I think we all want to figure out how to pray more effectively, but what exactly are we wishing for? We want our prayers to connect us with God, and we want to see positive outcomes when we pray for peace, strength, courage, safety, or healing.
Yet, does praying effectively mean seeing a direct correlation between praying for specific outcomes and then seeing God deliver them?
I spent a lot of time worrying that my prayers weren’t effective. I feared that God wasn’t real or that my faith was flawed because I didn’t see enough outcomes from my prayers.
Looking back, I got swept up in my expectations and desires for control or even for some kind of sign based on my prayers. I wanted to be legitimized or verified.
Curiously, Jesus often rebuked those who asked him for a sign. The people who couldn’t trust in his word or rest in God’s unseen presence were the ones who demanded verification proving Jesus was God.
When I wanted to prove that my prayers are effective, I made a similar mistake. The mystery of God had to be uncovered in order to give myself a sense of security.
Although I still try to “improve” my prayer practices and become more disciplined in my daily prayer routines, I don’t get wrapped up in the outcomes of my prayer. There isn’t really a way to measure the effectiveness of my prayers.
Perhaps the only measure of prayer’s effectiveness is whether I’m trusting in God or not.
Thomas Keating famously said that you can only fail at prayer if you get up and leave the room.
You are praying effectively as long as you are reaching out to a loving and present God.
You are praying effectively as long as you are resting in God and trusting in God.
You are praying effectively if you either lay down your burdens to the Lord or clear your mind so that God’s love is all that remains in your awareness.
It’s easy to turn prayer or Christian living into balance sheets or stock markets where growth and declines happen regularly. We want to be “growing” as Christians, but such progress isn’t easy to nail down.
It’s more helpful to think about whether you’re participating in prayer or not. Even if you don’t see clear outcomes or progress from your prayers, that isn’t a mark of failure or alienation from God.
Consider whether you have unrealistic expectations or whether you need some instruction in prayer, but prayer isn’t a simple matter of input and output with predictable results. We can beat ourselves up if our prayers don’t bring the same results we see attained by others.
I’ve had to balance extremes in my life.
I know I need to keep engaging in prayer, learning more about prayer, and growing in my practices that are always in need of refinement.
I also know that I can’t measure my progress in prayer or label certain prayers as “effective” based on my own criteria. Who can say with certainty what’s effective while praying to a present but mysterious God?
I hope to keep learning more about prayer, stretching my faith as I trust more completely in God, and practicing prayer in ways that help me experience God in new ways.
I will continue to make petitions for myself and for others, and I will wait on God in silent faith.
Yet, I also will avoid beating myself up over the “results” of my prayers. There are moments in the Bible when God responds with yes to a prayer request and times when God responds with no. Both prayers could be described as “effective” in the sense that they were shared intimately with God.
We won’t always know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer according to our own terms. Yet, if you can address God as your Father, a loving parent, then you are certainly well on your way according to the guidelines shared by Jesus.
If Wayfair sold a sitting chair that comes with a seat belt or, better yet, a five-point belt system like a toddler seat, I’d drop it right into my shopping cart with hardly a second thought.
Perhaps my common sense would kick in and overrule such an impulsive move, but some mornings, it’s so hard to sit in my chair to pray that a belt system sure seems like it would help. It takes an act of will to keep myself glued down, mind clear, and intentions directed toward God.
Why is prayer so agonizing sometimes?
There is something to be said of developing habits and discipline. I know that prayer isn’t anywhere near as difficult as it used to be.
There is also something to be said for mental health or other conditions of the mind. I know that some people have a much harder time focusing and single-tasking than others, and there is no shame or judgment for them.
Speaking only for myself, I can’t overlook the place of activity as a preferred state of being. Zipping from one thing to another while keeping a tally of what’s been done and what needs to be done all while nurturing a lingering feeling of “overwhelm” makes a seatbelted sitting chair sound awfully practical when it’s time to pray.
What motivates us to keep in motion? First of all, I don’t know if I can even recognize the negative side of being in motion. Oftentimes I’m moving from one good or neutral thing to another. It’s not like my day is piled high with vices or aimless distractions–although we all know that our phones can suck up plenty of time.
Second, I likely overvalue the benefit of the items on the running list that weighs down my mind but makes my feet light. I’m not even sure what exactly I hope to gain by getting so much done, but somehow these things gain an oversized importance.
Finally, I wonder if I can’t quite imagine the good that could come from silent prayer, sitting still in God’s presence, or interceding for others. At this point in my prayer practice, it’s not hard to make myself sit down at a regular time to pray (things haven’t always been that way!), but it remains quite hard to settle my mind sometimes.
