10 Ways to improve your prayer life.
In this fast-paced world of ours, we are accustomed to shortcuts, good deals, best buys, and money-back guarantees. We want to think that our savvy good judgement has cut to the quick and emerged at the bottom line. As "Christian consumers" we want homilies to be fascinating, humorous, and deeply spiritual. And, of course, brief. If nothing else, brief!
What follows is a series of brief "Rules for Prayer." They respond to a need as old as the gospels themselves, when the disciples first requested that their master teach them how to pray. But don't let their brevity and simplicity fool you. This really is "the bottom line."
Rule #1: Be yourself.
Your high-school speech teacher and your mom probably made this a mantra of your adolescent years, but the maxim bears repeating here. Why is the first rule of prayer that you be yourself? Because God created you--the you that you are today, not yesterday or tomorrow--to be a praying person. You were created to dialogue with God, to live in communion with the Holy Trinity, to sit at God's table and sup. There is no fundamental change needed to make you into a praying person.
The great German Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called human beings "hearers of the Word." He wasn't alone in using the phrase. What he meant by it is simply the fact that we were made to speak with God, to see his face, to live in his presence. If we were computers, this would be a fact of our hardware that no software virus could corrupt. Rahner suggested that if one could look upon the very essence of the human person, one would see something resembling a satellite dish. One glance tells you that men and women are oriented toward communication, toward communion with a being beyond the self.
What's the consequence of this truth for a life of prayer? Simply this. Everything that you need to pray has been given to you already. Praying well is not a question of learning a technique. Give technique and effort a rest. They have their place, but it's not first.
Suggestions: Remember that God has already taken the lead in our life of prayer. He has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Prayer, before it is anything else, is simply our response to that revelation. Think a little less about what you want to say to God, and give more time to listening. Sit down with the scriptures and read slowly. When a passage says something meaningful to you, stop. Savor it. Ponder its meaning for you at this moment in your life. Force yourself to wait for just awhile in silence. Believe that listening for God to speak is not purposeless. Simply to turn our attention to God is to pray. And God will speak in that silence.
Another great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, once described the prayer life of the Swiss mystic Adrienne von Speyr. The following comes from his introduction to the autobiography of her early years:
Over time prayer would take all possible shapes: verbal and wordless prayer, prayer as uplifting contemplation, as returning gratitude, as petition, as self-sacrifice for people, as mute existence with a silent God, as active offering in service of neighbor. She became well practiced in each of these, one after the other, like an organ in which new stops are installed, until in the end the full-voiced instrument stands ready for the Master to play with pleasure.
Rule #2: Be disciplined.
The great medieval theologian and saint, Thomas Aquinas, based much of his theology on the maxim that grace builds upon nature. He meant that what God does with us by means of his grace is a ready continuation of how he already relates to us by way of our human nature.
The practical consequence of this truth for a life of prayer is this: Don't expect grace to do what nature should be doing. How does one become excellent at prayer? The same way children learn to play the piano, or Olympic divers learn to dive, or superb figure skaters learn to skate. Practice, practice, and then more practice! Becoming good at anything is always one measure of talent and two measures of hard work. For our purposes, we can call talent the grace and hard work the discipline. You will never become a praying person without the latter.
Many people never become good at prayer, despite their natural (or supernatural) inclination to be praying persons, simply because they do not give time to prayer. Remember Aquinas: grace builds upon nature. Remember that fundamental law of nature: practice makes perfect.
If there is one ingredient the average person trying to pray lacks, it's perseverance. Pick up any book on exercise, and I promise you will read something like the following: Do a little each day. It's not the amount on any given day, it's the fact that you do something each day until the routine has become a firm habit. Even 10 minutes a day, every day, will begin to produce an effect.
Most people pray the way they exercise. Heavy enough on weekends to be stiff on Monday morning, but too many days without in between. Being faithful to prayer has a lot to do with being faithful to a stopwatch. Even the great Spanish mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, confessed to using a clock as an aid to prayer.
Suggestions: Decide how much time you want to give to prayer each day, and then do it. Don't overdo it. You only need a little more than you are currently setting aside. Better to up the amount two months from now than to reduce it, or worse, be haphazard in frequency. The point is to be regular. It's not the amount of time. It's the frequency that counts.
At this point, don't evaluate the quality of your prayer time. In the beginning--and strangely enough, at the end--it's not the quality that counts, it's the quantity. Don't worry about distractions. Since grace builds upon nature, it will sometimes wobble because we are tired, ill, distracted, nervous, or angry. Accept your human condition and persevere. Grace builds upon nature, but nature is not its master.
