There was a long while in my life where prayer felt like a chore to me. It was something I felt like I needed to do, but not something I really truly wanted to do. I would get frustrated with my prayer life because it felt stale, and it always felt like I was merely treating God as a genie in a bottle (i.e. God please grant me these wishes). I didn’t really love to pray, and often found myself frustrated because when I would pray I would have to continually call my mind away from other things and back to God. It felt like God was far away and I was trying to raise myself to him, but I’d get distracted or tired and couldn’t fully engage. I also often found myself frustrated because I felt that I wasn’t very good at prayer (like the Saints who were so holy and could easily slip in and out of ecstasy in prayer), and each time I sat down to pray the majority of my time was spent trying to find the perfect way to pray. I think this is why so often prayer felt like more of an obligation to me.
When I would look at the lives of the Saints and read how prayer was so very important to them, I began to wonder what separated my stale and obligatory offerings to God from their holy prayers. The Church says that we are also called to Sainthood, so surely we must be able to lead prayer lives like them, right?
What I began to learn, and am continuing to learn, is that prayer is a movement stemming from a heart in love. It is not us who initiate love of God. God’s initiative of love always comes first, and our own step is always a response. What I didn’t realize is that prayer is not me offering myself to God as a sort of gift, but rather God calling me to him, to share in his gift.
This deep inner desire we feel to offer ourselves to God through prayer doesn’t come directly from us, but from God. It is him, whispering in our hearts to come to him because he is our Creator, which means he loves us first. Just as he so loved us and shared his very life with us, so much more does he desire for us to be in communion with him. Even though we get busy and forget our Creator, or actively hide from him to avoid opening ourselves to him in vulnerability; even if we chase after good and pleasurable things and treat them as our highest goods or accuse God of having abandoned us…our living God tirelessly calls each of us to that mysterious encounter known as prayer.
So when you think to yourself, I must pray now because that is how I show my love for God, try remembering that it is not you who is initiating this engagement. God is. God’s love is poured out for the sake of his beloved, and just as a good wife or husband engages most lovingly in conversation with their beloved, so God does with us. God’s love is full of tender compassion, like a loving Father who watches over and cares for his children. God comes to us asking, How are you? How was your day? Tell me your troubles. Give me your joys. He wants to fully participate in your life, and he calls out to you through that quiet tugging in your heart that moves you to open dialogue with him. This is what prayer is. Even if you find yourself distracted and pulled away for some reason, the surge of love that moves you towards God is what matters. God isn’t moved by anger because other thoughts pop into your head or something pulls you away. He is moved in love by your effort to draw near to him.
Prayer is thus a living relationship. This is why prayer is so very important, and why, when we look at the Saints we see people who had deep and intimate communion and friendship with God. They understood that this living relationship is what engaged their hearts. Through their words and actions, through their prayer, they were responding to God’s call to enter into a loving communion with Him—our God and Father, who is so very real. Through prayer, we enter into the living relationship with the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why prayer is such a gift.
The Catechism says that the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. (CCC2565) The key word here is “habit”: habits are routine behaviors that are developed through repeated practice. Thus, the only way we learn to pray, is by doing it. You cannot come to know what prayer is or even come to love prayer if you don’t practice it.
Remember, prayer is as essential to our spiritual lives, as breathing is to our physical. This means that having a prayer life is absolutely necessary, and also that prayer is essentially simple. The more essential an activity is for living, the simpler God seems to have made it. You don’t need to teach a human how to breathe; we begin to breathe on our own. As you begin to pray and make it a daily priority, praying will not only become easy, but it will become a great joy–like the satisfaction you get when you take in a deep breath of air. God’s love envelops us, and when we respond out of love and enter into his love through prayer, our vital relationship with him will grow and flourish.
Whether you find it easiest to engage in this dialogue with God through liturgical prayers, spontaneous movements of the heart throughout your day, song, meditative prayer, lectio divina…the type of prayer is not as important as the goal of prayer: to offer yourself out of love to God, enter into his presence, and deepen your relationship with him. If you’ve found it hard to pray, try approaching it as a call to communion instead of an obligation. God wants to be present in our lives, and we have the amazing opportunity to approach him through prayer.