The agony of sitting still during prayer means that I’m often too focused on getting one more thing (and then one more thing after that) done. I have overvalued the benefit of my own activity and undervalued the benefit of being present for God in a quiet moment.
There isn’t an easy fix for such agonizing moments during prayer. Perhaps the best solution I’ve found is knowing that I can endure the desire to bounce out of my seat, to remember such restlessness is often for a season, and that moments of greater peace and attentiveness to prayer are possible.
The solution I crave deep in my soul, the thing that keeps me on edge and ready to leap to my feet, isn’t going to come from surrender to my restless impulses.
Restoration will come on the other side of the agony of stillness (which really isn’t agony at all) where my mind grows in daily, even momentary awareness of God.
Attention to the presence of Jesus can shape our minds and direct our actions rather than letting the roller coaster of each day take control. Even today, Jesus can speak, “Peace, be still,” to our ever moving, ever shifting bodies.
In the 1960’s the majority of people in America were preparing themselves for a far-reaching nuclear catastrophe.
Many of the people who prayed to Jesus the Prince of Peace on Sunday were quite alright with the idea of blowing up entire cities of godless Communists.
Even though the Pope had written about the urgency of peace on earth, plenty of Catholics remained disconnected from such thinking.
Monks were even building fall out shelters for themselves while debating finer points of obscure Medieval theology or selling their fancy bread and cheese for a handsome profit.
All of this infuriated Cistercian monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton who plodded away on his typewriter in the isolation of his hermitage in the hills of Kentucky.
As he wrote articles publicly about the madness of his times and the negligence of his church toward people who had been created in God’s image, Merton faced a stinging backlash from the superiors in his monastic order. They believed that a monk should remain silent, weep, and pray.
This only deepened Merton’s frustration, as he watched monks labor for hours each day on profit making ventures rather than “weeping or praying.” In fact, he directly linked the loss of any monastic prophetic function with the neglect of prayer and weeping. He wrote in one letter:
He dug the knife a bit deeper about all of the “weeping” monks did at his monastery in a journal entry:
Although Merton tried to overcome the barriers to his publications about peacemaking and justice at a moment of great peril for humanity, his superiors won in the short term. Blocked from public publishing, he regularly found solace in his journal entries and in letters to friends that pointedly and humorously described the absurd and dangerous state of the world and his monastic order’s inadequate response.
There was no other way to describe his moment in time than a failure of Christians, and monks in particular, to grasp the enormous challenges facing the world.
In both journal entries and personal letters, Merton’s humor is sharp and cutting. His sarcasm thick and heavy. He knew that he was only fleshing out what the Pope had already written, but his station as a monk, bound to obey his superiors, meant they had the final say about which of his works on the dangers of nuclear war or the injustice of racism could leave the walls of his abbey.
As an honest man convinced that he was right but also realistic enough to mockingly call himself the “one original cloistered genius,” Thomas Merton felt a burden of helpless despair to use his notoriety for the good of humanity. It appears nearly his entire order had no concern about the well-being of the many people who could suffer from nuclear war.
Having experienced a profound vision of God’s love for humanity during a trip to Louisville, Merton longed to write with clarity and sanity about the dangers of his moment in history.
Thankfully, many of those works, even the ones that were originally blocked, have finally been published. Yet, I take particular comfort in the unflinching realism of Merton’s letters and journal entries detailing his conflict and frustration over his blocked attempts to meet the madness of his times with a bit of God-inspired sanity.
It often feels like the threats to humanity have only multiplied since the time of Merton.
Today we are awash in misinformation, political partisanship driven by fabricated culture wars, vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, climate change’s threats to our planet’s viability, and attacks on voting access. It can be maddening to see the state of our world.
There are real dangers, and these dangers are only multiplied due to bad faith political actors. Even worse, too many people flat out deny these dangers, and plenty of Christians either ally themselves with those denying
We are living in a moment of mass gaslighting and an avalanche of misinformation that is threatening to tear our society apart, to marginalize minorities, and to warm our planet beyond a dangerous point of no return.
How can we stay sane during a moment that is so filled with absurdity and danger? Should we panic? Should we cry? Should we scream? Should we disconnect from it all to care for ourselves?
Thomas Merton stared down many dangerous and absurd threats in his own time, and he used a blunt realism matched with a sharp wit to endure. He sought to do what he could, he spelled out the absurdity he encountered, and he kept praying and trying to make a difference for the common good of God’s beloved creation.
