Are you good at being quiet?
Are you unsure of what to say when you pray to God?
Can you remember one sentence at most?
Then I have good news for you: You’re going to be really at learning some simple prayers.
The Christian prayer tradition covers a lot of ground, including intercessions for others, prayers of thanksgiving and praise, and prayers for healing or restoration. There are simple prayers that Jesus himself taught us like the Our Father and longer prayers like Mary’s Magnificat.
Yet, there are plenty of simple prayers that any Christian can learn to do right now with very little training or memorizing. Although more experience practicing these prayers will make them easier to do and feel more natural, any beginner at prayer can start praying to God today by participating in a few simple prayer practices.
Christianity’s Tradition of Simple Prayer
The Christian prayer tradition of contemplative prayer teaches that the Spirit is present within us, and that God has already found us when we pray. We aren’t asking for God to show up or do something special because God is already here and has given us the Spirit.
Contemplative prayer helps us rest in what God has already given and increases our awareness of God. In fact, contemplative prayer is the work of God in us as we become present for God’s love. The methods of prayer help you receive what God has given to you.
Although there is a measure of effort in learning how to remain still or to increase your awareness of God in these simple prayer practices, you can’t make God more loving toward you or more present for you. Prayer is a practice, but it is also a pure gift from God.
Pray in Silence with Your Breath
One of the most common starting points for Christian prayer is a silent prayer that uses your breath. There are different teachings on this, so you may need to figure out which one works the best for you, but the basic concept is that you’re breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth at a calming rhythm.
You may inhale for four seconds and exhale for four seconds, or you may try holding your breath in-between the inhale and exhale. There are many different patterns for this kind of breathing.
For myself, I try to avoid overthinking it. I want to breathe in deeply to a point that feels comfortable and then make a cleansing exhale that can alleviate tension.
The idea is to use the pattern of breath to remove distractions from your mind so you can turn your attention to God. There’s no need to say anything as you breathe in and out. God is present, and that is enough when you pray in silent awareness of God.
Center Prayer with a Prayer Word
Although some use a rhythm of breathing to center their thoughts on God, others prefer to use a prayer word or phrase as a way to gently let go of thoughts and become more aware of God.
Generally speaking, you’re more likely to use a prayer word frequently when you begin centering prayer because your mind will likely run all over the place with thoughts. Using the prayer word in your mind should be a gentle, gracious process rather than a sign of “failing to pray.”
The prayer word or phrase helps you let go of distractions, but whether you are silent or focusing on the prayer word, the intention is the same. Your focus is on God’s love for you and God’s presence, and the prayer word is just a tool to help you maintain that intention while praying.
It’s typical to center prayer for about 20 minutes at a time. I’ve found that the simpler the prayer word, the better, using words such as Jesus, beloved, or loved.
Pray the Jesus Prayer
We’re getting a bit more “complex” with our prayers. Beyond silence or a single word, there’s the single sentence of the “Jesus Prayer” that has been used since the early days of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This is the prayer of the tax collector who returned home righteous after making his confession to God:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
There are different versions of the prayer, but the general idea is to use this prayer throughout your day as a way to remain aware of God’s mercy. This is a prayer that you can keep in mind while walking, driving, waiting in line, making dinner, cleaning up dinner, folding laundry, exercising, and so on.
While some have suggested that this isn’t a prayer with the same restful qualities as silent contemplation or centering prayer, I have found it very liberating from unhelpful rumination.
When my mind is stuck on something that causes worry, anger, or frustration, the Jesus Prayer is right there to lean on when my mind feels stuck. It brings me back to my own limitations and need for God’s mercy, while freeing me from downward spirals of negativity.
You can always combine this simple prayer with other approaches to prayer. For instance, you could use the Jesus Prayer for a few minutes as a way to clear your mind before centering prayer.
Although prayer can be challenging during a season of fasting or at a busy moment in life, I find it helpful to make a regular prayer practice out of at least one of these each day, such as beginning my day with centering prayer. Then, I can use the other methods, like a breath prayer or the Jesus Prayer, to become mindful of God throughout the day.
If Prayer Is Hard, Start Simple
There are plenty of other ways to pray, but if you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer or you’re frustrated by prayer challenges, starting simple is a good way to go.
As a final note, Thomas Keating, who played a major role in the revival of centering prayer among American Christians, wrote that the only way you can “fail” at centering prayer is by getting up and leaving the room. This is about as simple as it gets!
You can find a bit more about centering prayer in Thomas Keating’s book Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer.