But the Prayer Book Didn’t Teach Me to Pray Like That!

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.

 

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Thomas Merton Shares about Silent Contemplative Prayer vs. Our Reliance on Words

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“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.”

– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

What should I say to God?

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.

 

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Am I Doing Authentic Contemplative Prayer Right?

So much of my Christian spiritual formation has been hindered by a nagging question:

Am I doing this right?

I want to pray in ways that are authentic and sincere.

I want to be pray with the right techniques.

And these desires all lead to one overarching need when it comes to prayer: I want to guarantee a particular outcome from prayer. If I do this “right,” then authentic contemplative prayer guarantees a particular kind of encounter with God.

Everything hinged on the outcome and my belief that I could control it. If I just meant it a little bit more, prayed with a slightly better focus, examined my conscience a little more thoroughly, or practiced sitting in silence a little bit longer, then perhaps my prayer life would finally take off.

And by take off, I mean that it would yield RESULTS–stuff I can point at as evidence of God and of my own goodness. Of course the risk with such evidence of God and my own holiness is that I don’t really need all that much faith to pray and I will face the temptation to hold my own holy experiences over the mere novices that can hardly string a few minutes of prayer together.

Such an approach to “authentic” prayer is more like I’m taking myself off the rails.

Seeking a spiritual experience or “consolation” as an outcome from a time of prayer is a common trap that Christians face in their spiritual growth. Contemplative prayer teachers such as Thomas Merton and Martin Laird warn us that such examination or prayer is quite common. Thomas Keating notes that the thought of enjoying contemplative prayer can turn into a distraction that pulls us out of a moment of intimacy with God.

So, what does authentic contemplation look like?

Cynthia Bourgeault writes that it’s a returning, again and again, to a sacred word, image, or practice, such as breathing. It is a complete reliance on God who has given us everything need and dwells within us before we even had a chance to prove our piety and worthiness.

God’s grace is upon us while we pray, and so we can let go of our desire to prove ourselves or our techniques as authentic. We can only clear space in our schedules and our minds for what God provides.

You don’t have anything to prove to God. You can only receive what God gives. The pressure is off. The silence is an invitation, a moment to live by faith in the present love of God that has always been here for you through the work of Jesus the Son and the indwelling of the interceding Holy Spirit.

 

 

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We Document Almost Everything, but Should We Document Contemplative Prayer?

There’s hardly a day that I don’t take a picture of my kids or something noteworthy in my surroundings. I can take as many shots as I like in order to capture a moment, save the best ones, and delete the rest.

There are plenty of times when I’ve captured a perfect expression from one of my kids, picked up the brilliant shades of red, pink, and purple in a sunset, or preserved an especially important moment for us to look back on in the years to come.

Yet, I often wonder how often I’m removing myself from participation in life when I shift into documentary mode. This is especially true when it comes to our kids. How often have I disengaged from them in order to take their picture? Are there times when I could have had a more meaningful interaction if I kept my smartphone in my pocket?

I confess that I’m quite contrary about the ways smartphones document everything from meals, to date nights, to shoes, to quirky selfie expressions. How often should we step back from a moment, an interaction, or the simple rhythm of daily life in order to put our documentary hats on?

I view myself relative to our culture as a documentary minimalist, and yet I often find myself asking how often I’m removing myself to document something rather than to be fully present for it. Documenting becomes a habit of sorts, a way of interacting with the world that wasn’t really possible until digital cameras, smartphones, and social media increased both the ease and the social opportunities for extensive photographing and sharing.

This tendency to document feeds into a common tendency among Christians who practice contemplative prayer to document or savor any notion of spiritual consolation or a spiritual experience.

Thomas Keating shared in Open Mind, Open Heart that we are always tempted to hang onto a spiritual experience as if we are taking a picture of it, preserving it for reference and consolation later. Rather than allowing ourselves to be present for God in silence, we run the risk of demanding spiritual experiences each time we pray, turning to our preserved memories if we can’t feel the way we want.

Martin Laird notes in An Ocean of Light that such spiritual experiences are mercifully few and far between lest we spend our time journaling about them and comparing them with each other.

Contemplation invites us into a practice that remains deceptively simple, merely being present for God without any demands for a particular feeling or consolation. This prayer invites us to trust in a pure faith that God is present and at work in us regardless of how we feel.

This may prove to be a disappointment at first, but it can also prove liberating. We only have to receive what God gives us, no more and no less.

There is no ideal outcome or result we have will ourselves to have.

There is no technique, trick, mindset, or chant that will make prayer more effective.

God is present based on grace and our prayers are rooted in the reception of that grace whether we know it or experience it in a particular way. There is nothing for us to capture in the moment because we are already being held by a loving God.

