How Then Shall We Pray?
January is typically the time for New Year’s resolutions. But I find that I am often most motivated to make fresh beginnings in September. We’re all back from various vacations and other travels. School supplies are purchased and classes begin. At work, we hunker down with fresh focus. I organize my Tupperware drawer. And, each September for the past several years, I have brought renewed attention and commitment to my prayer practice.
I adopted a daily prayer practice eight years ago as part of a year-long spiritual formation class I attended. Each participant was required to commit to a regular spiritual practice, and I chose prayer. At that time, I had no experience with prayer. I didn’t know how to do it, or what praying involved or really meant. All I knew was that I had experienced a life-long — often not articulated, even to myself — longing for a relationship with the divine. As I began to feel that yearning grow stronger, prayer seemed like a good place to start.
But how do you pray?
There are of course, many, many ways to pray. The Episcopal Church offers us The Book of Common Prayer which includes the Daily Office with services for morning and evening prayer. There are also multiple forms of contemplative prayer. The class I attended taught another classic approach to prayer, and I’ve used it ever since. The exact structure differs depending on what source you read, but the components are generally the same: 1) Centering; 2) Thanksgiving; 3) Confession; 4) Intercession; 5) Listening; 6) Petition; and 7) Closing. In my daily prayers, I go through each step, sometimes quickly if time is tight and sometimes more slowly when my schedule allows. I describe each component in more detail below.
But life is busy. I have found that to sustain a daily prayer practice, I first have to commit to the when and where of prayer. And that’s where I often slip up during the summer. My schedule is always in flux with travel and transporting my daughter to the various camps she attends. So in September, I re-commit to daily habits related to when and where I am going to pray.
When and where to pray?
I pray in my car. It may sound weird, but each morning before work, I park my car, turn off the ignition, and I pray sitting there in the driver’s seat. Sometimes I do this in a parking lot by a field I pass during my commute, other times I do it in the parking garage near my office. I don’t worry if people look at me. I’m just sitting there with my eyes closed. They probably think I’m dozing off or have my eyes downcast looking at my cell phone.
I started this habit when my daughter was in kindergarten. I had to get up earlier than I would have otherwise to hustle her to school. And suddenly I found myself with a gap of time between when I dropped her off and when I finished my drive and was due in at the office to begin my work day. Out of that gap emerged the when and where for my prayer practice, and I’ve maintained it ever since. The driver’s seat of a car is not a particularly glamorous place to pray, but it is functional. And that’s what’s important. Having a time and a simple structure to keep me on track.
As a newbie when it comes to prayer and the religious life more generally, my biggest “ah-ha” moment has been that a spiritual life doesn’t come without time and effort. It may seem obvious, but it wasn’t for me. I used to think that “being spiritual” was kind of like catching the flu — it just sort of happen to you whether you want it or not. Instead, for me, it’s more like getting in shape with exercise. You can’t get in shape by just reading about exercise or hoping it will magically happen on its own. Likewise, you can’t have a relationship with God without actually spending time talking to and (importantly) listening to God.
How do you talk to and listen for God?
I love the seven-step prayer practice I was taught because it gives a simple structure for how to talk to and listen for God, as well as how to prepare myself each day for that conversation. I also love it because each step allows for creativity and spontaneity while, at the same time, providing a consistent overall format. Here are the steps and a brief description of how I approach each one:
Centering - This is a time to get quiet and, as the name suggests, centered at the beginning of prayer time. I do this in different ways. Sometimes it is by saying a simple, “Hello” to God. I will briefly contemplate the different faces of the Trinity, focusing for a moment in turn on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, I recite my favorite e.e. cummings poem to myself. Recently, I have started silently saying the Lord’s Prayer each day. I suggest trying out different approaches to see what works best for you.
