Most of us don’t floss as often as we should. When dentists ask the question “how often do you floss?” most of us answer “not nearly enough.” It doesn’t matter that they explain the importance of flossing: it cleans both between your teeth and that space between your gums and teeth (the sulcus) which you wouldn’t be able to clean otherwise. It also stimulates your gums and helps deal with the root causes of bad breath. But even if we know and understand this, until we decide to do something about it, it can still be challenging to develop a good habit of flossing.
The same can be true when we talk about prayer. Many of us know we should pray more often. Hopefully we understand the reasons we need to pray:
“Praying is as human as breathing, eating, and loving. Praying purifies. Praying makes it possible to resist temptations. Praying strengthens us in our weakness. Praying removes fear, increases energy, and gives a second wind. Praying makes one happy.” -YouCat 470
And just like flossing, until we decide to do something about it, it can still be challenging for us to develop a good habit of prayer. Where the dentist offers a tutorial on how to floss, YouCat presents four examples from the Bible about how we ought to pray: Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Jesus Himself:
- Abraham hears God’s promises and learns to trust God even in difficult moments.
- Moses’ relationship with God is rooted in conversation; Moses talked to and listened to God. We see this in his encounter with the burning bush and when God shares elements of the law with him (like the Ten Commandments).
- Mary is an example of surrendering to God’s will (Luke 1:38), because by her ‘yes’ to God we see that “prayer is ultimately self-giving in response to God’s love” (YouCat 479).
- Jesus lived his life as a single prayer: “Being one with the Father in the Holy Spirit – that was the guiding principle of his earthly life” (YouCat 475).
While Abraham, Moses, and Mary teach us something about prayer, Jesus does more than give us an example. He enters into our prayer, teaching us how, progressively, we can make of our lives a prayer:
“Learning from Jesus how to pray means entering into his boundless trust, joining in his prayer, and being led by him, step by step, to the Father” (YouCat 477).
If the goal is, in the words of St. Paul, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) – we need to start somewhere. You will never pray at all times if you don’t start by praying at specific times. That is the first key to prayer: setting aside time for it. This time can be a couple of minutes or it can be an hour (or some segment of time in between these.) I suggest that if you want to pray for an hour daily, start small and build that habit gradually. Find a place that’s quiet – a Church or chapel is wonderful, but closing the door to your room and putting your phone on silent can create a sacred space for you to pray.
If you’ve gotten past the neglect of prayer, the next issue at hand is technique – what do you do when you pray? There are as many ways to pray as there are people. YouCat identifies five types of prayer: blessing & adoration (recognizing God is God and I am not), petition (praying for yourself), intercession (praying for others), thanksgiving, and praise.
What does this look like? Some people really like to pray with scripture, using a technique like Lectio Divina, a prayerful reading of scripture. Others like to sit quietly with God, just savouring His presence. Some flourish by praying the Rosary every day. Others like to journal, and some others pray well with music. The key is not to worry about trying to do only one of these during a time of prayer or trying to get all five in while you pray. Beginning to pray – or growing in prayer – will likely involve more than one of these in any given prayer time.
Learning to pray will happen in a very similar manner to the way you learned to speak. You first copied the sounds you heard your family make, then you copied their words. Eventually, you figured out which word meant what, going from simple words like (Hi! No! Want!) to simple sentences (I love you) to gradually learning to express yourself in clearer and more intelligent ways. And if you consider that it takes a human child years to get the concept of communicating with words, don’t get discouraged when your initial prayer times are awkward or seem to take forever.
Don’t worry that you might not be doing it exactly right. Look back at the examples we heard earlier – listening, conversing, surrendering – and try to incorporate all three into your time of prayer. You might listen by simply being still or reading a passage from the Bible; then you’ll share in thought, word, or writing the things on your heart, then make a point of offering your day and your life to Jesus. Let Him transform this time into something beautiful.
If you’re still not sure what to do, one of the Deacons at my parish recommends http://www.sacredspace.ie as a starting point for prayer. Run by Irish Jesuits, it has a meditation for each day you can use to guide your prayer. You can subscribe for email prayers or devotions, and apps for your phone like Hallow or iBreviary also offer daily prayers right on your handheld device.
Just like anything, prayer takes practice. I get discouraged about flossing because my gums bleed and it hurts – but my wife (who was a dental assistant) assures me that if I did it more often, the gums would get healthier and stronger and it wouldn’t hurt as much. What’s true for dental hygiene is certainly true for prayer: it’s worth taking the time to do it, it will benefit you in more ways than you think, and it gets easier with practice. So, get started! In the meantime, I’m off to floss…
-Mike Landry is Catholic Youth Camps director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. He is also chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools, serving 10 schools west of Edmonton. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain with their five children.