I think that everyone can admit to having difficulty with praying at one time or another. Finding time to pray can seem like a challenge, and distractions can often leave us feeling overloaded and frustrated. Oftentimes it’s tough to focus, difficult to quiet the world, and hard to approach God, which in turn makes us feel as though prayer is for someone else—for the contemplatives and saints who easily open their minds and hearts to God.
It is important, though, to remember that prayer is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Through prayer we raise our minds and hearts to God out of love, and as Bishop Robert Barron says, “we long for him as he longs for us.” Prayer is ultimately a response of love to a God who waits for us and deeply desires to enter into communion with us.
If you have any negative feelings associated with praying (for whatever reason) or if you currently feel pretty good about your prayer life but still long to go deeper, below are a few tips to help strengthen your prayer life. These tips are based upon the traditional practice of lectio divina, or “divine reading,” which is a means of reading scripture that prompts us to rid ourselves of our own agenda in approaching God, and open ourselves to what he wants for our lives. This type of prayer has touched me personally because it has allowed me to get out of my own head and abolish my preconceived notions of what my prayer life should be, and enter more deeply into a living relationship with the Lord.
Tip #1: Before You Begin, Prepare
If you are having trouble praying, ask yourself how you approach prayer. Do you prepare, or do you just slide right into it hoping for the best? Avoiding structure will set you up for failure. Everything that produces fruit and success requires work, and in order to be productive in that work you need a plan. If you don’t have structure, this creates an environment that can prove to be more chaotic than fruitful. Establish a place and a time for your prayer. This is absolutely necessary because it forces you to prioritize prayer. Sure, prayer throughout the day (on your way to work, as you do the dishes, as you interact with other people) is a wonderful means of opening up your life to God, but in order to engage in a dynamic conversation with him, you have to make a daily appointment with him. Figure out the time of day that works best for you and the time you are most prime to listen and give of yourself. Also, find a place that you can get comfortable in and that you enjoy going to. Have all of your reading material there ready to go, and make it a special time set aside for you and God each day. If you do this, the distractions that usually bombard you as you try to get organized and settled before you even begin to pray will dissipate
Tip #2: Read the Word
Invoke the Holy Spirit to enter into your heart and your prayer, then “take up and read” so that God may speak to you. Take your time in reading a set passage from scripture. Get a sense of what it is saying and listen for words or phrases that strike you.
One of the great things about our faith is that our Church lays out the universal and daily readings for us in the liturgy of the mass. The easiest way to go about picking your scripture passages is to find a source that provides the official texts of the daily mass for you (e.g. The Magnificat or The Word Among Us). If you do this, you will avoid having to randomly choose which passage to begin with, and you will receive the added bonus of partaking in the communal prayer of our universal church.
Scripture is the optimal material because it is God’s living Word itself (hence the name “divine reading”), but I’ve found that the use of other materials also works well (such as reading the lives of the Saints). The key here is to read the material slowly and carefully, listening so that what you are reading sinks into your heart.
Tip #3: Meditate
This call for meditation is not so much an emptying of the mind (which is the goal of many modern forms of meditation), but rather a filling of it. Our minds are structured and made for truth, so this stage is a call to actively listen to what is occurring in your reading.
This is where you should ask yourself questions about the passage you read. For example, you might ask: What is Jesus doing? What kind of environment is he in? Does he approach someone, and if yes, how and why? What was the person’s state like when Jesus approached? How did they respond to Jesus, and were they visibly changed after their encounter with him? Place yourself in the stories with Jesus and with those closest to him. Be with Mary as the angel Gabriel approaches her in the Annunciation. What do you think she was feeling? Excitement? Nervousness? Awe? Put your hands on Jesus’ shoulders as he prays in agony in the garden. Be awake with him while all of his close friends are sleeping nearby. Share in his sufferings and in his willingness to obey the father, despite the pain. Hide with Peter as Jesus’ persecutors closed in on him. Think of the shame that he felt when he denied him. Does this remind you of the moments you have denied Jesus in your life?
If you are reading about the life of a particular Saint, pause in the moments where you feel inspired by them. Ask yourself why that particular instant made you laugh or smile, or even cry. Were you moved by something they did? Why? What was it about their action that moved you?
Engaging in the material this way will make the life of Christ present to you personally, which is key for developing an intimate relationship with him.
Tip #4: Prayer: Conversation with God
Most of the time people want to skip the first three steps and jump to this fourth step. However, they are important for setting up a lively conversation with God. If we merely tell him what is on our hearts without listening to him first, we cannot really have a conversation with him. Subject matter and content are both vital because they set us up for dynamic conversation with God.
This is the stage where you can open up dialogue with God! Now that you have listened to his Word and/or meditated on his life, you have a great platform (inspired by God himself) for diving into a dynamic conversation with him! Tell him what moved you, and explain to him why you related to those moments and how they touch you personally now. Let your inspired heart speak to God! Bring him your joys, troubles, and concerns. Use the passages you read as a springboard for conversation with him.
Tip #5: Contemplation
After you have read, listened, and spoken with God, take the time to “be still and know.” Realize that he loves you. Understand that he wants to fulfill the deepest desire of your heart: your longing for true and authentic peace and joy. Rest in knowing that he is a merciful father; a God full of love and compassion for you. He loves you and he knows you.
This is the point where you let go of your own ideas, plans, and meditations and simply be still in his presence. Here, we open ourselves up at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us.
Tip #6: Resolution
Once you have gone through all of these steps, make a resolution based upon your reflection and engagement with God. Was God moving you to make a change in some area of your life? Resolve to convert your heart to him through action. As you listen to him daily, make a concrete resolution based upon your dialogue with him, and let the inspired words move your heart.