 

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How a Prayer Journal Helps Me Pray

My life changed on the day my sixth grade teacher handed out notebooks that we could use for anything. I filled it solid with stories and drawings from front to back, even resorting to the margins of the times tables as I ran out of pages.

I didn’t realize the significance of this moment until much later in my life, but I now can see that I was made to write. Something comes alive with possibilities inside of me when I have a chance to write. It shouldn’t have surprised me that journaling became a vital part of my prayer journey over time.

While I had typically kept a more conventional journal with my thoughts about Bible study or my reflections on the day, my prayer journal has served a somewhat different purpose even if there is some overlap with my past prayer practices.

Prayer journaling is an opportunity to process my thoughts, to put my feelings and reactions into words, and to move myself out of the cycle of reacting and responding to the events of the day without proper reflection.

If swirling thoughts make it difficult to pray, my journal offers a place to store them, to see them in black and white, and to process them before I even begin to pray. This freedom to reflect may simply lock the thoughts away on the page or it may guide me in what I need to pray for as a request or as a simple practice of trust.

Even a few sentences of reflection can make all of the difference in my mental and spiritual outlook for the day. If I am unsettled, distracted, or worried, a brief review of my journal offers a telling clue about how much time I’ve had for reflection and perspective.

I’ve shared in The Contemplative Writer and in Pray, Write, Grow that prayer and writing tend to draw from similar practices of reflection, and a journal can offer a particularly helpful meeting point of these two related practices.

While I may journal about a particular insight or change in perspective, the goal of my journal isn’t to record my fantastic spiritual experiences and insights. Rather, I’m hoping to clear away the clutter of my mind preemptively before entering a time of prayer.

Even if I don’t have spiritual ends in mind, journaling brings these benefits as I gain a better handle on my thoughts and move out of a reactive stance into a more reflective and even receptive position.

I don’t necessarily even call my journal a “prayer journal.” It’s just my journal. Who knows what I may write in there, but the spiritual benefits are why I carry it just about everywhere.

There is a lot of freedom in knowing that I can deposit any thoughts on my mind in the journal. To my surprise, they often stay there, unable to withdraw themselves unless I go searching for them.

 

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How Thomas Keating Gently Introduced Me to Centering Prayer

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When I first learned to how to pray with the centering prayer method taught by Thomas Keating, I had no shortage of obstacles to overcome. My thoughts ran all over the place.

  • I thought that I was a failure at prayer.
  • I worried that I was somehow cut off from God’s grace or mercy.
  • I felt guilty that I didn’t pray enough.
  • I felt bad that nothing seemed to happen when I did pray.
  • And I thought that I had too many thoughts.

As things turned out, the last point was very much true, but Thomas Keating introduced a word that helped me cut through the rest of the noise in my mind. Throughout his books, Keating encourages us to “gently” return to the sacred word as a sign of our intention to be present for God.

Growing up in the rough and tumble, wild at heart male evangelical subculture, I didn’t use the word “gentle” a lot. There was a lot of language about commitment, obligation, effort, and dedication. While there is always a place for discipline and commitment, I had completely missed out on the gentle grace of God calling me to a place of rest and silence, trusting that God is near and making the first move toward me out of love.

My resistance to the gentleness of returning to God with the intention of the sacred word betrayed a belief that I deserved to suffer, to cower in shame, to bear the brunt of my failures alone. The sacrificial life of Jesus, his resurrection to new life, and his presence through the Holy Spirit can be lost while immersing myself in shame and fear.

Establishing a routine of contemplative prayer and making it stick as a habit can feel like work and effort, sometimes a lot of both! Yet, the practice of prayer is so deeply infused with God’s grace and love that the word gentle is one of the most fitting descriptors.

Have I imagined a gentle God?

Could I conceive of God asking me to be gentle with myself?

So often I imagine that I deserve punishment, to make things somehow harder as misled act of repentance.

As Keating reminds me to gently return to a sacred word, such as beloved, mercy, grace, or Jesus, there is space to trust in God’s mercy and power. I can let go of what I think I ought to do in order to receive what God has already done.

 

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How Habits Can Help Us Pray

I stumbled into the practice of the best practices of habit formation backward as I began to make more space in my life for prayer. I found the connections between spiritual practices and habit formation after the fact, reading books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits when certain prayer habits had already taken root in my life.

As I read these books on habit formation, I couldn’t help thinking that I really could have used them as I was getting started with a more regular prayer schedule. As a disclaimer, it would be a mistake to reduce spirituality to a simple habit-based schedule, nor do I limit my prayer to certain times or practices.

One of the reasons I struggled to make space for prayer was my lack of habits to add order to my life. Habits aren’t the silver bullet for prayer or other spiritual practices, but they offer a useful place to make space for prayer on a smaller scale than say a more rigid monastic community.

