Prayer seems like such a simple thing; we all know we should do it, we know it should be transformative, and we even attempt it sometimes. For most people, that’s about the extent of our knowledge and experience. Of course, there are those people who pray very regularly, experiencing a very rich and intimate interior life, but for the majority of people, fostering a mature prayer life is a bit like searching for a golden coin in the dark, in a room frequently littered with painful stumbling blocks, or as I call them “spiritual Legos”. Prayer is something we assume we ought to know how to do because it’s just a conversation with God, but we often believe we’re failures when we find that it doesn’t always come naturally. I could try to give an in-depth explanation of each of the great Doctors of the Church and their experiences and insights into prayer. Frankly, there isn’t enough bandwidth to even attempt anything close to that, so let’s keep things simple. After all, God Himself isn’t complicated. Explaining an Eternal God in all of His mystery with our own language and limited understanding is the reason we find Him complicated; you can’t fully explain a mystery. Instead, I hope to provide a more basic view of prayer—what it is, how we ought to approach it, and what we can expect (hint: nothing). I know that last bit threw you off, but stay with me, and I’ll explain.
What is prayer?
This is a question that always seems to start out with an easy answer; prayer is talking with God. No, wait; it’s a way of responding to God, or maybe thanking God. What I actually meant was…oh, nevermind. We initially look at prayer very simply as a friendly conversation with God, but then we remember that we need to thank Him, and we’re also supposed to ask for stuff (blessings, healing, peace for ourselves and other), and let’s not forget praising Him for the sake of His own Nature. Eventually, we have once again overcomplicated things and now find ourselves so exasperated at the idea of prayer that, well, it’s time for a nap, and then…guilt because we forgot to pray. You’re not alone; I’ve been there too…just the other day, in fact, but there’s no need to run straight to the confessional over it. I could go on about how God forgives us and let’s us start over, but I don’t want to step on the proverbial toes of someone’s homily somewhere. Here’s the thing: prayer is all of these things, and if you think about talking with a friend, a good conversation with them is also all of these things, but it’s so natural, we don’t think about making sure each element is completed in that conversation. The first thing we need to know about prayer is that it is natural. That doesn’t mean you are simply born into a spectacular spiritual life, only that prayer is a gift from God, so we are actually created for prayer, and it shouldn’t be something that causes us gut-wrenching anxiety or guilt, but rather, great consolation and joy.
Our attitude toward prayer really sets the foundation for a transformative and unitive experience. We don’t need to be self-deprecating or falsely humble to impress God. God is, by nature, God, and He is not impressed or surprised by anything we do. True humility is only true if it’s honest. That means realizing our faults, but also celebrating our strengths. The things that you have accomplished are by His gifts, so they should absolutely be celebrated with Him. Don’t ever be afraid to tell God that you’ve done something good, but be honest and give Him the glory for the gift of your talent. If you come into prayer with a deep sense of failure on your heart, don’t let it consume your reflection and meditation to the point of complete self-focus. The object of our prayer is God, not ourselves. They key is realizing that we are not perfect at anything, and certainly not prayer. No professional athlete walks onto a field or court and begins as a phenom. It takes a great deal of practice…and coaching.
This is where a quality spiritual director can be so helpful. We are simply unable to know much about a close relationship with the Eternal God without experiencing Him through relationship. This is how we learn to become Christians, grow in our understanding of faith, and yes, learn to pray. This is what theologians call the “Divine Pedagogy,” which is God teaching through discipleship in Jesus, so that we learn to disciple others toward knowledge of the Father. This is so important, that it shows up in Scripture itself (all of the good stuff does). In Acts 8, Philip is told by the spirit to approach a caravan, where an Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah, and when Philip asks if the man understands what he is reading, he answers, “How can I unless someone guides me?” To get a little technical here, the Greek word for “guide” is hodegayo, which is literally to guide or teach by leading. Why does that word matter? He didn’t respond that he needed someone to tell him what the Scripture mean, but to lead him. If you just don’t know how to begin in prayer, or if you’re feeling unsure whether you’re doing it “the right way,” find someone who has a good prayer life, and let them lead you.
Finally, now that we know that prayer is a natural sharing of oneself with our Close Friend, and we understand that approaching prayer is a matter of humility and learning by example, having no expectation and no deceitfulness, what on earth can we expect from God? Here’s the beautiful thing; we should expect nothing. . . I actually stopped typing for a moment because I know you stopped reading, but let’s stick together. Why wouldn’t we expect something from God if we pray to Him with humility and love? The answer is that we’ve asked the wrong question. What we ought to ask is, on what grounds should we expect anything from God? If we think about the broken image we are before God, and how each person has broken covenant with God through sin, then what we should expect is condemnation. That’s real. We really have no other right to expect anything from God but eternal punishment. Of course, that sounds really fire and brimstone-ish, but if we consider the reality, it’s just the “wages of sin,” as Paul tells us, death (Rom 6:23).
