This text is published as Chapter 2 of How to Pray (Part One: Foundations), pages 9-18, entitled 'How to Pray'. An introduction to the life of prayer with much practical advice about how to deepen your prayer life.
2 HOW TO PRAY - THE BASICS
THOUGHTS. POSTURE. ATTITUDES.
Making up your mind.
Be brave. Decide to pray regular prayers.
Brush aside your usual excuses and choose a time when you’ll begin.
Freely accept that it’s your duty to find a time and a place where you can express your utter dependence on God, and your longing to know Him, to serve Him, to praise Him, and to share His Life. It’s only when we begin to make ‘space’ for God in our lives and begin to want to love Him that we start to open the door of our hearts from the inside - so to speak - and allow God to shine His Light within our souls and our lives; and until that ‘door’ has been opened by a willing soul, the adventure which is mystical union with God can’t usually begin: so great is God’s respect for our free-will. He forces no-one to love Him, but gives the gentlest invitation and ‘awaits’ a free response.
Go to your room and lock the door; or, if you don’t have a room of your own, go to a quiet place such as a Catholic church or the corner of a park.
Stand, sit or kneel, if you’re outdoors; but if you’re indoors, kneel if you can. Kneel by a cupboard or by your bed if you need something to lean on. You can lie flat on your front on the floor, or sit on the bed, if you prefer - but it’s good to kneel before God if we’re healthy. It helps to remind us of Who He is and how powerful and majestic He is, as well as loving and fatherly. We mustn’t worry about how we approach Him; but although we shall learn to trust Him, to believe in His love for us, and to chat freely about our most secret and perhaps shameful worries, God is nevertheless more glorious and worthy of respect than anyone we have ever met or imagined.
Do one minute’s plain thinking ... of something on these lines: God is certainly mysterious; He might seem to be far away. But the Church which was founded when God (as Jesus) came to earth and lived amongst us still continues to teach us what God is really like. It teaches us that God is almost mad with love for us. He thinks we’re marvellous - and wants us to be happy! He isn’t very far away, but very near. He wants us to turn to Him in all our troubles and to put our trust in Him; and that’s why we kneel beside our beds - or elsewhere - really believing that God is pleased and delighted that we’ve turned to Him for a few moments, uninterrupted by distractions, so far as this is possible at present.
Be honest. Be truthful, as you speak to God. You have Someone listening Who is ‘thrilled’ by all your good points, and Who longs for you to be happy despite all your fears and phobias and failings, or, rather, even now: with your private phobias and failings, which don’t stop Him loving you. Quite the contrary: He has tremendous pity and compassion for you in your difficulties. It’s true that because He loves you He wants you to be purified so that you can share His holiness and bliss, but He cannot resist hearts which admit their weaknesses frankly and humbly.
The best start.
Make the Sign of the Cross. By that act of faith - for such it is - you place yourself surely within God’s life. Whenever you pray “in” Christ, you honour the Blessed Trinity, and draw down a blessing upon yourself, since God rewards every sincere prayer.
Try shutting your eyes, now that you are physically peaceful and still for a moment.
Try to turn your inmost heart and longing and thoughts towards the God-in-darkness Whom you can’t see or imagine, but Whom you believe is with you. You don’t need to see: only to believe, and to pray sincerely. Just push aside, gently, the Father-Christmas-type images which float into view. But don’t worry if you’re not successful. We are all helped, early on, by different images.
Peer into that interior darkness, steadily, and say to the God Who made you and Who loves you more than you know, whatever is most truly the thought or desire at the ‘centre’ of your heart at present, perhaps:
- “Here I am”, or
- “I feel silly, but I’m trying to pray,” or
- “Show me Who You are”, or
- “I’m lonely; are You really there?” or perhaps
- “This is what I’m terrified of, and this and this. I’ll wait here while you give me some of Your peace, because I believe that You can change things.”
Trust in God.
Believe that God will give you some help and enlightenment and peace, even if your mind is going in six directions at once, and you don’t seem to feel peaceful. You will be calmer and wiser when you leave prayer than you were before it, and also wiser in the judgements and activities in which you take part afterwards.
Don’t keep looking for changes within yourself. Whatever good might seem to have come from your prayer-time might not seem to ‘last’ for long, since we fall back so quickly into old patterns of thinking; but practice improves everything; and that’s one reason why we desperately need to pray regularly, though in a way which suits us.
