Prayer is a heart-to-heart conversation with God, who is closer than you think.
In most places in northern India, Mass is not celebrated very often, but when it is, the people make the most of it. Sometimes they’ll spend half a day walking to a village to attend Mass and then spend the other half of the day walking home, joyfully celebrating the simple fact that they were able to hear the gospel proclaimed, receive the Body of Christ, go to Confession, or ask the priest to bless their children.
One woman attended Mass whenever she could, however she could. She was not yet baptized, so she was unable to receive the Eucharist. She went to church—a makeshift affair outdoors, with plain wooden benches and a humble altar—and saw her friends and neighbors receiving Communion, yet she could not. This made her sad. This woman not only yearned for Christ—she literally hungered for him.
And so she did what she felt was the next best thing to actually receiving the Eucharist. At every Mass, she kept her eye on a person going up for Communion, looked to see where they were sitting, and then moved to sit next to them in the pew. In her heart, she said to herself, “Jesus is here. I want to be as close to him as I can.” This was her Communion.
What love for the Lord! And what love for the Body of Christ. This was her greatest joy.
It should be ours too.
We all desire to be that close to the Lord. We hunger to draw near and want to do whatever we can to make that closeness a reality. This desire is rooted within each of us, in our longing to be intimate with the One who made us and imagined us into being. It is a desire whose deepest expression begins, of course, with prayer.
Prayer itself needs to begin with a kind of desire as well—the unmistakable tug of the heart that tells us quietly, insistently, “Try this. Go ahead. Pray.” You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have that desire already, right?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. (2562)
The heart is where prayer has to begin. Years ago, Thomas Merton was walking the streets of New York with a Jewish friend. It was just a few months after his conversion and Baptism. Now that Merton was a Catholic, his friend reasoned, he should want to be the best Catholic possible. His friend explained that from his perspective as an observant Jew, the most important thing a Christian should want is to become a saint.
Merton stopped him. “But how do I do that?” His friend replied very simply, “You become a saint, first and foremost, by wanting it.”
Similarly, we begin to have a prayer life, first and foremost, by wanting it. We seek a way to talk with God because the desire burns in our heart and we want to draw closer to him—and have him draw closer to us. Like the woman in India, we need to find communion with the Lord, however we can do it, even if means just sitting next to him on a rickety wooden bench.
One way to begin any prayerful effort is by acknowledging that simple desire: the hunger for him. In my experience, it is not uncommon for someone to begin a church meeting or prayer group gathering by saying solemnly, “Let’s take a moment to place ourselves in the presence of God.” That has always struck me as fundamentally off-kilter and more than a little bit wrong; we don’t need to place ourselves in his presence, because we are already in his presence.
I have a wooden plaque in my office that puts it succinctly: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” Know this—and it’s something most of us learn when we are children but easily forget as we mature—God is everywhere. Every prayer should begin, not with us orienting ourselves toward God, but with us acknowledging that God has already oriented himself toward us. The name of the Messiah, let us remember, is Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is never far from us.
Truth be told, more often than not, we are the ones who are far from him. Prayer expresses our desire to get as close as we can. But how do we do that in a practical way? For many Catholics, every prayer begins with the most basic gesture of piety we know, the Sign of the Cross. With this sign, we reenact our baptism and state that what we are about to do is done in the name of the Trinity.
But after that? Jesus offers his followers this advice: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:6). He leaves it to our imagination to decide what constitutes “your inner room”—a location that may not necessarily be geographic or the sort of “man cave” frequently mentioned on HGTV’s House Hunters.
The inner room is a mental and spiritual place that is secluded, set apart. It is hidden from the world. Finding it in our own busy age can be a challenge. Try this: carve out five minutes of your day. Find a quiet, out-of-the-way corner of your world—it could even be the bathroom, the garage, or the laundry room—and dedicate those five minutes in that particular space to clearing your head, stilling your thoughts, and beginning to talk to God. Unsure how to start? Make the Sign of the Cross. Take a deep breath. And tell God what is on your mind.
The Liturgy of the Hours begins with this simple plea: “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.” I find that this appeal to God gets my mind working, and it sends up a signal to the Almighty: “I’m here. Let’s talk.” Go ahead. Try it. Be still. Be alert. Be ready. Then begin.
Consider these words of St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.
Marcel LeJeune, president and founder of Catholic Missionary Disciples, College Station, Texas, puts it this way:
I don’t always find peace in my daily prayer. In fact, sometimes it’s a struggle. But I know that a marriage is formed in the daily decision to love your spouse, and in a similar way, when I decided to pray every single day, no matter how I felt, my heart started to change. It wasn’t so much about what I could get out of it, but what it means to be with God. Prayer changed me.
Remember: God is not a distant figure, remote or detached. He’s closer than you think. Imagine that he is not only near you, not only in the same room with you, but sitting right beside you. He sees what you see, he hears what you hear. Hold on to that. Maybe he’s beside you on the subway or behind you on the bus.
He’s waiting to hear from you. Take a few minutes, find a secluded corner, seek out quiet—and then seek out God. How would you begin to talk with him? What would you want to say to break the ice? Just open your heart—and speak.
—selection from The Busy Person’s Guide to Prayer, by Deacon Greg Kandra, TWAU Press 2019. Available at www.wau.org/books