It’s impossible to say what kind of impact had been achieved by Merton’s letters or limited articles that reached the public. However, we do know that peace activists and social justice leaders regularly sought his insight and support. The few times peace activists met Merton’s disapproval, they immediately sought to repair the relationship.
There isn’t a simple application in a collection like this. If anything, Merton’s sarcastic and humorous letters offer us solidarity and encouragement to face the absurdity and danger of our times.
It’s helpful to know that a man recognized as a “spiritual master” in his own time mocked his own pride and leveled devastating criticisms at his superiors and monastic orders when so much was on the line.
In retrospect, it’s quite clear that Merton was right. Blasting untold numbers of densely populated cities to dust with nuclear weapons was a really bad idea and still remains a really bad idea.
I can only hope that more people will realize that issues like stopping climate change or having wider access to voting are good for humanity, good for the poor, and good for the people who are marginalized the most.
Perhaps reading Merton’s struggles in a previous generation will give us the courage and hope to persevere as we face the absurd dangers of our time. And the starting point for facing such a moment is to simply acknowledge that it’s absolutely absurd that we have even reached this moment of crisis in the first place.
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What if we spent our time seeking the sacred, being present for the holy?
We wouldn’t have to travel anywhere. We wouldn’t have to overhaul our routines. We would only have to add activities that bring space for thought and awareness of the present moment.
Where is the sacred found? Some may travel to a sacred space to find the sacred, but such spaces help us detach from distractions rather than bringing us closer to God. Jesus spoke of the indwelling Spirit and the Kingdom of God being within or among us.
We could say that the sacred is found among us in the present moment.
If we want to find the sacred, then what prevents us from seeking it? What blocks our path toward what what is deeper and more valuable?
This is the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing we could imagine. We spend our lives making cost/benefit analysis for our choices and practices. What do we gain, what do we lose, and is that trade off worthwhile?
My sense is that the sacred presence of God and the resulting presence of God’s Kingdom is found when we are able to be focused and stable in the present moment.
We may repent of the past and cast dreams and visions into the future, but we can only rely on God’s grace to cover what we have done and rest in God’s care for what’s coming tomorrow. We can’t change the past, and we can’t control the future. Our faith addresses these two areas where we exert no control.
Yet, the sacred now is where God’s dynamic energy is present, and preserving our attention to this moment will pay off in personal, spiritual, and relational ways. My faith in the present rests in God’s presence that I can easily miss.
Any of my fears about God abandoning me or my own sin making me unworthy have given way to the assurances of Jesus that he is present, he knows his own people, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
The disconnect I often find in my own life from God’s sacred presence is my attention. Training myself to be present, to be still, and to be receptive to God’s presence changes my approach to spiritual practices.
If the sacred is already present, I’m not trying to summon God, to prove myself worthy, or to do the right thing in order to make God show up. My practice becomes a process of training myself to chase distractions from my mind and to be present for God in the moment.
This training to be present in the moment involves everything from the chores I do, the moments I wait in line at the store, and the ways I spend my free time.
Taking a run, painting a picture, or building something out of wood becomes part of the practice of prayer as I train my mind to be still, to release thoughts, and to be present for whatever God may have for me in the present moment.
My creative projects by themselves can draw glory to God, but they also become a formative experience that trains me in the ways of being present in the moment. The more I am present in the moment, rather than dreading the future or lamenting the past, the more I can enter into prayer with a clear mind that is receptive to the sacred that is already there.
Considering that digital formation, often through our phones and social media, either fills our minds with thoughts or prevents us from facing our thoughts in silence, spiritual formation frees us from the constant chatter of our thoughts and trains us to let go of them.
Whether we are meditating on the life-giving words of Scripture or waiting in silence before God, spiritual formation relies on disengaging from the constant flow of chaotic ideas that create a reactive mind that struggles to focus on prayer. In addition, once we have stepped away from this stream of ideas, we also need to let go of the ones that we have fixated on.
The thoughts lodged in our minds prevent us from perceiving ourselves and God’s presence clearly. The more we are engaged in stimulation and ideas, the less space we’ll have to thoughtfully review our days and to let go of what Martin Laird calls “afflictive thoughts.”
