What If I Don't Know How To Pray?

By Katherine M. Lehman and Renée Miller

Photo courtesy of final gather via C.C. license at Flickr.Recognizing

Often when people feel they don't know how to pray, it's because they haven't considered the possibility that they're already doing it. Prayer is our relationship to God, pure and simple. More awareness and intention in any relationship is a good thing. If you understand prayer as relationship with God, you can see how sometimes you are watching God at work, sometimes you're listening to God's voice, sometimes you're chattering away, sometimes you're arguing, and sometimes you're just sitting quietly together.

There may be a presupposition that prayer happens in church or by the bed, on your knees, in a set form. It does. All set forms are potential resources. Assuming a particular posture may help you focus. Having set times and places of prayer provides useful structure. However, prayer can happen anytime, any place, and in any manner. People who aren't going to church or saying bedtime prayers are frequently engaged in more informal kinds of prayer than they realize.

For example, perhaps you had a dream, the kind that sticks with you and shimmers. Or you may have come to value your nightmares, having discovered they bear insights into your fears. You hope this morning's dream may yield its meaning, its counsel, its guidance, its truth. You may jot it down for later reflection. When you receive your dreams as gifts, you are thanking your Creator for them. That's prayer.

As you awake, a hope for the day runs through your mind. You hear a fragment of a song, a hymn, a musical score. Someone's face pops up in your mind's eye. You enjoy the daylight streaming in the window. You gaze fondly at the one sleeping next to you. These are prayers of hope, inspiration, love, gratitude. As you begin to recognize these stirrings as the movement of the Spirit within, you begin to trust the divine companion, who is always with you.

Maybe in the shower, you anticipate the day to come. You hope to untangle a problem with the production schedule. You dread a meeting with a coworker. Your anger rises, remembering yesterday's conflict. As your defenses tense, you realize you will need to be in a different frame of mind to achieve the best possible cooperation. Of course that's prayer. When you recognize your concerns as prayer, you can focus and shape them. You can let go of your fretful preoccupation with them.

As you swallow your toast, you see Uncle Fred's picture on the refrigerator. He's recovering from surgery, and you're relieved about that. You feel a twinge because he's getting old, and you haven't been back home to visit for a while. You remember that your child has a game this afternoon and is nervous about it. Your heart goes out to her. All this is the energy of prayer at work.

Most people tell me they get a lot of praying done in their cars during commute times. Some keep lists. Others just allow things to bubble up. Some pray for the drivers who seem most out of control. Imagine how many people pray for those involved in accident scenes along the road. There was once a moment when I was watching the television news and felt close to despair. All of a sudden, the words of the Kyrie began to pray in me -- "Lord have mercy upon us" -- lifting my spirit and addressing the situation. I've repeated it ever since, when news stories call for it.

There is also the prayer that happens in times of personal difficulty and distress. "I hope I can get through this. Steady now, stay calm, concentrate. Help! How will I ever get through this?" Understanding such inner dialogue as conversation with the divine companion helps us recognize such terse interchanges as prayers for clarity, strength, direction, deliverance. It has been said there are no atheists in the trenches. We're all in the trenches, if you ask me.

I've also come to hear prayer disguised in swearing and cursing. When someone takes God's name in vain, as we say, I'm no longer so sure it's altogether in vain, since they still remember it and have some kind of distorted relationship to it. Alienated from God, the appeal to God is still made. We can all be estranged from God, mad, sulky, and pouting, standoffish, suspicious, or overly polite. We can hold a grudge or stonewall. Or we can trust God enough to spit it all out onto the table and have at it, as some of the psalmists and prophets did.

An amazing thing about prayer is that our capacity for intimacy with God is also our capacity to be close to ourselves and others. It's all connected. And, as with any spiritual exercise, prayer benefits from practice, awareness, intention, reflection, and more practice. But it's still as natural as breathing. By the way, God's voice is heard in creation, in nature, in human nature, in scripture, and in all forms of inspiration. When what you hear carries something like an electric charge, as a special dream does, that's a good clue. It captures your attention, pierces your confusion, arrests your presupposition. It thrills, convicts, consoles, directs. God does talk back.