How to Pray When You Don't Feel Like Praying

“A Woman Rescued from a Well by a Man Praying to Sansovino's Virgin and Child”
“A Woman Rescued from a Well by a Man Praying to Sansovino's Virgin and Child” (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes I just don’t want to pray. Shouldn’t I enjoy praying? I’m a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic; prayer is our first pillar! Still, it’s hard to crack open my Divine Office every day.

My wife even laughed at me tonight at the dinner table, calling me an 8-year-old when I crossed myself and rattled out “Bless us O Lord…” in about 4 seconds flat before scarfing down my tacos. If I’m like anyone in the Bible, it’s the disciples in the garden choosing sleep over the repeated demands of the Son of God. Prayer, for me, is seriously hard.

Prayer sometimes seems awkward, too. I’m supposed to pray to the God that already knows everything? I’m supposed to ask God for something when I read His Word to say, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:25) If God already knows what’s good for me and has a plan, and I’m supposed to trust him, then why am I supposed to ask for anything at all?

Then, Paul tells us that we’re supposed to pray about everything? “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

To top it off I’m always reminded that I’m not supposed to be the one talking the entire time. Right? We’ve all been told that one a million times. So there I am: I straighten my back, fold my hands, close my eyes, and suddenly I’m praying—thinking of what I ate. Soon I’m thinking of work. My shopping list. That season finale cliff hanger. Sports. The silence seems to be even more distracting.

It’s all so confusing. What am I supposed to do?

As poor a prayer I am, there’s good answers to these good questions. St. Thomas Aquinas is quick to point out that my objections here are the ones that the ancient Christians, and clearly those of his time wrestled with. They are: (1) All things are predestined, so praying is vain; (2) Prayer attempts to change God’s providence, and so is foolish.

My problem with these two questions is simple: providence and foreknowledge are not opposed. They actually work together. God knows all things that will happen, but he does not know these things like the athlete on the starting line looking forward to the finish line, seeing the outcome of the race. God know these things in a perfectly present way, because His existence and nature, as one, transcend time, events, and possibilities. God’s knowledge is so vast, He does not just know everything that did and will happen like some cosmic almanac, but knows these things as if everything is happening at once. Actually, he’s beyond that. He knows every possibility. Ever. If your mind isn’t blown, we also say in Trinitarian Theology that God knows Himself perfectly. Let me put that in simpler terms: God knows every single thing, idea, event, possibility, and within this, He is His own knowledge. I can’t even wrap my mind around that.

So again, providence and foreknowledge work together, unopposed. Just because God knows what will happen to me, does not mean I do not have the free will to make decisions. Back to the race track, just because God knows I will cross the finish line does not mean I will stay in my lane, speed up, and slow down from time to time. Analogous to my life, if I get to heaven, God knows it and wills it, but it does not mean I will not make bad decisions, hurt people I don’t mean to, and stumble across that finish line. Conversely it does not mean I will make bad decisions, hurt people I don’t mean to, and stumble across that finish line.

And this is where the theology meets faith and reason: prayer is not purposed to change providence; it is purposed to help us understand it. Thomas puts it this way:

For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers in other words "that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give," as Gregory says. (See Summa P2/2Q82A2)

I keep forgetting but prayer has more to do with God’s will than mine. What I am doing when I pray is seeking God’s will, aligning my life to that, rather than only asking for things. With that more structured approach, I offer the following practical advice as well: 

Asking for things. This is actually very important to God’s will. As my kids are growing up, they ask me for everything! Now, as they do that, though they might be disappointed to know that they will not get everything they do eventually pick up on the things that get a positive answer. My telling them no and yes is very vocal. God works similarly, but his no’s and yes’ are more subtle. I have to ask continually, and then I must pay attention to the work God is doing in my life. Sin, vice, and the like, are like static overdrive to the signals God is sending me. So as I ask, it is imperative I keep my soul clean, like an antenna, in order to better receive God’s signals.

What do I ask for? Thomas tells us we can ask for two things: the blessed petitions to include those contained in the Lord’s prayer, and temporal things (see Summa P2/2Q83A5,6).

To clarify, we should not ask for spiritual blessings in general. For example, we should ask for the grace to forgive others. We should—after examining our conscience to see who we have not forgiven—ask for the grace to forgive specific persons. St. Philip Neri prayed earnestly for specific spiritual gifts and they came as vastly (and specifically) as he prayed and continued to consecrate himself as a vessel of the Holy Spirit.

We can also pray for temporal things. The key is, we must earnestly ask for these things for the right reason, and with the right attachments. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:3) Mother Angelica prayed for cameras. Enough said.

What about my general laziness? I used to feel terrible when a friend would post a prayer request. I would make the commitment to do it, only to forget to pray about it at all. Here’s a few things that I do to combat my laziness:

  • When someone asks for my prayers, I literally fold my hands and say a quick prayer. It doesn’t have to be long, just earnest. Later, I could/should take these to longer prayers.
  • When I cannot pray, I cross myself.
  • If I’m too tired to pray, I rest. It helps.

I’m easily distracted. Like I said before, my mind drifts too quickly, to too many things. So here’s a few things I do:

  • If I’m in lectio divina (which is seriously helpful for people like me), the moment I sense I’m drifting, I just repeat the readings, sometimes audibly. No matter how many times it takes, I can annoy myself into staying focused.
  • I pray for more concentration.
  • If these don’t work, I say a prayer of repetition: Hail Mary, Our Father, Divine Mercy, etc.

If I absolutely cannot stop thinking about things I don’t want to pray about, I turn those into intentions. If I’m thinking about food, I pray that the poor might have food that night, and that I might be more charitable enough to feed the poor. If I’m thinking about past temptations, I pray that God may convict me of any sins I’m unaware of, and that he might increase my holiness and that of my wife. Even if she calls me an 8-year-old.