Don’t be ashamed to admit your difficulties with prayer.
Admit that we’re all different: that some people enjoy meeting God in silence, while other people feel lost without some evidence that something is ‘happening’, and need words as a framework for prayer: something to cling to: a sort of ladder which will lead them to a point at which they can launch out into wordless prayer, later on.
A simple, daily prayer-routine.
Begin a simple daily routine by putting yourself before God, as soon as you get up in the morning.
Tell God honestly what is filling your inmost heart and mind.
Mention all the other fears and miseries, then put them on one side, as it were, with a firm intention of forgetting about them, or of dealing well with them, with God’s help, at the appropriate time.
Don’t worry about feeling foolish or inadequate. Every great Saint - and every Pope, Bishop, priest and deacon - has had to begin his prayer-life like this: on his knees before God, feeling foolish and ashamed.
Remember: God is looking with Infinite tenderness upon every man, woman and child who takes the trouble to pause in a busy life to turn to Him. He delights in our efforts to grow closer to Him.
Thank God for the good things in your life, many of which you take for granted.
Say sorry to God for any way in which you’ve been thoughtless towards others, or have neglected the things you know God wants you to do: things which trouble your conscience - unless you prefer to make this simple act of contrition at a different time, such as at the end of the day.
Trust in God, and ask His help for all the people closest to you, or whom you worry about most. Add a fervent prayer for people in prison, or lonely or dying - or without faith in God.
Ask God, confidently, for the grace to go through the day calmly, and to work hard at what needs doing without worrying about little failures.
Turn your inmost heart, too - and practice and grace will make this easier - towards Our Blessed Lady, who is there in Heaven longing to help us. Ask her to pray for you. In fact - be bold: ask all the Angels and Saints to pray for you, and for everyone you care about. They will.
Be confident as you turn to your Guardian Angel. He never leaves you; He loves you. He is glad at every good thing you do. He waits patiently throughout every time of neglect or unfaithfulness.
Remain at peace for a few moments, if you’re able, simply to honour God by your silent attention to Him in naked faith. But be as happy to get up and leave as to stay where you are. He’s delighted with every sincere prayer - long or short.
Pray for a bit longer, if you can; but if you aren’t happy with silent attention to God, read a prayer from a prayerbook, and offer those thoughts to God, if you can make them your own.
Read some prayers or verses from Holy Scripture in a short quiet time, later in the day; but, before you begin, ask the Holy Spirit to help you to understand what you read.
Prepare your mind to go out into ‘normal’ life again, by saying “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” whilst making a careful Sign of the Cross. This is not like adjusting your glasses, or your hairband, or putting away a prayer book. It’s a very prayerful and powerful help and protection, and puts us ever more firmly within God’s grace and protection. That’s why the early Christians - and most others throughout the centuries, as well as today - make the Sign before and after each prayer-time, before setting out on a journey, or before beginning a new project: whether a meal, or a letter to a friend, or a new shift at work; and that’s why we make that Sign after our night-prayers, before we settle down to sleep.
Progress in prayer
Decide to pray regularly, without fail, even for only two minutes daily. All prayer is good, but better prayer means more help, not because God won’t help us unless we pray ‘well’, but because of His respect for us. He so respects our freedom and our privacy that He doesn’t trample all over our souls - so to speak - without permission. But if we regularly invite Him to help us He works quiet wonders in our lives.
Pray to God the Father in the name of Jesus - more about that in a second - every morning and evening, though without thinking that He won’t want to hear you if you’re too tired or busy to pray with clockwork regularity. You’ll progress rapidly in quite a short while, provided that you turn to Him in utter sincerity. You can tell Him anything and everything and He will help you to sort out your life to your best advantage - to make you faithful and loving, and to prepare you for Heaven. He can teach you to see things as He sees them and to trust in Him in every difficulty.
Remember: God is Truth as well as love; so we grow closer to Him the more we dare to speak only perfect truth to Him: I mean, the real truths which are in our hearts as we pray, even if the truth is that we’re worried about spots, people, stomach-aches, exams or bailiffs. Tell Him.
Pray for your friends, too, and for the poor and the starving: but you won’t pray for them well or sincerely until you’ve told God the truth about your real fears and desires.
Read a little bit from a good book in your prayer-time, if it helps you to gather your thoughts together at the beginning, or if a few phrases of someone else’s prayer or reflection ‘launch’ you more swiftly toward God than your own vague thoughts and yearnings.
