Five keys to a better prayer life

How to set a firm foundation for a deeper relationship with God

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By Sister Melannie Svoboda


On his way out to recess one day, 9-year-old Bobby said to his teacher, “Sister Michelle, could you please say a prayer for me today?”

“Sure, Bobby,” Sister said. Then she asked, “Do you have a problem or some special reason you want me to pray for you?”

“No,” the boy replied. “I just thought it would be neat to have someone who talks to God every day talk about me.”

Bobby was only 9, yet he knew something very important about his teacher: She was someone who talked to God every day. She was someone who prayed. In fact, one of the most definitive traits of a healthy Christian spirituality is prayer.

One of my favorite definitions of prayer was given by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, who wrote: “Prayer is love. It is love expressed in speech, and love expressed in silence. To put it another way, prayer is the meeting of two loves: the love of God and our love.” A good friend of mine once described prayer in a similar way. She said, “Prayer is being in the presence of someone I love and who loves me.”

Which brings us to a very important question: Why do we pray anyway? If God is all-knowing, as our faith tells us God is, then why bother to pray? After all, God already knows what’s on our minds and in our hearts, so why should we waste time telling God what God already knows?

There are two answers to this question. First, God may know what’s on our minds and in our hearts, but do we know? Life can get so busy and so hectic at times that we easily lose touch with our thoughts and feelings. Prayer is our “time out” from the busyness of life to reflect on our deeper needs and desires. One reason we pray to an all-knowing God, then, is this: to discover what is really on our minds and in our hearts. Honest prayer helps us do that. And why is it so important to get in touch with our deepest needs and desires? Because that’s precisely where God usually speaks most clearly to us.

Another reason we pray is not only to discover what we think and feel, but also to learn what God thinks and feels. As we said earlier, prayer is a two-way street. When we pray, we give our all-knowing God a chance to communicate with us. This is risky business. All prayer is. By inviting God to speak to us, we risk being changed; that is, we risk having our attitudes altered, our perspectives broadened, our plans modified. And, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us resist change.

I was counseling a woman once who, as a child, was abused by her parents who are now deceased. For years, this woman clung to her hatred for her parents. Eventually she stopped praying. When I asked her why she no longer prayed, she said simply, “I’m afraid if I pray, God will somehow convince me to forgive my parents, and I can’t do that — not yet.” I admired her honesty. Her words also told me she knew exactly what prayer could lead to: God somehow persuading her to change, in this case, to forgive her parents, something she clearly did not want to do — at least “not yet.” This woman’s “not yet” gave me hope that, in time, she might make herself available to God’s convincing love. I heard later she did.

Quotes on prayer
I’d like to share some of my favorite quotes on prayer and say a few words about each of them:

1) Pray as you can, and do not pray as you can’t. Take yourself as you find yourself; start from that. - Dom Chapman
This is excellent advice. If today we don’t feel like praying, that’s OK. We start our prayer with that. Maybe on another day we feel depressed or we’re worried about something. That’s fine too. We bring those thoughts and feelings to our prayer. Or maybe we’re very busy or very happy about something. That’s good too. Wherever we find ourselves today, we start our prayer from there.

2) God walks amid the pots and pans. - St. Teresa of Avila
Sometimes we think we have to go somewhere special to pray — for example to church, to a park, or to a retreat center. Although it is good on occasion to find places that are very conducive to prayer, the fact remains: Any place can be a good place for prayer. We can pray in the car on our way to the mall, at the bank while standing in line, at the kitchen sink as we do the dishes, or even in the bathtub. Most of us learned as little children that God is everywhere. This means that prayer can be everywhere too. Most of us learned as little children that God is everywhere. This means that prayer can be everywhere too.    

3) Of all things we do, prayer is the least practical. - Abraham Heschel
Sometimes we see the results of our prayer. Maybe we receive a favor we asked for, we get the grace to do something difficult, or we experience consolation. When this happens, we thank God, of course. But the truth is, most of the time we will not see any results of our prayer — but that’s perfectly OK. For we do not pray to get results. We do not pray to get anything. We pray to love Someone. We also pray to become someone: the person God is calling us to be. Ordinarily we become that person not by dramatic leaps and bounds, but rather by barely noticeable baby steps.

4) The only way you can fail at prayer is to not show up. - Thomas Keating
If we keep showing up for prayer, we have not failed at prayer — even if we feel our prayer is inferior, difficult, or boring. If we persevere in prayer, that in itself is a wonderful grace. In this regard we should remember that when we read all the teachings of Jesus on prayer, we find one recommendation repeated constantly: perseverance. The person who prays well, then, is the one who keeps showing up for prayer, the one who perseveres.

5) A lot of trouble about prayer would disappear if only we realized — really realized — that we go to pray not because we love prayer, but because we love God. - Hubert van Zeller
In everything I have said about prayer, we must remember that prayer is not an end in itself. It is only a means to an end. The end of prayer is love of God and the fulfilling of God’s will. The end is, as I quoted earlier, “the meeting of two loves.”  CD

From Traits of a Healthy Spirituality (Twenty-third Publications, 23rdpublications.com, 800-321-0411).

Teach Me to Pray

Loving God, teach me to pray.
Teach me to lift my mind and heart to You,
to converse with You,
to allow a meeting of our two loves.
Help me to be honest in my prayer,
expressing to You
my deepest needs and desires.
Help me to keep showing up for prayer even when I think my prayer is inferior, difficult, or boring.
Keep reminding me
that any place is a good place
to converse with You.
God, I thank You for the times
my prayer has been consoling,
and I thank You for the times
it has been disturbing —
those times You have invited me
to change my mind, my attitude, my plans.
And may I always remember
that I pray not to get results,
but to love You
and to become the person
You are calling me to become,
step by baby step.

Amen.

Sister Melannie Svoboda