These thoughts can fill our minds to the point that we fail to realize God is present, or we remain boxed in by our illusions about ourselves or God. By sitting in silence, releasing our thoughts gently, and creating space for God, we can gain greater clarity through simple contemplative practices. Laird writes:
“Contemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of separation from God. Through the medicine of grace, the eye of our heart is healed by the gradual removal of the lumber of mental clutter, ‘the plank in our eye’ that obscures the radiance of the heart. This radiance is a ray of God’s own light.”*
This letting go of thoughts is not a spectacular or brand-new, cutting-edge spiritual practice. This isn’t the sort of thing spiritual gurus do onstage to the applause of the crowd. It is an ancient spiritual practice of letting go of our thoughts and illusions that can blind us to the brilliance of God—even if the practice often feels quite unspectacular on most days.
Howard Thurman shares how the unspectacular waiting in silence, releasing each thought as it comes, is the kind of space that God can work with in our lives:
“It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.”**
If smartphones and social media ensure that we never have to wait in boredom, that we can always find a source of stimulation, and that we never have to be alone with our thoughts, we are training ourselves to fail in spiritual formation. In fact, our devices are stealing an important element of a typical prayer experience.
Put bluntly, prayer is often quite simple and mundane, and even boring. It may include incredible encounters with God or moments of powerful transformation, but the day-in, day-out discipline of prayer is rarely exciting or even rewarding. Prayer even thrives in the boredom of its simple routines and practices.
Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation
Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”
Perhaps the strangest paradox of modern life is that it can feel harder to stand still and do nothing than it is to remain in motion doing something.
Shouldn’t “doing nothing” be the easiest thing to “do”?
I have often experienced this sensation while taking a walk and stopping to look at a flowering tree or noticing a particular swirl of light in the late afternoon sky. There’s often something else to do or an inner drive to be productive–to keep moving.
I’ve watched several documentaries where monks are staring contentedly at fields where the sun rustles the corn, where monks settle in at a desk to read scripture for long stretches of time, or where a monk calmly works on a task such as cutting fire wood or making soap. These people may as well be from a different planet compared to me.
How are they so unhurried and calm?
What super power enables them to sit or stand so still and so erect for so long?
Do they drink less coffee???
My suspicion is that I have immersed myself in motion, productivity, and meeting certain goals that appear quite important. I find it difficult to stop each day for meditation, prayer, or silence before God because I’m immersed in illusions about my own importance or the urgency of everything before me.
Training myself to value silence or to thrive in stillness has challenged me to rethink my addiction to motion and activity.
Perhaps I won’t get what I crave if I’m always thinking about doing the next thing?
What exactly do I crave in the first place?
That’s where some uncomfortable reflections come up!
It may be easier to reflect on what I could gain if I made stillness and silence a more regular part of my daily life.
For instance, I have managed to train myself to recognize when I’m not getting enough stillness and silence. I know the feeling of rush, despair, and disordered thoughts that comes with an addiction to hurry and doing.
I can feel my soul lurching forward with the shock of a stop, as if silence is slamming on the brakes in my life.
Yet, when I am grounded in a measure of silence and stillness, I can become more aware of God and more aware of how I’m spending my time.
I can ask if I’m using my phone or social media to check out from reality. I can ask if I need to add more life-giving activities to my day, such as a walk, some art, or a bit of reading.
Perhaps the thing that makes standing still so difficult is that I haven’t realized just how beneficial it could be for me to stop doing things. It would be a tragedy to get everything I’ve been striving to achieve with my activity only to realize I could find most of what I need if I set aside more time for silence.
Silent, contemplative prayer has been calming for my mind, but it’s not the same as going to therapy. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve spent enough time in a therapist’s office to know what kinds of practices can help calm my mind.
There are some ways that prayer and therapy can overlap, as both can lead us to simple phrases or insights that help us re-order our thoughts. As we let go of toxic thoughts, a prayer phrase or word can aid us on our journey. Throughout my time in therapy, I’ve also learned simple phrases to carry with me so that I can keep my mind grounded in reality rather than what I fear.
Yet, it has been a mistake for me to pursue prayer as merely an escape hatch from troubling thoughts. It can help me do that, but I have found that it also calls me to something deeper and far more expansive. I could argue that prayer is also far more costly since it takes me to the depths of my nothingness before the love and mercy of God.
When I’m caught up in anxiety, I can use the insight of therapy to reorder my thoughts around the reality of my situation. The same can happen with prayer, but that is often the incidental result of a deeper healing and presence.
Contemplative prayer has been described as the prayer of the heart. Teachers of prayer have spoken of this prayer as going into the heart and standing before God. They describe it as beholding God or consenting to God’s presence in your life. If God is already present with us, then it stands to reason that the only missing thing for prayer is our consent that leads to a deeper awareness of that reality.