Be confident that there aren’t any rules, as such, in private prayer, which is meant to be a sincere and trusting opening-of-our-heart to God, so that He can draw us closer to Himself, teach us about Himself, and lead us to see more clearly our own selves and the needs of other people. He can purify and change us, and make us Christ-like and loving and joyful. Whatever assists us in this process, therefore, is worthwhile, provided that it’s ‘seasoned’ with common-sense and prudence.
Don’t imagine that you cannot pray without special ‘props’ for private prayer, such as a specially decorated corner in your home, or a scented candle, or ‘mood music’. It’s true that, because we’re not pure spirits, we are helped in our prayer by good things or circumstances by which our bodies and minds are calmed, and our hearts are persuaded to be more open to God; but it remains true that such things aren’t essential for true prayer. What is essential is faith: even a tiny scrap of it.
Try to make a special place for prayer if you can. Find a crucifix and a picture or statue of Our Blessed Lady - and perhaps of some of the other Saints whose lives and stories you find inspiring. The Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has for nearly two millennia built shrines, oratories and churches; so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have an attractive place in which to pray. Remember, however, that you can pray to the Father in the name of Jesus at any time and in any place - as you respond to the Holy Spirit Who prompts us to pray; and you can be sure that every sincere and reverent prayer is being greeted with delight.
Believe that your sincere prayers are fruitful no matter what you do or don’t experience. It is faith that counts. Sweet feelings are pleasant, but unreliable. Whatever you feel, be sure that whenever you raise your heart and mind to God, in reverence, sincerity and humility of heart, you have begun a spiritual exchange which God Himself prompted you to make. Something wonderful is happening through that union of your soul with God, no matter how dire your circumstances nor how dark or dry might be that particular moment of prayer.
Try a wonderfully simple way of passing some minutes in sincere prayer. Pray the ‘Our Father’ or some other prayer, very slowly, as if ‘aiming’ every phrase at God the Father, as He looks lovingly upon you.
The reason for our confidence.
Remember that God is looking lovingly upon you: with Infinite tenderness.
Be bold but reverent in prayer. We can pray to God with absolute confidence that we’re like children whose every whisper is heard by an adoring mother. God is no longer far away from us. God the Holy Trinity - Infinite God - even dwells within our souls, and offers us the sure hope of Heaven.
Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to understand the Holy Trinity. In our simple, honest prayers, you or I might instinctively say ‘O God’ or ‘Jesus’ or ‘Heavenly Father’. (I prayed: “Oh, You!” ... for years, very reverently!) Do what comes naturally - but don’t try to ‘imagine’ God.
Don’t worry if various images of “Christ as Man” come and go in your mind. They can be useful; but what matters is that you believe in Him. One day, we hope, He will lead us to the Father, even though Christ has said: “TO HAVE SEEN ME IS TO HAVE SEEN THE FATHER” [Jn 14:9].
Never forget that this amazing Jesus to Whom we pray, and Who is so keen to help us, is Really Present in every place where the Blessed Sacrament is found.
Take advantage of this great blessing: of Christ being Present amongst us in the Blessed Sacrament. We who believe this sincerely - and it’s the Church’s true and accurate and important teaching which Saints have died to defend - are enormously comforted by this knowledge. Although we are helped and strengthened through every prayer we offer, whether on a bus or a bench, or in a café or a car-park, we’re helped very powerfully by the Real Presence of Christ Who is really there with us in every chapel of the Blessed Sacrament: just as near and dear as He was to His Apostles in Galilee - only in a different way: a sacramental way.
Approach the tabernacle, in church; then kneel down and speak to Christ, pouring put your problems, or pleading for others, or just saying “Thank you very much” for good things. He’s always waiting to listen to us, but loves to give us His interior gifts, too. So it’s silly not to take advantage of His marvellous Presence.
Turn your attention to God, even for a mere second or two, at intervals throughout the day. Confide in Him about everything that concerns you. Entrust every person, conversation or project to Him: with a brief prayer, too, for all who have died.
Remember that if you ask for God’s help, with faith, then He does help you - even if you can’t yet see any results. He is powerful enough to change hearts and lives. Trust Him: but be patient.
Cultivate a longing to receive the sacraments, which are God-given and powerful sources of grace; but learn how to turn to God at every moment of the day, in trusting prayer.