How many ways are there to pray? Probably as many ways as souls. Still, the Christian tradition has identified several categories of prayer. One is called vocal prayer, and all of us have used it. By vocal prayer, I mean the use of words in prayer that come to us from another. Prayers like the Our Father, the Hail Mary, or an Act of Contrition. These can be used in two ways, either silently for the sell or aloud.
Vocal prayer can be considered a first level of prayer, although by calling it that I mean no disparagement. Here first means foundational, one of the building blocks that the edifice always will need in order to stand. There are times in life when only vocal prayers seem to work, when our mind simply can't summon up anything else. For example, people often pray the Rosary immediately after a terrible shock. But a full life of prayer involves more than recitation.
A second layer of prayer could be called discursive. Here we again use words to pray, but this time they are our own. We simply speak to God in sentences similar to those we use when communicating with others. Again, this form of prayer can be either interior or aloud. If you are doing the latter, however, you should be careful where you do it, unless you have been invited to pray aloud. (Usually when someone is found speaking to herself, others aren't so kind as to presume that God is the interlocutor!)
Rule #3: Learn to meditate.
Saint Francis de Sales taught that no one can progress in the spiritual life without learning to meditate. Every new seminarian or religious novice is introduced to the practice of meditation, which is sometimes called "mental prayer." At least I hope they are. Meditation in its essentials has nothing to do with exotic postures, mantras, or incense sticks that smell like burnt frankfurters. De Sales taught that meditation is simply placing thoughts before your mind in order to move the heart to God. It's a simple definition, but there is quite a lot within it. Notice the second half of the definition, which contains the goal of meditation. Its purpose is to move the heart to God. Meditation is supposed to act upon our emotions. We imagine the scenes we do, or think the thoughts we think, with the purpose of lifting our emotions to God.
Suggestions: "Placing thoughts before your mind" means that meditation is essentially an imaginative exercise. You are simply trying to think the "things of God." Anything that makes you think of God is fit material for meditation. One can meditate by gazing at a holy card or a crucifix. One can meditate by reading from sacred scripture or the life of a saint. We look upon a sunset and feel gratitude. We consider the way we spent last night and feel sorrow. We can examine, hour by hour, the events of the day with the goal of seeing God at work.
Does meditation always work? Usually, but not always. That's why vocal and discursive prayer are still foundational. But never forget that you were made to pray--and that means being made by God to meditate. Even young saints discovered meditation without the aid of a teacher. Here is a passage from Saint Therese of Lisieux in which she describes a primary-school encounter:
One day, one of my teachers at the Abbey asked me what I did on my free afternoons when I was alone. I told her I went behind my bed in an empty space ... and that it was easy to close myself in with my bed-curtain and that "I thought." "But what do you think about?" she asked. "I think about God, about life, about ETERNITY ... I think!" The good religious laughed heartily at me, and later she loved reminding me of the time when I thought, asking me if I was still thinking. I understand now that I was making mental prayer without knowing it and that God was already instructing me in secret.
Rule #4: Get a book.
If progress in the spiritual life means learning to meditate, and meditation is the placing of thoughts before the mind in order to raise the heart to God, then most of us are going to need a little help with those "Godly thoughts." Philosophers may argue endlessly about whether or not our minds are blank tablets, but no one disputes the fact that they need to be fed.
And whether or not we are conscious of it, they are being fed every day by radio, television, newspapers, magazines, etc. As a society, we are intellectual junk-food junkies. I defy anyone to watch 24 hours of Ricki Lake and her cohorts and still be able to offer any prayer beyond, perhaps, "Saints preserve us."
If we want to raise our minds to God, they are probably going to need a little help. That's where books come in. Remember that we are not the first souls to seek the face of God. We live in a communion of saints. Saints are our older brothers and sisters in the faith, and one of our most visible ties to them are the writings they have left behind. Learn from your older brothers and sisters. Let them inspire you. They in-spire by sharing their spirit with us.
Teresa of Avila confessed that for 14 years she never went to the chapel to pray without a book. Here's the passage from her autobiography:
Reading is very helpful for recollection and serves as a necessary substitute--even though little may be read--for anyone who is unable to practice mental prayer.... In all those years, except for the time after Communion, I never dared to begin prayer without a book.... [Dryness] was always felt when I was without a book. Then my soul was thrown into confusion and my thoughts ran wild. With a book I began to collect them, and my soul was drawn to recollection. And many times just opening the book was enough; at other times I read a little, and at other times a great deal, according to the favor the Lord granted me.
