If you don’t know where to begin with prayer, it can become extremely frustrating and isolating.
No matter how much time I spent trying to clear space and time on my schedule, prayer felt nearly impossible until I learned about some simple practices or starting points for prayer.
That isn’t to say that “techniques” or practices are going to always deliver the results you want in prayer. Thomas Merton famously told the novice monks to simply become “more quiet.” He wouldn’t teach them techniques, lest they become obsessed with improving their techniques and scrutinizing their progress based on their expertise.
However, the typical person trying to cram prayer into an already jam-packed, high speed, distraction-filled schedule can grow discouraged quickly without a few starting points.
Learn Personal Awareness
Whether you call this mindfulness, the Examen, or just “awareness,” most people will benefit from some sort of daily pause to evaluate themselves, asking questions like:
- How am I feeling right now? Am I tense, relaxed, anxious, or angry?
- Where is God at work in my day?
- What am I grateful for today?
- What is discouraging today?
This is often done at the end of the day, but oftentimes a check in at any time can prove fruitful. If you’re worried, distracted or angry, it will be hard to pray. These are the kinds of things to see with clarity so that you can offer to God.
Confront the Space of Silence
It’s typical to run from silence because it forces us to face what’s actually on our minds. This is rarely a pleasant experience, especially for those just beginning with prayer. Fear and anxiety can prove overpowering once we begin to face ourselves.
The Christian prayer tradition teaches us that we can only run for so long. At some point we have to face our fears and the false selves we’ve constructed because they get in the way of being present for God. Most importantly, the false self that fears its own demise prevents us from seeing our beloved identity in God.
Even beginning with 5 minutes of silence can prove a useful starting point. It will most likely uncover disturbing and challenging thoughts, but these are what you need to bring to God in prayer. More importantly, these are the things to go “through” as you pray, seeking the root causes of your pain, fear, and insecurity so that you can invite God into that space.
Start with a Simple PracticeWhile silence is a helpful place to begin, a simple prayer word like, “beloved” or the Jesus Prayer, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” can offer points for reorienting and moving forward in prayer. The practice of centering prayer offers simple ways to become available and aware of God in prayer by using a prayer word or simple prayer to gently return to God in the midst of distracting thoughts.
Prayer can be like learning a new exercise, and so you may not have the “strength” to step away from distracting thoughts or the anxieties of the day. This is something you can develop over time if you practice it enough.
If you can remember that you are learning a new practice that will require daily use in order to benefit from it, you will be able to persevere through the challenges of the early days that may prove discouraging or disconcerting.
Make Space to Pray Today
You can read more about my journey into contemplative prayer and my recovery from anxious Christianity in my newly revised and expanded book: Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians