Lesson One in Prayer

"King David in Prayer" by Pieter de Grebber

“King David in Prayer” by Pieter de Grebber

Let’s get very, very basic and very, very practical about prayer. The single most important piece of advice I know about prayer is also the simplest: Just do it!

How to do it is less important than just doing it. Less-than-perfect prayer is infinitely better than no prayer; more perfect prayer is only finitely better than less perfect prayer.

Nancy Reagan was criticized for her simple anti-drug slogan: “Just say no.” But there was wisdom there: the wisdom that the heart of any successful program to stop anything must be the simple will to say no. (“Just say no” doesn’t mean that nothing else was needed, but that without that simple decision nothing else would work. “Just say no” may not be sufficient but it is necessary.)

Similarly, no program, method, book, teacher, or technique will ever succeed in getting us to start doing anything unless there is first of all that simple, absolute choice to do it. “Just say yes.”

The major obstacle in most of our lives to just saying yes to prayer, the most popular and powerful excuse we give for not praying, or not praying more, or not praying regularly, is that we have no time.

The only effective answer to that excuse, I find, is a kind of murder. You have to kill something, you have to say no to something else, in order to make time to pray. Of course, you will never find time to pray, you have to make time to pray. And that means unmaking something else. The only way to install the tenant of prayer in the apartment building of your life is to evict some other tenant from those premises that prayer will occupy. Few of us have any empty rooms available.

Deciding to do that is the first thing. And you probably won’t decide to do it, only wish to do it, unless you see prayer for what it is: a matter of life or death, your lifeline to God, to life itself.

Is this exaggerated? Are there more important things? Love, for instance? We need love absolutely; but the love we need is agape, the love that only God has and is; so unless we go to God for it, we won’t get it. And going to God for it means prayer. So unless we pray, we will not love.

Having got that clear and having made prayer your number one priority, having made a definite decision to do it, we must next rearrange our lives around it. Rearranging your time, preparing time to pray, is like preparing your house to paint. As everyone knows who has done any painting, preparation is three-quarters the work, three-quarters the hassle, and three-quarters the time. The actual painting is a breeze compared with the preparation. The same is true of prayer: the hardest step is preparing a place, a time, a sacred and inviolable part of each day for it. Prayer is like Thanksgiving dinner. It takes one hour to eat it and ten hours to prepare it. Prayer is like Christmas Day: it took a month of preparation, decoration, and shopping to arrange for that one day. Best of all, prayer is like love. Foreplay is, or should be, most of it. For two people truly and totally in love, all of their lives together is foreplay. Well, prayer is like spiritual love-making. God has waited patiently for you for a long, long time. He longs for you to touch the fringe of his being in prayer, as the woman touched the hem of Christ’s garment, so that you can be healed. How many hours did that woman have to prepare for that one-minute touch?

The first and most important piece of practical preparation is scheduling. You absolutely must schedule a regular time for prayer, whether you are a “scheduler” with other things in your life or not. “Catch as catch can” simply won’t work for prayer; it will mean less and less prayer, or none at all. One quick minute in the morning to offer your day to God is better than nothing at all, of course, but it is as radically inadequate as one quick minute a day with your wife or husband. You simply must decide each day to free up your schedule so you can pray.

How long a time? That varies with individuals and situations, of course; but the very barest minimum should certainly be at least fifteen minutes. You can’t really count on getting much deep stuff going on in less time than that. If fifteen minutes seems too much to you, that fact is powerful proof that you need to pray much more to get your head on straight.

After it becomes more habitual and easy, expand it, double it. And later, double it again. Aim at an hour each day, if you want radical results. (Do you? Or are you only playing?)

What time of day is best? The most popular time—bedtime—is usually the worst possible time, for two reasons. First, it tends not to be prime time but garbage time, when you’re the least alert and awake. Do you really want to put God in the worst apartment in your building? Should you offer him the sickest sheep in your flock?

Second, it won’t work. If you wait until every other obligation is taken care of first before you pray, you simply won’t pray. For life today is so cruelly complicated for most of us that “every other obligation” is never taken care of. Remember, you are going to have to kill other things in order to pray. No way out of that.

The most obvious and usually best time is early in the morning. If you can’t delay the other things you do, you simply must get up that much earlier.

Should it be the very first thing? That depends. Some people are alert as soon as they get up; others need to shower and dress to wake up. The important thing is to give God the best time, and “just do it.”

Place is almost as important as time. You should make one special place where you can be undisturbed. “Catch as catch can” won’t work for place either.

What place? Some people are not very sensitive to environment and can even use a bathroom. Others naturally seek beauty: a porch, yard, garden, or walk. (I find praying while you take a walk a good combination of spiritual and physical exercise.)

You probably noticed I haven’t said a word about techniques yet. That’s because three-quarters is preparation, remember? But what about methods?

I can only speak from my own experience as a continuing beginner. The two most effective that I have found are very simple. One is praying Scripture, reading and praying at the same time, reading in God’s presence, receiving the words from God’s mouth. The second is spontaneous verbal prayer. I am not good at all at silent prayer, mental prayer, contemplative prayer; my thoughts hop around like fleas. Praying aloud (or singing) keeps me praying, at least. And I find it often naturally leads to silent prayer often, or “mental prayer,” or contemplation.

Most advice on prayer focuses on higher levels: contemplative prayer. But I suspect many of my readers are prayer infants too and need to learn to walk before they can run. So these are some lessons from one man’s prayer kindergarten. Let’s “just do it” even if “it” is only crawling towards God.