Suggestions: The book can be any book that inspires. Obviously, the Sacred Scriptures have a priority here. Sometimes, however, their very familiarity can be a hindrance rather than a help. Try reading them in a foreign language or listening to them on tape. Take up one of the saints. Read about them, or read their writings. In their own ways, each saint has translated the gospel into the story of his or her life.
In reading at prayer, the goal is never the amount read. One reads until a thought moves the heart to God, and then one lingers. When distractions return, one takes up the book again. Some days the book will hardly be necessary. Other days it will seem essential. Remember that God wants to give himself to us, and if that means showing up in a Judith Krantz novel, so be it.
Rule #5: If it works, do it!
I was only in high school when a spiritual director taught me this fundamental rule of the spiritual life. I had just had a wonderful experience in prayer and wanted to share it. If I had to guess, it probably had something to do with candles, a beanbag chair, and a record album like Jonathon Livingston Seagull or John Denver's "Sunshine on my Shoulders." (It was the '70s, after all.)
The question I remember asking my spiritual director was this: Is it OK to listen to a record while trying to pray? Do I need to be on my knees? What about just staring out the window? Is it possible to pray the Rosary while listening to a song from Bread?
"If it works, do it," he said. "Don't argue or struggle with the Holy Spirit."
The advice is as sound today as the first day I heard it. It's based upon a profound insight into the human person. The Holy Spirit intends to use every aspect of that which makes us human in order to communicate himself to us. Memories, understanding, intellect, will, sensations, emotions: there is no part of the human person that is foreign ground to the Holy Spirit. It is all God's creation, and its greatest purpose and meaning is expressed in communion with God. This means that God can--and will--seek communion with us in every area of human life. Nothing is foreign to him. In fact, a lot of frustration in the spiritual life is due to resisting the pull of the Holy Spirit, often simply because the Spirit is claiming an area of human life that we didn't anticipate.
Suggestions: "I simply pray better when I kneel." Then get on your knees. "I find that I pray better in the early morning." Then get yourself up. "Strange, but I actually feel close to God when I drive home from work in the evening." Then give yourself as completely as possible to the God of the homeward-bound drive.
Abraham has an experience of Godf and builds an altar (Genesis 12:7-8). Jacob sees a ladder of angels and erects a pillar to God on the spot (Genesis 28:10-22). The Old Testament is full of references to places being esteemed as holy because a revelation of God's love occurred there. One erects an altar because he or she plans to return, because one hopes to recreate the original experience. If it works, do it!
Rule #6: Make your prayer fruitful through moral living.
In his classic program of retreat meditations known as the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola responds to the question of dryness and unfruitfulness in prayer with a question of his own. Has the soul remained faithful to God's law? Or has the soul grown tepid in her love for God's will as expressed in the scriptures, the commandments, and the teachings of the church? Before we ask why God doesn't seem to be present in prayer, we must ask about our own response to the will of God.
If I were to characterize Rule #6, I would say this. It separates every form of authentic Christian spirituality from all its New Age competitors. This is because the entire orthodox, Judeo-Christian understanding of religion is linked inextricably to morality. The God we seek in prayer is the God who created us and the universe around us. Unlike human beings, there is no distinction in God between who-God-is and what-God-wants. The two are one. God is what God wants. God's being and his will are one. To live in communion with God is to do the will of God.
Traditional Catholic moral theology frequently speaks of natural law. Essentially the phrase means that there's a fundamental order or pattern to the universe put there by God in the very act of creation. Human reason can come to see God's purposes by studying the reality of our world. When we see the pattern, the order of the universe, our response must be to live in accordance with it.
Reflect, for example, on the absolute impossibility of living together in families and communities if people never told the truth to one another. Ever lie strikes out against the social nature of what it means to be human. Human reason alone can see that to be truthful is part of the "natural law." We of course have a commandment not to bear false witness. Here the revelation of salvation history confirms an order of revelation already contained in creation. To be truthful is to open ourselves to communion; to tell a lie is to close off its very possibility.
The spiritual life and the moral life are one. Both seek the God who created us. The New Age spirituality I reject isn't seeking a God beyond the self, it is simply seeking a new and pleasant experience for the self. It remains trapped within the self, and never raises the question of morality.
Because God is "other," we can come to love him in a way that is fruitful. To love the self is only the first moment of human existence. If human existence remains there, it putrefies. To go out of the self in love of another is to find both the self and the other. This is why prayer in our tradition is always more of an encounter than a technique.