Here are a few ways that habits can help you make more space for prayer.

Set a Time and a Space to Pray

This is nothing new or revolutionary, as Christians have been praying at set times for centuries, to say nothing of the Jewish roots of Christianity. A set time for prayer in a specific place makes it significantly easier to pray since my body now seems to almost know instinctively what will happen next at specific times and places.

Begin Small and Grow in Prayer

I began to pray in silence for just a few minutes. That grew to five minutes, and then over time I experimented with ten, twenty, and even thirty minutes. Habits are more likely to stick if you can start small, keep consistent, and then increase the time for the habit.

It helped that I invested time in learning how to pray, such as the practice of centering prayer where a simple word offers a way to refocus my intention to be present for God.

I used to think of myself as a failure if I couldn’t pray for a long time, but James Clear emphasizes in Atomic Habits that it’s far more important to keep a streak going for a habit than to skip it if I can’t do it perfectly. If I only pray in silence for a few minutes one day, that at least maintains the routine of praying daily and makes it easier to begin again the next day, hopefully adding more time.

Give Yourself a Prompt to Pray

A prompt is a reminder or cue that helps me remember what I intend to do. For instance, I leave my running clothes out in the morning as a reminder to run–that also makes it easy to choose to run.

Leaving my prayer book out helps me remember to pray each morning, while driving my car in the morning also helps me remember to spend some time sitting in silence. The “prompt” is as simple as turning my car on and then sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes. It took discipline to make prayer a habit in the car each morning, but now, it is far more automatic and requires less willpower.

Make It Easy to Pray

Closely related to the prompts or cues pray, making it easy to pray ensures that I remove any barriers or distractions. For instance, I don’t have to look for my prayer book because it’s already out. I don’t have to force myself to choose a time to pray because I have chosen some simple cues.

I sit in silence when I turn the car on in the morning, or I open my prayer book before I begin my work in the morning. It’s not hard to pray at these times, and while these aren’t the only times I pray, I have set moments throughout the day where I make it as easy as possible to choose prayer.

I’ve already made the choice to make space for prayer, so it’s not major decision each time I think of praying.

Consider Your Motivation to Pray

My motivation for prayer called for deeper scrutiny than I had imagined. I share in Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that I had prayed because of fear, duty, guilt, and obligation. I imagined that God was disappointed in me because I was such a slacker who never prayed enough.

I hadn‘t considered that God was already present and loving, accepting me as I am and craving an intimate relationship with me.

Moreover, the simplicity of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition pulled me away from a performance mindset where I tried to demonstrate my piety or commitment. While silence or centering prayer aren’t the only ways I pray, they have been the most healing for me as I learn to turn to God in faith, waiting patiently in silence for the Lord.

While habits aren’t essential for making space to pray, they can make it significantly to find space each day for prayer. I have found that the best habit formation practices have a lot in common with the schedules of monks and nuns, and it seems that they may have a thing ten to teach us about making space for prayer and work.

If you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer, it may help to rethink your spiritual practices as habits that can start small and grow over time.

 

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Preserving the Foundation of My Ministry

Without sharing my presence, my undivided attention to others, I’m not sure I have much to offer others.

Whether I’m writing books or listening to someone, a division or distraction in my attention can undermine my ability to fully take in what others are saying, to empathize with them, and to act in meaningful or constructive ways. If I have trained myself to be distracted, to look for something exciting and engaging, or to divide my attention as often as possible, my ability to be present, let alone to serve others, has been undermined at the most foundational level.

In review of my online activities and smartphone use, I can easily fall into the trap of craving a steady stream of distraction or stimulation that trains me to look beyond the present moment.

Even when it comes to the life of my mind, the more I fill my mind up with distressing, angering, or emotionally charged events, the harder it is to be present. Since social media is chock full of such material, the more time I spend there, the more likely my mind will be spinning with thoughts of the latest outrage.

Far from encouraging a head in the sand approach to the issues of our time, I’m more concerned that we run the risk of being flooded with distressing or enraging thoughts to the point that I become overwhelmed by what I can’t control and struggle to be present for what I can do to serve others and to love the people closest to myself.

The foundation of my ministry to others is presence, preserving enough of myself to hear others, to assess how I can help, and to share generously what God’s presence in my life has given to me.

The more disrupted and distracted I am, the less I can receive from God and the less I can give to others. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a good deal of intention at a time when we are flooded with more information in a greater variety of ways than ever before.

If I can’t preserve space to be present, to enjoy the silence of prayer before God and to step away from the noise of life, then this loss will catch up with me in one way or another down the line. I can’t offer others the stillness and stability of my presence and attention if I haven’t first made that space for myself.

