26 Jun Advice on Prayer
While journeying on horseback one day, St Benedict met a peasant walking along the road.
“You’ve got an easy job,” said the peasant, “Why don’t I become a man of prayer? Then I too would be traveling on horseback.”
“You think praying is easy,” replied the Saint. “If you can say one ‘Our Father’ without any distractions, you can have this horse.”
“It’s a bargain,” said the surprised peasant.
Closing his eyes and folding his hands he began praying out loud: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come.”
Suddenly he stopped short looked up and said:
“Do I get the saddle and bridle too?”
Prayer should be the most natural thing in the world to do, yet sometimes it seems a struggle to even get started. There are a number of reasons why: praying requires an intention to pray, so if that is missing, then the prayer won’t proceed naturally. Prayers are directed to God, who hears all of our prayers. However, if your relationship to God is weak, then the prayer will be also. Learning who God is – beginning with the Bible – helps your prayer life.
When it comes to prayer, some of the best advice I ever heard came from a young child I saw on TV. He was being interviewed by a reporter, who asked him, in that condescending manner reserved by adults, “do you know how to pray?” The boy’s reply was loud and clear: “You get down on your knees and pray!”
Advice on prayer doesn’t come any better than that. There is a danger in overthinking prayer, or believing that it is something we do in order to impress God. The best prayer comes from the heart, and must always be honest. Prayer which is eloquent and beautiful may sound fine, but without sincerity the prayer is meaningless.
Jesus once remarked that his Father in heaven hid spiritual truths “from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.” (Matthew 11:25). I know from my own observation that when learning to pray you need to study the way of children, who have a natural and unself-conscious approach to prayer.
When I was a Sunday school teacher, the children and I would begin every Sunday with prayer. I set up a sort of prayer station, with candles and a picture of Jesus. We would light the candles and get down on our knees. I then invited them to pray, and the children would call out names that came to mind – not always people, as it turned out: pets were regularly included, including some rats. On one occasion, one of the boys prayed for his favorite football team, Manchester United. Later in the prayer he asked God to make sure the other team lost the match that afternoon. At this point I interrupted the prayer to instruct the children that prayer is always for God’s will to be done, and that our prayer should spring from a loving intention, rather than to bring about another’s misfortune.
Having said that, loving prayers are no guarantee of being the right ones. I know of someone who had a loved one who was nearing the end of their life, which was filled with pain. Out of a loving intention the person asked God to end the life of their loved one. While well meaning, I believe that it is wrong to pray for someone’s death. Again, prayer is for God’s will to be done – in that case, a prayer for mercy would have been preferable.
The main thing with prayer is to do it. If you have trouble praying, seek the advice of your friendly parish priest. There are in fact a large number of ways to pray, ranging from intercessory prayer to the Daily Office to meditation. Knowing that everyone is different, God has ensured that a variety of prayer disciplines exist to cater for every person.
One thing is certain: prayer is the healing power of God in the world. Nothing brings us closer to God, and at the same time close to our brothers and sisters. The word that comes to mind is “connection”. Prayer connects us with God, who is like a mighty river; when we pray, it is like stepping into a dinghy and allowing ourselves to be carried along by the river’s current.
To get you started on prayer, the Book of Common Prayer has a section of Prayers and Thanksgivings which includes this one on page 833. It is a prayer to be offered before worship, but it can be recited in any situation:
“O Almighty God, who pourest out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship thee in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”