There’s a question I dread to answer each year. It comes up when I’m sitting at the dentist’s office, and he inevitably looks at me and asks: Mike, how often do you floss? I stammer… once a month? Maybe twice? Usually when I know I need it (after eating popcorn or something else that gets stuck in my teeth.) My dentist then explains to me how important it is for my dental hygiene that I make a more regular habit of flossing, which I grudgingly agree to do. And this usually lasts only a couple days before I neglect to do it again.
The fact is, I know I’m supposed to floss, and I know why I’m supposed to floss. Flossing not only cleans between your teeth, it stimulates your gums, and cleans the space between your teeth and your gums (the sulcus) which you wouldn’t be able to clean otherwise. It also helps deal with the root causes of bad breath. But that doesn’t make me floss any more often than once every two or three weeks. And quite often, this is precisely how many of us treat prayer. We know that we should pray, and we may even have an idea of why we should pray:
“We pray because we are full of an infinite longing and God has created us for himself: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you’ (St. Augustine). But we pray also because we need to; Mother Teresa says, ‘Because I cannot rely on myself, I rely on Him, twenty-four hours a day.” -YouCat 470
“Praying is as human as breathing, eating, and loving. Praying purifies. Praying makes it possible to resist temptations. Praying strengthens us in our weakness. Praying removes fear, increases energy, and gives a second wind. Praying makes one happy.” -YouCat 470
If we know why we should pray, then the real questions becomes how we should pray. Just as the dentist at one time showed you what it means to care for your teeth, God has left numerous wonderful examples for us in Scripture. There are four that YouCat identifies, because each one offers us an important dimension of prayer: Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Jesus Himself. Abraham listens to God’s promises throughout his story in the book of Genesis. He not only listens, he also learns to put his trust in God even in difficult moments. Moses’ relationship with God is rooted in conversation, which begin right from his encounter with the burning bush (Exodus 3), to the giving of the precepts of the law. Mary gives an example of surrender (Luke 1:38), showing in her ‘yes’ that “prayer is ultimately self-giving in response to God’s love” (YouCat 479). Jesus seemed to live his life as a single prayer:
“Being one with the Father in the Holy Spirit – that was the guiding principal of his earthly life.” -YouCat 475
If we’re going to understand how to pray, each of these examples has something to offer us. We must certainly be attentive to God, as Abraham, was, to enter into conversation with God, as Moses did, and to offer Him our yes, just as the Blessed Mother did. But Jesus does more than just give us an example – He enters into our prayer, teaching us how, progressively, we can make of our lives a prayer: “Learning from Jesus how to pray means entering into his boundless trust, joining in his prayer, and being led by him, step by step, to the Father” (YouCat 477).
If the ultimate goal is, in the words of St. Paul, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)- then we need to start somewhere. You will never pray at all times if you don’t start by praying at specific times. And that is the first key to prayer: setting aside time for it. This time can be five minutes or it can be an hour, or it can be something in between. (I suggest that if you want to pray for an hour daily, start small and build that habit gradually.) Find a place that’s quiet – a Church or chapel is wonderful, but closing the door to your room and putting your phone on silent can create a sacred space for you to pray.
If you’ve gotten past the neglect of prayer (like my neglect of flossing), the next issue at hand is technique: what do you do when you pray? The truth is that there are as many different ways to pray as there are people. Some people really like to pray with scripture, using a technique like Lectio Divina, a prayerful reading of scripture. Others like to sit quietly with God, just savouring His presence. Others like to journal, still others pray well with music. To try and narrow things down, YouCat identifies five types of prayer: blessing & adoration (recognizing God is God and I am not), petition (praying for yourself), intercession (praying for others), thanksgiving, and praise. These categories are helpful because they point out the sentiments that will rise from your heart as you pray. But the key is not to worry about trying to do only one of these during a time of prayer, or trying to get all five in while you pray. Beginning to pray – or growing in prayer – will likely involve more than one of these in any given prayer time.
Learning to pray will happen in a very similar manner to the way you learned to speak. You first copied the sounds you heard your family make, then you copied their words. Eventually, you figured out which word meant what, going from simple words like (Hi! No! Want!) to simple sentences (I love you) to gradually learning to express yourself in clearer and more intelligent ways. And if you consider that it takes a human child years to get the concept of communicating with words, don’t get discouraged when your initial prayer times are awkward or seem to take forever. Don’t worry that you might not be doing it exactly right. Look back at the examples we heard earlier – listening, conversing, surrendering – and try to incorporate all three into your time of prayer. You might listen by simply being still or reading a passage from the Bible; then you’ll share in thought, word, or writing the things on your heart, then make a point of offering your day and your life to Jesus. Let Him transform this time into something beautiful.
If you’re still not sure what to do, one of the Deacons at my parish recommends http://www.sacredspace.ie as a starting point for prayer. Run by Irish Jesuits, it has a meditation for each day you can use to guide your prayer. You can subscribe for email prayers or devotions, and apps for your phone like Laudate or iBreviary also offer daily prayers right on your handheld device.) Just like anything, prayer takes practice. I get discouraged about flossing because my gums bleed and it hurts – but my wife (the dental assistant) assures me that if I did it more often, the gums would get healthier and stronger and it wouldn’t hurt as much any more. What’s true for dental hygiene is certainly true for prayer: it’s worth taking the time to do it, it will benefit you in more ways than you think, and it gets easier with practice. So, get started! In the meantime, I’m off to floss…