, but there’s also danger with those because it is all too easy to say them by rote. I sometimes get to the end and realize I have no memory of reading any of the previous words up to that point. My mind has wandered far away even while my lips were moving.
Prayer has endless permutations and people pray in many different ways. “Oh God, please let me have a never-ending supply of high-quality red wine just like you did for that one family in the Bible,” is just as good a prayer as anything else, I suppose. The question is, will God answer it? Looking into my magic 8-ball, I predict that the chances of such a prayer being answered are slim. Even serious, selfless prayers like asking for healing for a friend are frequently unanswered (at least, it seems that way). Truly miraculous answers to prayer are rare. So, if prayer is defined as asking that our desires be fulfilled, it seems it would be best to not waste the time.
Prayer is more than petitions, though, and it’s helpful to pray in other ways, too. It can be a simple word of thanksgiving, which has the benefit of making us aware of how truly wonderful life is and to not take it for granted. Or prayer can be about informing God about how our day is going, the way we might call a friend to chat. Prayer can also be physical and isn’t limited only to spoken words, such as gazing at a full moon hanging low on the horizon among a sky of endless stars and sensing for a moment what can only be described as a beautiful heartache. Prayer can also be a wordless hug to a friend in need, because if it’s true that God created us, then it’s also true that comforting a friend honors the God who created that person. Any time we act intentionally out of love, it can be a form of prayer.
Still, in any form, prayer consumes our time. Is it worth it to give that time away when we don’t always see the desired results? Here’s where it might help to find a better definition of what prayer really is. First, it’s not a method of bargaining with God, so if there seems to be no results it doesn’t mean the prayer was a failure. It isn’t merely communication—either by spoken word or by action—and it isn’t merely listening. All of these partially make up what we think of as prayer, but don’t entirely define it.
St. Therese of Lisieux, when asked what prayer is, had tremendous insight. “Prayer is an aspiration of the heart,” she says, “a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul…” Prayer is a lifting up of the heart. Its primary result is felt inside the soul—prayer makes our hearts bigger.
Knowing this, suddenly my doubts and struggles fall away. I don’t have to be “good” at it. I don’t need specific techniques or expertise. I myself pray because I believe in a God who listens and I want to offer my heart to him so that he can make it bigger to hold more of his love. I also pray because I want to enlarge my heart to include more of my loved ones. These two effects of prayer, looking love both God and neighbor, aren’t mutually exclusive. They form a common basis to pray in many different ways. Prayer is a gift of self that lifts up our hearts to a higher power and helps craft our souls into a more human shape.
What really stands out to me is that there’s no pressure. There isn’t one right way or type of person who’s allowed to pray. Thank goodness for that, because we all have flaws and none of us will ever pray perfectly. Our flaws can, in fact, become a part of our offering and be transformed into a positive good. No matter who we are, each of us can offer our lives to God in prayer—all of our flaws, hesitations, misplaced desires, fumbled inexpert prayers, and self-consciousness. Absolutely everything can and will become a pathway to grace. So, is it worth it to take the time to pray, especially during this season given to us to grow spiritually? Absolutely.
Last week, we started a series about Lent and how it’s an opportunity to discover personal freedom. The series will continue until Easter.