Don’t delay, if you are at fault. Turn to God in sorrow - to be forgiven; then go to Confession, if it was a serious matter. You’ll be given grace and strength.
Trust in God. If you are in trouble, call to Him for help. Help will be given, because God is good, even if you don’t see the results until later.
Don’t try to carry your burdens all alone. If you are worried, sit or kneel in God’s presence - and lean on Him, spiritually.
Be grateful. If you are happy, turn to God and thank Him - every time.
Offering up our sufferings.
Throughout the day, “offer up” your sufferings, united in prayer with Christ. This will make you one with Him in helping and consoling suffering people. I’m not suggesting that we can’t take steps to avoid suffering, to relieve pain, or to correct injustice, if we can do so charitably, in accordance with our circumstances and our duties and God’s plan for us. There are many sufferings in this life, however, which we cannot avoid, and which must be borne with patience if we want to imitate Christ our Saviour and model; and it’s through such patient endurance that we can actively unite ourselves to Christ, and so help other people to bear their burdens and to be rescued from sin.
As soon as you meet unavoidable suffering - large or small - whether pain, disappointment, humiliation, grief, neglect, dismissal or toothache, turn to Christ. Tell Him that you accept this suffering and willingly unite it to what He bore in His Passion. Tell Him that you’re doing this out of love for Him, in reparation for your own sins and for the sins of other people. This is a powerful and loving prayer which is very Christ-centred and effective.
Offer your sufferings in this way, regularly, for a special intention, if you wish to do so: perhaps for someone’s conversion, or for a successful outcome to some good work, or for the Holy Father, or for a departed soul - or as a powerful prayer for more vocations or for people in special need.
Offer up your sufferings throughout each day, in union with Christ, in order to do what Saint Paul did, who said: I am suffering ... “IN MY OWN BODY TO DO WHAT i CAN TO MAKE UP ALL THAT HAS STILL TO BE UNDERGONE BY CHRIST,” [Col 1:24]. It was Christ Who saved us by His Passion and Death; but we are privileged to be able to join in His redeeming work: to help to bring other people towards Him, through our patience in suffering and our union with Him.
Notice how everything that you used to find difficult can be ‘converted’ into a prayer, if you do as I’ve described: ‘offering up’ even encounters with people who despise you, or with angry motorists - or offering up each tedious delay in a hospital waiting room or each disappointment at work, or each painful step with a sore foot - or some perpetual, hidden heartache. Every single trouble can be faced, shown to Christ, accepted - by His grace - and offered as a powerful prayer to the Father; and the reason why the Father is so deeply touched by such prayers is that as we make them, we resemble Christ more closely than at almost any other time, since we’re imitating Him in His submission, obedience, patience, forgiveness, and love for others.
Be Christ-like. If you receive insults for your Faith, accept them silently, as a penance. In the same way, accept disappointment, waiting, frustration or betrayal. Silently, turn to Christ in your soul, saying: “I accept this, for love of You. I unite my suffering to Yours, out of sorrow for my failings, and making reparation for the sins of others!” Bear the pain of it! Be resolved to share your Faith when circumstances permit.
Bear the burning, heart-aching shame of failure, of humiliation, and of sarcasm. Inwardly say: “I accept this”, and get on with your work or your conversation, just as though you had ‘accepted’ the pain of a headache or a sprained ankle. Of course, we thank God for good medicines and we use them, when appropriate.
Have faith in Christ’s love for you. When you can bear not only cold and hunger and tiredness, in some measure, but spiritual pain, for Christ’s sake, He will wrap you in His arms, one day, and will comfort and thank you as no one else can.
Remember that we comfort Christ in His Passion whenever our love for Him causes us to accept unavoidable sufferings. Do this whenever you suffer any unavoidable pain, fear, loneliness or humiliation. This eases Christ’s burden and it makes reparation for the sins of many others. Study your crucifix. Have you suffered as much as your Saviour? Try to be brave. Christ has already won the battle. Pray for those who make your life a misery. What seems like malice is sometimes only thoughtlessness or ignorance.
Continuing the journey.
Go to someone reliable in the Church if you want further advice about Christian prayer, or particularly about Christian contemplative prayer. Go to someone who loves God and the Church, and who prays, and who knows the subject under discussion, whether from sound learning or from experience.