Suggestions: If your prayer isn't fruitful, could it be because it has remained on the level of self-expression, rather than rising to a genuine encounter with the God of the Bible who created us? Make your prayer life fruitful through moral living, and find strength for moral living through prayer.
Rule #7: Don't judge prayer by feelings.
As tempting and perhaps even as natural as it may be to do, one should not judge the quality of one's prayer by the feelings that it does--or doesn't--produce.
Remember that the single goal of all prayer should be union with God. Period. Union with God in prayer may or may not produce a pleasant emotional sensation. When we pray, we are seeking the God who lies behind and beyond all feelings, all emotional states. If we make the positive feelings that prayer often produces the object of our pursuit in prayer, then we have made something less than God our goal.
It is absolutely essential to make a distinction between union with God and emotional states. First, God can produce positive as well as negative feelings when we pray. Either may accomplish God's aim of drawing us to him in an intimate union based upon obedience to his will. A mother praying for strength to be patient with her difficult child may experience great peace in prayer. This feeling of peace is a positive emotion and, in this case, one sent by God. But consider the husband who is involved in an adulterous affair and finds that he feels miserable when trying to pray. His thoughts seemed robbed of peace. This is a very negative emotional state, but when one considers that it exists to call him back to God, it is easy to see that heaven itself sometimes allows negative emotional experiences. God is as surely present in this second act of prayer as the first. One soul found consolation in prayer; she needed that strength. Another found desolation; it was meant to call a lost soul home.
Another caution about feelings: as Saint Ignatius of Loyola long ago noted, the Evil One doesn't go off-line simply because we are praying. The devil himself can raise doubts, insecurities, and temptations during prayer when one would expect to find positive feelings. In the same way, he knows that nothing produces spiritual arrogance as fast as "good feelings" at prayer. The Evil One often consoles the sinner, telling her that her sin is light, something to be expected, something hardly worth rejecting. He bolsters those who pride themselves upon spiritual delights, those who drive wedges into the very hearts of parish communities, those who naively presume that all their actions are justified, that their vision of church is self-evident because they have felt the Holy Spirit.
Suggestions: So how does one judge? The first disciples of Jesus must have asked a question very close to our own. That's why they cherished and recorded the words our Lord gave them in response, found in the Gospel of Saint Luke, 6:43-45:
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked out from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
There is only one criterion for the evaluation of prayer: its effect, positive or negative, in our lives.
Rule #8: Don't plot your prayer's progress.
Nothing is as inherent to modern sensibility as progress. We expect our medicine, our technology, and our standard of living to improve and progress each year. So perhaps it is only natural that, when we resolve to give ourselves over to a life of prayer, we carry with us a latent expectation of progress. We want to know that we are moving ahead, but, unlike acts of self-improvement, prayer doesn't seem to offer a tape measure method of evaluation. Evaluating your prayer life is a bit like watching a plant grow. You can do it if you want, but it's not going to be all that satisfying.
Plants grow all around us every day, but even if you stare at one, resolving to watch it grow, you will be unable to observe what, in fact, you are observing. The plant will grow before your eyes, but your eyes will be unequal to the challenge of observation. Prayer is like that. Day after day that we give ourselves over to it, changes will occur, but at a pace that seems to defy enumeration and calculation.
To be absolutely clear, the evaluation of a prayer experience never lies within the experience itself. It lies in the life that comes forth from that prayer. This truth applies to a hastily uttered Our Father or to the most exalted vision experiences.
Suggestions: Prayer does bring growth and change, but it does so according to the measure and meter of God. Overnight success is often overnight delusion. If you really want to measure your progress in prayer, make a moral inventory of your life and compare it to one made six months, or a year, earlier. Just as one can see the growth of plants over time, so too the work of the Spirit becomes evident from a distance.
On any given day of our lives there are so many factors that combine to create an experience in prayer: work, relationships, health, rest or its deprivation, distractions, and contentment. No one but God can sort these factors out. Don't use them to evaluate prayer. Evaluate the life that prayer produces, and judge that life over time.
Rule #9: Prayer is more the work of Christ and church than of you.
We tend to approach prayer as individuals. It's something we do as--and when--it feels right to us. But prayer is more than our own solitary search for God.
I once visited a former drug addict dying from AIDS. At the end of his life, in a hospice, he was finally surrounded by loving and caring men and women. They bathed and fed him; they met all his needs. They were there for him in a way no family ever had been. He told me that he wanted desperately to do something to return their love. He wanted to help clean, to care for others, but now he was bedfast. I suggested that he pray for those around him.