On the other end of contemplative prayer, I have felt a similar reordering of my thoughts much like in therapy, but something else happens as well. Prayer takes us into the realm of mystery and love. Some refuse to put the details of these prayer experiences into words because they are too intimate and beyond the limits of what they can say.
I participate in both prayer and therapy because they are different. Yet, the deeper healing and love of prayer is hardly at odds with the ways therapy puts my mind at ease.
Many times it seems that I leave therapy with a clearer idea of what has gotten in the way of my prayers.
Yet, I don’t pray merely for it’s therapeutic benefits. There is a real cost to prayer that can empty us and lead us through challenging places. There can be a struggle. At times it may seem that God has remained far away, and confusion may loom over us for a season.
We go down into our hearts to pray not to feel better but so that we can love God and become aware of God’s love. There is an opportunity for transformation and renewal, but prayer isn’t just about feeling good.
Prayer gives me an opportunity to be shaped by God on God’s own terms, no matter what the cost may be. As I walk through that refining, I have found greater peace and have let go of the many afflictions haunting my mind.
Finishing a moment of prayer isn’t the same thing as leaving my therapist’s office with the hope that I got my money’s worth. But there both offer a moment to step away from patterns of thinking that can leave myself alienated from myself and from others. Perhaps the greatest difference is that such a movement away from alienating thoughts is often just the beginning for prayer.
My daily prayer practices can fall into chaos during the holidays where schedules are scrapped due to travel and I certainly can’t focus on prayer if my mind is swirling with packing lists, present lists, and managing family relationships. How can I find time to pray over the Christmas and New Year’s travel season?
I was on the road last week, and there were certainly plenty of moments when I considered how to fit prayer into my schedule and plans. Here are a few practices that I’ve been using in my own travels and shifting schedule:
Develop Habits to Prompt Prayer
The easiest way to pray is to make it automatic. For instance, there’s a good chance that, like me, you are tempted to whip your phone out when you’re waiting in line or sitting in traffic.
I don’t blame you, and that was my default until I tracked my daily phone pickups with the Moment app. Now that I’m trying to limit myself to 40 phone pickups each day, I have reconsidered how I wait.
Waiting can act as a kind of trigger for prayer, using a few moments in line to quiet my mind with a deep breath and to return to a prayer word to guide myself toward greater awareness of God. Prayer is described as waiting on the Lord, so it’s just about the perfect invitation to pray.
Even if my regular prayer times are filled with travel and family gatherings, a regular prayer trigger or prompt can help me make more time for it.
Keep Track of Your Mental State for Prayer
Travel and family gatherings can be stressful and busy. For instance, I’ve caught myself becoming unreasonably anxious about getting to the airport on time and catching my flight.
I have finally figured out that, in my mind at least, I had treated the urgency of travel with the same alarm as a threat to my life or family. I have a little mantra that I say when I travel, “It’s urgent but it’s not dangerous” that helps me calm down when my mind ramps up into its highly alarmed threat avoidance mode.
Whether journaling or using an app like Examine or Examen Reimagined, a simple prompt to remain aware of my mental state while traveling can help me keep the events of each day in perspective and saves my mind from the afflicting thoughts that can make it so difficult to focus on prayer.
Make Space for “Quiet” Prayer When You Can
Even five minutes in a quiet room, a little time sitting alone, or a ten-minute walk can prove healing for my soul when I’m traveling. Of course the quiet I’m talking about is often personal quiet when I’m traveling. I have no control over what other people say or do!
If I can at least keep in mind that quiet will be good for my soul and my mental state, I can remain attentive and intentional about seizing that time whenever I can. This could be while doing the dishes in the kitchen by myself, sitting on an airplane with headphones on, or playing through some Taize songs while in the car with my family.
Give Grace to Yourself When You Struggle to Pray
Prayer has been practiced by Christians for centuries around fixed times and schedules because it works. When your schedule falls apart due to holiday travel, don’t fall into the trap of shame or guilt.
If you didn’t find time to pray, that’s a great opportunity to ask why and to look a bit deeper into your expectations for prayer, your priorities, and your habits. Judgment and shame can be paralyzing, but if you believe that God desires to be present for you, then you have an opportunity to address what keeps you from praying.
Mind you, I still prefer to have a set schedule where I know when and where I’ll pray, and I am always trying to be mindful about prayer when I’m on the go. Perfectionists may not find these tips very helpful!