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About the Author

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building), in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books including: Back to Virtue; The God Who Loves You; Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing; Everything You wanted to Know About Heaven; Your Questions - God's Answers; How To Win The Culture War; The Journey; Before I Go - Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters; and Jesus Shock. Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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21 Comments

  1. I’m in the middle of reading your excellent book Prayer for Beginners, Dr. Kreeft, and I think this article is a lovely abbreviated version. ‘Do you mean it? Or are you only playing?’ That is really quite a reminder. What is my priority? Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  2. I’ve never been much of a prayer. Now in my sixties, it seems I’m praying, or at least speaking, into a void. I don’t have any sense that God…responds.

    1. JW: Blessed Mother Teresa spent many, many years with that same sense, yet her faith was so great, that she kept trying, and kept doing God’s will in serving the poorest of the poor. That was key to her exceptional holiness!

      How much more merit is there in praying, when it is difficult than when it is easy? Keep on trying!

      An exceptionally holy person (who’s cause for sainthood is in the works) said: “God strengthens me, even when He is silent.”

      Also, one thing that really helps me when praying is difficult is to recall the many blessings I have received. Start your prayer time with thanksgiving. Read Psalm 33. Give thanks even for the things you don’t like – it’s true! We should be thankful for everything, because everything can lead us closer to God.

      And keep your eyes peeled for the little “everyday miracles”. Like getting to work on time, even when I know I left so late that it was impossible. Or when something I’d prayed for comes to pass – even if it’s as small a thing as “please no rain on our picnic!” Those miracles are happening all the time, if you are open to God and looking for them. Then thank Him for them – repeatedly – and He will bless you with more of them. And bigger things you’re asking for, too, if they are in alignment with His will. Then you’ll have the real sense that He responds. (Because He does, even when you don’t sense it.)

      “Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the LORD!” – Psalm 27:14

      1. Thank you for your inspiring reply to JW.

        I testify to the power of prayer in my life. God is immeasurably big and loving. Despite my being a great sinner, my being insensitive and my being a true blue ingrate, He keeps on answering my prayers; endlessly blessing me with all of this life’s necessities. All He asks of me is to give Him and my brothers love that I may be with Him forever. This Christmas, I pray that God would allow that seed of love in my heart to grow more and more that I could bless Him more and more.

    2. Just try to make sure you’re ready when he does respond.. That’s all any of us can do, or else fall into despair, which seems infinitely worse.

  3. Excellent. Only one quip, we can’t make time, only God can. We must schedule it! The more specific – time, place, what we brign with us, posture – the better because ‘specificity increases accountability,’ as Fr. Brett Brannen says.

  4. I heard a Priest speak about the importance of prayer; there’s a lot of good Catholic prayers. God wants to hear people pray. God already knows all the prayers, knows what people want, what they need & what they’ll get from God. … The Priest said we need to ~pray often & ~slow enough so we can >listen to God during our prayers. God will give us good advice.

  5. Don’t give up J. W. God does hear you….He will never deny anyone honestly seeking Him. Be persistent in prayer and you will learn to recognize how He is speaking to you. Personally, my time spent before the Blessed Sacrament has helped me tremendously. Try it for awhile…He will be thrilled you are spending that time with Him. Your efforts will not go unnoticed!

  6. Dear Brother in Christ ,

    Thanks for your wonderful advice on prayer and the way you you have explained how to make prayer the primacy of our lives.

    I would humbly submit that , pl.urge and make known to every one about the merits of prayers in front of the tabernacle or in front of exposed blessed sacrament at churches. It is a one to one prayer where both I and God faces each other not hypothetically but Truly, really and substantially.

    Bl.Mother Teresa.Bl.Fulton Sheen used to devote at least one hour a day in front of the blessed Sacrament during their life time and now our beloved Pope Francis is praying each day between 7 to 8 pm in front of the blessed sacrament and he says this is the prayer he likes most.

    .

  7. I began getting up at 5am when I had 4 teenagers and 2 toddlers! It was the only blessed quiet time in my day. I would read something from scripture and pray, or simply spend time with God in silence, after reading. I am now 72 and I still get up early to pray,only earlier: 4:15!

  8. Well now I feel like I am doing something right! I get up at 5, before my wife is awake,make a cup of coffee, go to a “prayer chair” in my living room and pray the Liturgy of the Hours, followed by the day’s readings from Scripture, topped off with a few minutes of silence, asking the Blessed Mother’s help for those I love. I do this at home and on the road. Morning is my best time, and giving the best of the best to God is the least I can do for all he has given to me.

  9. Excellent article! I totally agree that the biggest obstacle to prayer is that we don’t understand it should be our #1 priority. I have found that with a little creativity I can pray daily now matter how busy I am. But that only happens because I believe in the necessity of daily mental prayer. Otherwise, it would be easy to make “good” excuses.

  10. I echo much of what has been written. I get up early, and use the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer, moving from them to personal intercession. That’s my scheduled bit. But St Paul urges continual prayer, the practice of His Presence; and for that prayer in tongues really helps.

  11. From one ‘struggler’ to another:

    God loves us. That is why we pray.

    How do we know he loves us?
    Here are 9 concrete ways that are true, always and everywhere:
    He gave you existence
    He set you in a creation
    He gives you powers in your body
    He gives you virtues for your soul
    He gives wisdom for your mind
    He gives you companions along the way
    He imbues you with his own quiet presence – the Holy Spirit
    He attends your pathways with his divine providence
    He promises you a future hope, guaranteed by the resurrection of his own Son.

    Think on these 9; meditate on them. See his love through them.
    Spiritual realizations will start taking form in your heart.

    No, he does not give you everything you ask for, nor everything you want. … don’t let that be the measure of his love. See rather the things he has done.

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