“Teach us to pray,” we ask, as did the disciples of old. Yet prayer is more an attitude than a skill.
It is more about our willingness to do it and less about how we go about it. Some guidance certainly helps, but it is important to know that there is no one right way to pray. Our prayer and prayer life will look different from that of others, depending on our personality, life experiences, and circumstances. And we may find that what once fit beautifully does not appeal anymore, for we have changed. Prayer changes us and changes with us. Prayer is an expression of our need to be in relationship with divine Love, here and now. St. Augustine said it best: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Prayer is integral to our Judeo-Christian heritage. Scripture reveals the Hebrew people as steeped in prayer. An entire book, the Book of Psalms, is dedicated to prayer. The Gospel accounts are full of references to Jesus praying. He prayed by himself and with others, in private and in front of thousands. He recited prayers from his Jewish heritage and offered his own. Prayer enabled Jesus to stay in tune with God the Father and gain strength for living his mission.
Prayer can be a prelude to action or a response to unfolding events. Prayer is communication, with or without words. . . . Prayer is both listening to and responding to God’s invitation to be in relationship. Most of all, prayer is a state of being present to God.
Prayer comes in many forms and modes. Prayer can be communal or personal, verbal or silent, and it can involve movement, music, or stillness. It may rely on engagement with nature or emerge from the act of thinking; it may be the fruit of encountering others or going deep within ourselves. Prayer can be formulaic or freely composed; it may spring forth from memory, like prayers we know by heart, or it may be a new particular response to the moment. Prayer is as varied as human beings are diverse. Whether we use silence, words, movement, music, the visual arts, or any combination thereof, prayer is an expression of our relationship with God. We can talk to God as if to a friend, sharing our daily joys and struggles without keeping to a set pattern.
Our common, or public prayer, in the liturgy—both the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours—is deeply scriptural. Listening to the biblical readings proclaimed within the liturgy is an essential way to engage with Scripture. Catholics may feel less comfortable praying with Scripture on their own. But the importance of praying with the Bible gained new momentum after the Second Vatican Council, and we are now encouraged to incorporate Scripture into our personal prayer.
Another way to pray with Scripture is to memorize verses that strike you. Perhaps write them in a notebook, or mark them in your Bible so that you can easily refer to them later. Favorite passages from the prophets, from the psalms, from the Gospels (or any other book of the Bible) can become the structure around which you build your prayer life. Drawing on the riches of Scripture is important for developing and deepening your personal prayer.
Starting out on this journey of prayer may also elicit some feelings. Whether you are curious, excited, a little unsure, or setting out confidently, what matters most is your willingness to try. However, recognizing what and how you feel when you pray will help deepen your self-understanding, your connection to God, and your connection to fellow human beings. As you set out, consider this encouragement:
— Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah1:5)
— The Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly. (St. Teresa of Ávila)
An important aspect of beginning any new endeavor is creating a space, both literally and figuratively, in which this new endeavor can take place. In other words, we develop certain routines that facilitate our engagement. When it comes to prayer, consider these steps:
— Designate a time and place that you will set aside for prayer.
— Establish a routine that can support your prayer. For instance, if you get easily distracted, you will need a space that offers no or few distractions. If you would like to engage your whole body, you need enough room to do so; if you rely on music or the visual arts, you need to have access to them, and so on. Getting ready is part of beginnings.
Above all, do not hesitate to explore the territory of prayer. Find the ways that best help you find rest in God. Discover what best nourishes your relationship with God and others. Whether it’s reciting traditional prayers of the Church that have helped others through the ages, or engaging in more contemporary devotions and meditations, remember that the Holy Spirit is working through and with you. Expect to be surprised at times!
This is a selection from A Prayer Book for Catholic Women by Agnes M. Kovacs (The Word Among Us Press, 2018). Available at wau.org/books