Learning to Pray As We Ought

Prayer is a gift, not a right.

Gerrit Dou, "Prayer of the Spinner"
Gerrit Dou, "Prayer of the Spinner" (photo: Register Files)

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26

As we draw closer to Lent, let's consider how we pray. Our time in the desert is an opportunity to look at our prayer life, and find new ways to pray drawn from the rich tradition of the Church. When learning new ways to pray, the first step is understanding how God works with our limitations.

In the Old Testament, God authorizes priests and prophets to pray. In the New Testament, the situation changes but the underlying rules still hold. People are baptized into Christ, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments our hearts and lips are opened in prayer. All who are in Christ may now pray.

What this means, as Simon Tugwell, OP observes in Prayer in Practice, is that prayer is a privilege, not a right. It is both a gift and a duty. We cannot rely on ourselves alone for prayer because, Tugwell writes, "we do not know how to pray. If we think of prayer as something that we can—or worse, that we should—master and become proficient at, we are in danger of seriously falsifying our relationship with God.”

We meet prayer halfway by following patterns and forms.

We dispose ourselves to prayer with an open heart.

We practice prayer through spiritual exercises.

We listen for God’s words in His Scripture and in His Church.

We sit in the silent majesty of the Lord and await His call.

And yet one of these things is a complete prayer.

Even the simplest utterance of the Jesus Prayer (“Jesus have mercy on me a sinner,” or similar formulations) or the Sign of the Cross is a way for us to find the ground upon which prayer can occur, but the rest is up to the movement of the Spirit. Just as the efficacy of works only occurs through the action of grace, so can the power of prayer only work through the action of the Spirit. Our prayer needs to be completed for us.

Does the Mass, the highest and most perfect prayer of which man is capable, function through our own powers? Are we not merely collaborators with the Priest in the greater Work of Christ in the Mass? Is the Mass ours, or Christ’s? What’s true of the Mass is true of personal prayer. We are not the only power driving our prayer.

It’s a mistake to think that the action of God in prayer is limited to His response. In fact, half of prayer itself is the action of God, before we even get to the response. We would not even have the desire to pray without grace. Our will and intellect cooperate with grace. We can ignore grace or we can build on grace, but we can neither create it from nothing nor demand it as our due.

The intimacy with God which we seek in prayer is a gift on top of another gift. The prayer itself was the first gift because, as St. Paul writes, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.”

How can we pray, then? Because, Paul continues, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Sighs too deep for words. That’s the prayer that comes from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice. Words may open the path for us, or dispose us to the action of grace, but in the end, the prayer of Spirit lies beyond words. It’s merely a sigh: the sigh of the lover, answered by the beloved.

Pray Without Ceasing

The forms laid out by the Church are a good foundation for building a prayer life. Whether it’s the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary, we drink from a deep and pure well that can nourish our spiritual life with the wisdom of the Church and voice of God in Scripture. When we do, we join the People of God and the Communion of Saints in one prayer.

Yet this discipline of prayer is like any discipline: it requires work and practice. As with a diet or exercise regimen, it can become a burden. If we put all our eggs in that basket, we can feel like failures if our discipline slips.

This why the Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes brief, frequent prayers over long, focused prayer. He says: “Prayer ought to be short and fervent, unless it happens, that one is moved by the grace of God to prolong it.”

Longer prayer, Benedict is saying, is a function of grace. For Benedict, the Office is a way to stand in the presence of God:

“We believe that God is everywhere present, and that His all-seeing eye beholds both the good and the bad; but there are no circumstances in which we should have such a profound and lively conviction of these truths, as while we are engaged in singing the Divine Office.”

In these deeper practices, we learn about God and dispose ourselves to His action, but prayer—the reaching out to God with heart, mind, and word—can be a much simpler thing.

The most humble yet powerful prayer is the Sign of the Cross. Body, mind, and voice all work together to proclaim the Trinity and the saving power of the crucifixion all at once.

It’s common to say “let your life become a prayer,” but that’s not quite what I mean here. Rather, we need to make prayer—short, frequent prayer—a part of our lives. Nothing big, mind you: just what the Church calls ejaculations. (Yes, I know: but the Church’s understanding of the word preceded the other meaning.) Bring our lives back to God all day long with all our actions, if only just for a moment.

Say the Jesus Prayer. Make the Sign of the Cross before an action. Say “God be with me” before you make a phone call. Say an Our Father at random points in the day. Offer up a “Requiem aeternam” or “Lord have mercy” when you hear of a tragedy.

The Little Way

We all want our prayers to be outsized, deep, moving, profound. That is a worthy goal, but it is not be the ordinary way of prayer. The ordinary way is the little way.

I once saw a disocesan training video that showed a woman making the Sign of the Cross over a tray of muffins as she put them in the oven. At the time I thought it looked absurd, and it’s probably not something I’d do myself, but I think I understand her now. She was trying to sanctify the mundane. It’s way of praying with our whole being, and composing that prayer from the simple moments of life.

We are a sacramental people. We believe God dignified flesh by taking it on Himself in the incarnation. We believe God uses matter to convey the sacred. Time, too, can become sacred, and every moment that ticks by can be sanctified for us if we turn to God in that moment and ask His blessing upon it. 

“Pray without ceasing,” we are told. This doesn’t mean every person commits themselves to a life of prayer like a cloistered contemplative, but rather that each one of us is commanded to turn to God in the midst of life. We draw near to God and dwell in His presence, weaving our prayer out of the simple stuff of life, and offering up our time, our actions, our emotions, our very bodies in an act of love and devotion.

Turning to frequent, short prayer throughout the day is like opening a windowshade on a bright day. The new light bathes the room to reveal things formerly unseen. God is that light, shining from our true home. The anxiety and stress of everyday life is the windowshade. Prayer is when we choose, if only for a moment, to let that light in so that we may see our life anew.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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