In His Mercy, We Glorify God
Now, don’t panic because the beautiful thing is that, what we earn by our sin does not have to be final. Out of justice (receiving one’s due), the wages of sin might be death, but like that friend who always catches the server and pays the check before you ever see your half, the price for our life has already been paid, “You are not your own; you have been bought for with price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19b-20). While I don’t want anyone to become a slave to a friend over a free lunch, the key here is that we were lost to sin, but in His great mercy, Jesus paid the price of the broken covenant by His Blood, and so now, we are free…but that’s also not the end. If you notice, after Paul tells us we’ve been bought with a price, he tells us to do something about it, that is, glorify God by what we do. So here’s the progression: we are dead in and slaves to sin, Jesus purchases our lives by His Death, and we are now alive through Him in order to glorify Him. The requirement to do something out of prayer is not God’s; it’s ours! We are indebted to Him in a way that we can never repay, so rather than expecting our prayer to be a way to “get things” out of God, like some cosmic gumball machine, it should compel us to give, not just out of ourselves, but to give our complete selves in order that He may be glorified because that is what’s just for the good that He has done. We think we’re asking for a huge miracle when we ask that our loved ones be cured of cancer, or that we would finally see world peace, but let’s be honest, is it harder for God to do those things, or for us to give ourselves completely to Him to do His will?
Still think I’m crazy for saying we should expect nothing of God? Maybe. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother asking for anything because we’re not worthy? Absolutely not, and here’s why: we know that we don’t deserve any of the gifts we have, and that if God’s mercy were not as great as His justice, we’d be toast, quite literally. Yet, He gave every person in every time the power in Christ to overcome Death and slavery to sin, and as if that weren’t enough, He continues to bless us, whether it’s our family, health, home, or even just enough food for today. God gives more than we deserve, always. Often times, we don’t even see the blessings because they don’t come in the wrapping we ordered, an idea that, when applied to normal human gifting, sounds downright crazy. The key is to ask for what we (and others) need, and even what we want (like a close parking spot when you’re running late to Mass on a bad day), but without any limitations on God’s generosity. That means no bargaining, no empty promises, no “I want, but only if” demands, just a humble laying down of our needs and desires, with a complete openness to the generous gifts of God. I realize this sounds very simplistic, but that’s because it really is that simple, just not easy (for us, that is). The simple fact is, when we start to put restrictions on God’s generosity toward us, we will inevitably find that He doesn’t live up to our expectations, and we’ll blame Him for our disappointment. It’s no wonder then, when we don’t have a fulfilling prayer life.
Keeping it simple…
So then, how do we approach prayer in a way that does not overcomplicate or disappoint? This is where we usually find things become difficult because we live in a culture that customizes everything to our desires, causing us to believe that somehow, God should do the same. While we could look at all of the different types of prayer, compare the value of varying postures, and jump into the recited vs. spontaneous prayer debate, I think the reason you came here was to find something more immediately practical. First, Jesus tells us to find an interior place (Matt 6:6). That sounds nice, but if you live in a world like mine, the more you try to remove yourself, the more people, especially small needy people will come after you like moths to a flame. If you can find time to go to an adoration chapel, that may be ideal, but don’t necessarily take this advice literally. Prayer is available in any moment, so look interiorly and speak to Him in that moment. It can be as short as “Hi there, I’m listening,” or you could pour your heart out to him quietly as you mop up spilled milk for the fourth time today; either way, know that you are heard. Second, don’t expect the burning bush. It only happened once in history and is unlikely to happen again. Instead, expect the small voice that Elijah heard amid the noise, and it likely won’t be an actual voice, but more a sense of peace when you’ve been lead to the truth of that moment. The mystics have a lot to say about this, so realize it’s different for everyone and it changes over time, which leads to a reminder not to come with expectations. The idea is coming to God with the good and the bad, sharing all of your life with Him, and then allowing Him to sort it out, and then openly accepting the good gifts of the greatest Father (Matt 7:11). Just remember to keep it simple, keep it honest, and realize that God’s plan is always to give you a “hope and a future” (Jer 29:11-14), so all you have to do is accept the gift and rejoice, for, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). You will find growth in prayer with humility and a willingness to receive His gifts because God will never be outdone in generosity; that’s not just my promise, but His.