Don’t dabble in un-Christian ways of praying, by which I mean ways which leave out all mention of Jesus Christ our Saviour and Mediator. It’s only because He died for us that we’ve been delivered from our sins and have been made adopted children of our Heavenly Father. We must respect the good to be found in other faiths and cultures; but we’d be foolish as well as faithless if we imagined that we can deny Christ and yet achieve union in prayer with our Heavenly Father.
Remember that whenever you pray, you continue a journey towards complete union with the One, Holy God Who has created you and Who even now is cradling you in His Love. If you are faithful to prayer and penance, and if you persevere in love, you will find that God will change your prayer. He will draw you into His silence and peace, from time to time. He will lead you to ‘desert places’ of prayer, in order to train you and test you - because of His love for you. The stronger and purer becomes your faith in Him, the more swiftly are you being drawn towards the blissful union with Him which is promised to His true friends.
Take a good, honest look at your heart and soul if you’re finding prayer difficult, today. I’m not writing, now, about coping with dark, dry or distracted prayer-times but about the times when you can hardly bear to turn your ‘heart’ towards God because your bruised and tender conscience pains you. You’ve done wrong, but you haven’t yet decided to be sorry.
Be straightforward. Try to push aside your feelings of panic. Let God’s dark, calm light shine down in prayer upon your thoughts, words and actions. In God’s presence, think about your life; but then move on from thought to prayer. Is there something to be put right, before you can praise or thank God with sincerity? Have you insisted on following your own sinful path? Put your trust in God. Ask for His help. Show Him whatever you don’t yet understand. Tell Him you want to know Him and to please Him; then say sorry! Make a new start, now, with God’s help.
‘Walk’ with Christ, minute by minute. Follow the path which has already been marked out by His Holy Apostles and Martyrs. Remember: beyond every ‘tomb’ which we’re invited to enter, with Christ, there’s a Resurrection.
Remember, in weak moments, that faith, hope and charity can be lost by sin or neglect. Be on your guard. Every temptation to be hateful, hard-hearted or lazy, or impure or unfaithful in any way must be resisted with a passionate determination. A wrong turning is not a matter for shrugs, indifference or jokes, but for weeping. Yet a conversion or a little movement towards God makes the Angels shout for joy in Heaven. The Saints are astounded and delighted by our faith and courage. Remember: everything good we do affects the whole Church.
Don’t be surprised if you’re tempted. The worst temptations to unfaithfulness are ‘thrown’ at those who truly love Christ. Remember: other people depend on your prayers. Remember: other people need your faithful example.
Consider how your good acts and good habits can be subtly undermined by a little bit of jealousy at someone else’s success, or a bit of ingratitude for real good, or by self- righteousness in thinking of other people, or by immediate self-justification whenever your faults are revealed. Are you lazy, in finding time to pray? Think about that little bit of resentment you feel about ‘facing’ God in prayer.
Notice how a little bit of pride keeps you from prayer, keeps you from confession or even keeps you away from the good people whose example and conversation increase your shame. Have you failed to confess your real sins? Are you disobedient to the plain teaching of the Catholic Church? Do you grumble about your priest or family or teachers? Do you sink into despondency at the failure of your ambitions?
Don’t be afraid of humiliation. If you are undergoing temptations which make you feel humiliated or ashamed keep fighting. Ask for help in prayer. It’s by these struggles that you’re proving your love and growing in virtue. And even if you ‘fall’, don’t despair. Keep on going to Confession. When you’re reconciled, you are shining with God’s grace, even if you can’t see it; and He loves to come to good-hearted and purified souls at Holy Mass, in Holy Communion. That’s one of His rewards - as well as being a spiritual food and strength for us. But He has even greater rewards in store for you if only you’ll persevere.
With God’s help, aim for sanctity. Choose to receive God’s perpetual blessings. Ask him for them. Choose to be poor in spirit, contrite, meek, apostolic, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, and patient amidst humiliations and insults.
Don’t be discouraged at being so unlike Christ! Christ loves us now, just as we are, though He will help us to change and become holy, for Heaven.
Christ’s holy Mother.
Turn to Our Blessed Lady, also, and ask her to pray for you. She will pray, immediately! By the Will of the Father, Christ was given to us through Mary. No one can ever again separate the Divine Son from His Holy Mother. From Heaven, she loves to help us. She is especially touched by the cries of sick persons, children, and all who comfort her Son in His Holy Passion.