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What Happens During a Season of Rest?

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After some much-needed time away on vacation completely disengaged from client work (editing books, writing blog posts, etc.), social media, and the daily practice of writing, I’m still not quite sure what happened to me.

The intensity of life grew especially acute before we left since I had a major book draft to wrap up and a pile of work to set in place, to say nothing of packing and planning for our three weeks away. Our car always has an expensive repair right around this time to boot.

Stepping away, I felt like I flipped off a switch in my brain, and coming back, there are moments when I’m not quite sure if I should flip it back on again or if I really have any say in the matter. Perhaps I had simply woven a narrative of being busy and it took a time of rest to shut it down.

Then again, there are legitimate seasons of increased intensity that need to be faced.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this season of rest is that I stepped out of my mindset of constant urgency, reacting to each successive challenge. While certain challenges in life can stir us to urgent action, my sense is that urgency and reaction can become default responses at times.

The perfectly normal and even the mundane can be viewed through a lense of urgency and reaction that makes more of them than warranted.

This season of rest has offered a welcome time for greater awareness of my outlook each day, how I respond to the events of each day, and how other practices and responses could help.

During my time away I had a chance to step away from many things that appeared urgent or vitally important, to replace them with things that were better for my soul, such as reading, silence, or a walk, and to assess the impact on my life.

While I certainly can’t live each week with the same amount of time alloted for reading, recreation, or silent prayer, I was able to see how many of the urgent parts of my life were more of a mirage, an image conjured in the heat of the moment that then became imprinted in place. Even worse, the urgent, reactive parts of my life had been crowding out or at least interfering with my already limited time for silence, rest, and reflection.

Making space for rest continues to remind me how my view of reality can become distorted, skewed by what appears to be urgent or important. Rest has allowed me to remind myself what it feels like to live without impediments on the soul care practices I value the most.

Rest has reminded me what life can feel like when I preserve space for spiritual restoration and attempt to maintain a more measured perspective of each challenge in my day.

Perhaps rest could even remind me what it feels like to live by faith, that a sense of urgency won’t really help me transcend my very normal limitations. Rest reminds me that pushing myself to my limits really isn’t adding all that much in the grand scheme of things and that perhaps a bit of soul care could do far more for myself and for others.

 

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Better to Have Imperfect Spiritual Practices Than No Spiritual Practices

There is one significant disadvantage to learning spiritual practices and disciplines from the likes of Thomas Merton.

While Merton hid out in an abandoned tool shed to pray each day or ventured off to his hermitage for days at a time, most of us can hardly string together 10 minutes of silent prayer before an inevitable interruption comes along. It’s easy to become discouraged when comparing our time for prayer to someone who dedicated large blocks of time to it.

I can get caught up in the challenges of pursuing solitude in a family of five in a relatively smallish house with thin doors and bedrooms clustered closely together. Even if I carefully plan my time, a child will pee on something other than a toilet, the pharmacy will take longer on a prescription, extra homework will show up unbidden, or a work project will take hours longer than anticipated.

These aren’t things that can generally be put off until later, and so plans and disciplines need to be adapted or dropped for the day. The perfect version of a spiritual practice isn’t a guarantee most days for a parent, and it’s not like Thomas Merton has a wealth of experience in this department, even if he frequently complained about how busy the monastery kept him.

[As a side note, Merton complained about his packed schedule to the point that he likely was sent off into the woods by himself to tag trees. I know about this because he cheerfully documented these romps throughout his journals in great detail.]

This week I was practicing silent breathing and centering prayer while driving around town.

That’s not the ideal situation for that practice, but it’s the time I had while navigating an unexpectedly full schedule.

At another point, I was praying the divine hours in the pharmacy pickup line.

That’s not my preferred place to pray the hours, but it was better than not praying them at all.

It’s easy to turn to our phones for podcasts, social media updates, emails, text messages, or videos to pass the time.

What can you do with five minutes in the pharmacy line?

What good will ten minutes of imperfect silence in the car really do for you?

What I’ve found is that doing spiritual practices imperfectly is still better than not doing them at all. When anxiety, sloth, and lack of discipline show up in my life, I can always trace them back to a schedule that filled up and completely crowded out spiritual practices like praying the hours or centering prayer in silence.

By hanging on to these imperfect practices, I kept myself somewhat stable and maintained the habit of making space for them.

On the following day I wasn’t juggling a mountain of unexpected projects, and so I could maintain a certain level of continuity with my spiritual practices.

I still wouldn’t say that they were on par with the quality of Merton’s reflections in the hermitage, but of course he would scold me for even suggesting that one person’s contemplative practices could be compared to another. Perhaps that is the most significant reason to accept “imperfect” spiritual practices in the first place.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

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