Thanksgiving - Ironically, this is a tough one for me. It’s ironic because generally I maintain a tremendous “attitude of gratitude” in my life. But what does it mean to be thankful in our prayers? I do not want my gratitude for all the great stuff in my life — my family, my health, my home, my work — to be predicated on a comparison to all of the other people who do not have this same great stuff. For example, I don’t want to say to God, “I’m so thankful that I live in a relatively peaceful community because I know so many around the world suffer under terrible violence and oppression.” What kind of gratitude is that? I’ve written more about this topic elsewhere, and I’d love to talk about it with others who are interested. Please reach out to me if you want to discuss! In the meantime, I typically use this time to be grateful for interactions with people that have impacted me in expected and unexpected ways, and to express gratitude to God for the ways God has entered and transformed my life.
Confession - This prayer structure includes time to recognize and name our brokenness and shortcomings. The meaning of sin and the need to confess our sins was confusing to me when I first converted to Christianity. As I’ve learned and prayed more, the meaning is becoming clearer. This topic warrants a longer discussion than this blog allows. For now, I will share the words we use in Episcopal Church as part of Penitential Order: Rite One: “We confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
Intercession - This is a time to pray for others. In my memoir, Following the Red Bird, I describe how my husband’s Buddhist meditation of “Taking and Giving” influenced my prayer life and was central to my conversion journey. I still use that same Jesus-infused version of “Taking and Giving” to pray for others, although the process has morphed slightly over the years. I imagine that others’ suffering appears as black smoke, which I breathe into myself. I then imagine breathing out Jesus’ peace to others. And I also wait for a sense of where Jesus is in the situation. Sometimes this has meant feeling a sense of Christ’s presence in my cousin’s body or getting a glimpse of the way the Holy Spirit is moving in a neighbor’s life. The intercession component is one of my favorite parts of the prayer practice, and it usually quiets my mind and heart which has a lasting impact throughout the day.
Listening - This is my other favorite part of the prayer practice. During this time, I practice a version of lectio divina. Lectio divina — a type of sacred reading and listening for God’s word — is truly awesome, and I highly recommend that you Google the term to read more. During the “listening” time in my prayer, I get quiet and try to “tune in” more deeply to God’s presence. I typically turn to Scripture or another reading and, using intuition, listen for how God may be speaking to me through the words. I am currently in the middle of reading the Old Testament from beginning to end for the first time, so sometimes I read a short passage during this time. Or sometimes I wait to feel where the Spirit is guiding me that day. In Following the Red Bird, I describe this as the Ouija Board method of prayer. I’ll run my fingers along the edge of a page until I feel called to stop. The results from this approach have been remarkable; I often discover God speaking to me through a short phrase or passage in ways that inform and shape the rest of my day.
Petition - This is a time when you are a invited to pray for your own needs. During this time, I often ask God to protect my loved ones, keeping them safe and healthy. I don’t know if it helps. I don’t know how God responds to prayers like this. I know it’s mysterious. But I keep doing it. And I’m grateful to God for hearing those prayers.
Closing - This is a brief moment of closing and transition. I typically end with a few final words of gratitude or intercession. And then it’s time to gather up my things — my purse, coffee cup, laptop— and head out to begin the day.
It this structure sounds overwhelming or time consuming, don’t worry. It really isn’t. I can move through the steps quickly - in ten minutes or less - if time is tight. Also, many of us who have tried to develop a regular prayer or meditation practice become frustrated or discouraged because our restless “monkey minds” make it difficult to concentrate. I love this prayer structure because it helps with that. I have memorized the seven steps, and so now when I get distracted or lose focus, I just return to the step I’m on, and resume from where I left off. The structure provides enough of a container that I’m not floundering all on my own; at the same time, within each step there is plenty of room for flexibility, authenticity, and unexpected conversations and connections with God.
I wish you many blessings in your prayer life! If you try this structure, please let me know how it goes! Also, I have recently printed out bookmarks with the seven steps listed out; you can tuck it into your Bible or another book as a simple reminder. If you would like one, I would be happy to put one in the mail for you (they are free!) Just send me a note.
For more information about the prayer structure described above, there are many good resources. Two I like are listed below:
Quiet Time: A Practical Guide for Daily Devotions. InterVarsity Press. 1976.
Everyday Spiritual Practices: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life. Edited by Scott W. Alexander. Skinner House Books. 1999.