"But you don't believe that God would listen to the prayers of a man like me, someone who has lived on the streets his whole life?"
"Are you baptized?"
"Then the Father cannot tell your voice from the Son. When you pray, he will hear only the voice of Jesus. To be baptized is to pray with Jesus. We take up his voice, and he takes ours. When the Father looks upon him, he sees us. When he sees us, he recognizes the Son."
The man agreed to begin praying in earnest, since he now believed his prayers would have some effect. That is how he spent his last week of life.
Early Christians were convinced that baptism inserted them into the very person and life of Christ. To be a Christian was to be another Christ. Pagan temples had no place within them for the assembly of a crowd. Crowds did not belong within the precinct of the sacred, only priests did. Nothing could be farther from the spirit of early Christianity, which viewed the liturgical assembly as the truest prayer. Everything else was derived, secondary, and supplemental. The Book of Acts goes to some effort to depict the apostles maintaining the Jewish hours of communal prayer. The book is full of great individuals, but the true actor of the drama is the Holy Spirit at work in the nascent community.
Even today, Christian churches--in whatever architectural form they assume--are always halls of assembly. Christians believe themselves to be a plebs sancta, a holy people, a nation of priests.
Suggestions: Christ has promised to be present when the church gathers for prayer. No other prayer carries this pledge. And so learn from the liturgy. It is the source of all authentic Christian prayer. A course in spirituality could be taught from its form alone. The liturgy has so much to teach us about prayer: Prayer involves coming together. It means hearing the Word of
God and responding to it. It involves the body in gesture, posture, and movement. Prayer is about being addressed by another who is not we. (A basis for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.) Prayer is about being "ministered to" and then ministering. Prayer makes the flesh and blood of Jesus our own flesh and blood.
Learn from the liturgy. It is Christ and us--within Christ, standing in dialogue with the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why liturgical prayer is the "most true prayer." Whenever the Christ you know wanders from the Christ revealed in the assembly of the saints, then your Christ needs to be driven out with prayer and fasting.
Rule #10: Sometimes, just sit.
An old man goes every afternoon to church; he sits in a back pew. Over the years people notice him. Perhaps he is a saint. They do not know him, but how else does he pass so many hours in contented prayer? One day someone finally asks him, "Just what do you do when you pray?"
At first the question seems inexplicable to him. It is as though the words themselves somehow don't fit together. He repeats the question to himself. "What do I do when I pray? Well, sometimes I come here and I sits and I talks with Jesus. Sometimes we just sits. Most of the time, we just sits."
There is only one place we are trying to reach in prayer. We want to be in the presence of God and know that we are in the presence of God. We want to be filled with gratitude because we are, at this moment, with God. He looks at us we look at him. What have words to do with this?
In the Christian tradition of prayer this place is called contemplation. It is a place where words and activity cease. The place is not easily reached, but it has its parallels in human life. A mother leans against a park bench and follows her child at play. She is a child again, because all the desires of her heart are before her, playing with that child. An old man and old woman eat in silence, not because there is nothing to say, but because nothing needs to be said.
We hold the weakened hand of a loved one. It is filled with tubes, pressed down against a starched hospital bed. There is nothing to be said, hopefully, because the time for words is almost past. This is a moment just to be together.
Suggestions: Human beings know what it means to contemplate, even if we live most of our waking moments far from contemplation. Transfer that way of being to prayer, and you understand the heart of the Christian tradition of prayer. Contemplation is a lover's gaze, a simple act of being with the Other.
Coming from prayer, Therese of Lisieux once penned the following:
Jesus, O Jesus, if the desire of loving You is so delightful, what will it be to possess and enjoy this love? How can a soul as imperfect as mine aspire to the possession of the plenitude of Love? O Jesus, my first and only Friend. You whom I love uniquely, explain this mystery to me! Why do you not reserve these great aspirations for great souls, for the Eagles that soar in the heights?
I do not know the answer he gave her. The simple truth is that God does not reserve the aspiration to pray--the desire simply to be with God--to great souls, to the eagles that soar. The longing to be with God is planted deep within every human heart. We want to arrive at that holy place of rest, that moment when striving ceases. We want to join the beloved in a rapturous gaze, one that does not grow old because it does not stand within time. We want desperately, sometimes, just to sit--because even a single moment spent thus sustains all the heavy hours that follow.
Father Terrance Wayne Klein, a priest of the Diocese of Columbus and former seminary director of spiritual formation.
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|Title Annotation:||concrete advice for how to pray|
|Author:||Klein, Terrance Wayne|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1999|
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