By cultivating some habits, growing my awareness of my thoughts, and becoming more intentional about my time, I’ve managed to hold onto some prayer practices while I travel. Imperfect though they are, they are so much better than watching my spiritual practices fall into chaos when I hit the road.
Distracted? Need to Reconnect with Prayer?
Protect your time. Prioritize relationships. Restore your spirit.
Technology teaches us to crave the hum and buzz of activity and the dopamine hit of notifications. Yet social media and technology have shortened our attention spans, disrupted our connections with others, and even muddled our spirituality.
Grounded in current research into the impact of technology, Reconnect helps Christians rewire their technology addictions and train themselves to be present and aware of God rather than tuned into the constant distractions and deceptions of this digital age.
I have turned to different spiritual teachers and prayer books to teach myself how to pray, and I have often found myself starting out far below the bars they set.
If one teacher suggests praying for twenty minutes at a time, I’ve started with five.
If another teacher recommends two sessions of prayer daily, I’ve managed to at least get one.
If yet another tells me to pray sitting up straight in a simple chair, I’ve laid down on my yoga mat, letting out the nervous energy through my hands and feet.
My goal is never to stop where I am and call it good enough. Rather, I need a starting point, a place to get into the habit of daily prayer. Once my prayer habits are established, I can take the next step of actually working toward better posture, longer prayer sessions, and more frequent prayer.
But taking that first step? Or the second, third, or fourth steps after that can be challenging, if not dispiriting. I can fall so far short of my ideal that I can forget that prayer is a daily “practice” that also requires… practice.
Much like everyone thinks they can write well enough before seeing how a professional editor can whip a project into shape, we may overestimate our ability to settle into prayer, to slip into an awareness of God, or to trust our worries and cares with God rather than clinging to them with an unending swirl of thoughts. The letting go of our cares and the simple receptivity of prayer can take time to develop.
By assuming I could dive into prayer without a period of learning and adapting, I’ve set myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. I was lost in a maze of my own making, uncertain about what to do next because I just couldn’t manage to meet the expectations I’d set for prayer. I thought that I could hit the ground running, immediately putting prayer practices into place without a time of struggle or even failure.
I finally found my way forward by embracing each faltering step toward the goals of contemplative prayer teachers. I gradually built my way toward longer and more regular periods of prayer.
My mindset has shifted from focusing on results to focusing on the process. I still have the guidance of teachers and authors in mind, but I’m not drowning in guilt or shame either.
Of course there’s a risk of setting the bar too low. That’s the risk of grace after all. In my own past, the fear of “abusing” grace has pushed me too far toward the fear of letting God down or suffering God’s wrath and anger.
There is a lot of hope to be found in the promise that we are God’s beloved children imperfectly reaching for God, failing at times, but ultimately finding that we were being held all the while as we tried to find God in each daily moment of prayer.
“We thank [God] less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.”
That was one of the most pressing questions I face each day as I sought to prayer. I’m not sure if it was hard to find time to pray in the first place because I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps I struggled to find time for prayer because it seemed almost impossible or even fruitless at times.
Plagued by uncertainty and insecurity, I put so much pressure on myself to get prayer “right” by saying the “right words” to God in prayer.
If nothing happened, then it was on me. I simply hadn’t said the magic words to capture God’s attention or mercy.
I couldn’t tell you where this kind of prayer practice came from in the first place. My main theory is that my prayer life was more or less a void that lacked information about “how to pray” in the first place.
Without a clear idea of how to proceed with prayer, I filled in this blank slate with what I observed, what I heard, and what I reasoned on my own. Over time, I drifted away from grace and mercy, developing a more performative form of prayer where just about everything rested on me getting everything right–or more right than wrong.
Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was like a slap in the face, shocking me out of this misconception of prayer. Through his teachings on silent prayer and silent contemplation in particular, I learned to trust more in God’s merciful presence than my own words.
I could even say that Merton gave me the language to characterize prayer as silence in the first place. Silence before God is prayer, but at one point in my life I would have denied that.
Since reading New Seeds of Contemplation, I’ve found that I can bring something to the practice of prayer, but the “success” of prayer has nothing to do with me. God is present regardless. My enjoyment of God’s presence may hinge on my ability to stop, but God is not dangling mercy to me based on my performance while praying.
Contemplative prayer can be restful, trusting in God alone while clearing away the clutter of our minds. That is the gift of prayer that we can receive by faith. I’ve found that prayer tends to involve saying fewer words, not more words.
And if I can sit in silence before God, I may have a much better idea of what to say when it’s time to make my requests known to God.