Missionary Musings: Thoughts on prayer

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Last week marked the nine-month anniversary of my arrival in West Virginia, and in case you haven’t gleaned it from my Missionary Musings series on my blog, my life has changed in a variety of ways since coming here.  The most notable change, without question, has been the transformation of my relationship with God.  My relationship with Him was fractured and hurting when I found the missionary job, so I had my doubts about my ability to work in ministry.  But I felt led to apply for it nonetheless.  I think it’s been exactly what I needed not only to rediscover my call to ministry, but to patch up and strengthen my relationship with God.  The progress in this relationship has hardly been speedy.  But as I’ve written in this space before, God works the way God wants to work.  And His timelines don’t always make sense to us.

Without question, the best thing you can do to build a relationship with God is to pray.  So today I’m offering a few tips on prayer that I’ve learned throughout my missionary year.  I realize that everyone is at different stages in their relationship with God and their prayer life, so some tips are great for some and not-so-great for others.  But I tried to be as broad and general as possible with these tips.

  • Commit.  Set aside time to be with God every day.  Be intentional about it. If you think you’re too busy to pray, trim some things from your day or rearrange things so you can make time (don’t neglect your essential duties while doing so, of course).  Whether you’re able to pray once or twice or five times or eleven times each day, I’d recommend that each prayer session lasts at least 15 minutes.  That’s enough time to quiet yourself and to converse with God.
  • Be still. God needs quiet to talk to you (yes, He talks to you, too; it’s not just you talking to Him).  When you pray, do so in a quiet place—a designated room in your house, a church or chapel, a peaceful place outside.  Play calming music before and/or during your prayer to help quiet your mind.  Try lighting a candle or two or praying with icons, a crucifix/cross, or other sacred items to create a prayerful atmosphere.
  • Talk to God in your own words. Tell Him everything you want.  Be honest.  There’s no need to be eloquent or to sugar-coat things; He knows your heart and all it’s capable of feeling and expressing.  Come to Him as you are.
  • Read! I like praying in my own words, but I’ve also realized that sometimes, in order to give me something to talk to God about, it’s helpful to utilize books and scripture.  Give it a try.  Find a spiritual book that appeals to you.  Read a short passage from it and talk to God about it.  Do the same with scripture (a practice called “lectio divina;” look it up).
  • But know when books aren’t helpful, too. Sometimes those resources help our prayer lives, but sometimes they hinder them.  God can’t be confined to one method of praying, and as people make progress in prayer, He calls them to draw water from new sources.  Give Him space to work.  If that means letting go of that daily devotional book, so be it.
  • Try not to pray when you’re tired. Especially when you’re praying with a book or scripture.  I’ve given up on lectio divina many a time because I’ve done it too late at night, when I’m sleepy and I’d much rather go to bed than focus on scripture.  I’ve found that prayer is much easier when I’m awake and alert.  If you like to pray at night, try to do it before you get sleepy.
  • Ask and ye shall receive. God has so much that He wants to bless you with.  But you have to ask for those things, because asking shows trust and confidence.  And if He knows that what you want is good for you, He’ll give it to you.
  • A word about those feeeeelings. My faith life collapsed a few years ago because I was so distraught that I had lost those feelings of being on fire and in love when I prayed.  But God is not a feeling; how you feel when you pray usually isn’t indicative of how well you’re praying or how close God is to you.  Accept feelings of joy, closeness, peace, etc. when they arise in prayer.  But don’t worry if they’re not there, and definitely don’t give up in those times when you feel numb when you pray.
  • Repeat after me: distractions and wandering thoughts are normal. Our minds lose focus.  It’s just what they do.  So when you get distracted in prayer, don’t beat yourself up.  Simply return your thoughts to God.  Prayer doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be done with love and good intention.
  • Above all else, prayer is being with and listening to God. It’s so easy to get caught up in things like methods and how much we say to God and how we feel when we pray.  Ultimately, those things aren’t important to God.  What matters is simply your desire to be with Him and your willingness to listen to Him.

If you’re seeking prayer resources and aids, here are a few titles that have been helpful to me:

  • Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young. Short meditations for each day of the year, written from the perspective of Jesus.  Each meditation offers a few supplementary scripture passages.
  • Why the Eucharist Matters for Your Life, by Chris Padgett. A great book for Catholics who want to renew their appreciation for the Eucharist (or who never had one to begin with) or who are seeking a fresh take on the sacrament.  It’s not about prayer per se, but it’s broken into several one-to-two page chapters, making it perfect for daily devotional reading.
  • Time for God, by Jacques Philippe. A quick read, but it’s also a hard one in the sense that it will make you feel like you’ve got prayer all wrong.  That’s a good thing, though.  And some of the tips on this list are straight from this book, because they make good sense and because I’ve found them helpful in my own prayer life.
  • Temptation and Discernment, by Segundo Galilea. This book draws on the wisdom of some beloved Catholic thinkers—St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Teresa of Avila—and uses it to examine temptations that arise in ministry and prayer.  Skip the chapter on ministry if that’s not your gig.  The theology in this book can be heady, but it’s also quite practical.  It’ll challenge and change the way you view prayer.
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