How to Pray
Mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart conversation with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved.” ~St. Teresa of Avila
At the heart of Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ. While this principle may seem simple, many have experienced the difficulty it takes to live out. As a student on a college or university campus, there are many demands placed upon your time, attention, and energy. In the midst of classes, group projects, homework, and other activities, making the commitment to create intentional time for prayer each day is difficult. And once we have managed to set aside this time, what exactly do we do with it? When one first begins a life of prayer, often the idea of spending even fifteen minutes in silence seems daunting.
As St. Teresa says in the quote above, prayer is nothing more than a conversation with our Lord. While this is certainly true, it is also acknowledged that this time of “conversation” can easily slip into daydreaming and mindless mental wanderings without more structure. Drawing from the wisdom of such saints as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, as well as St. Theresa of Avila, the method of prayer described below can help! This method is not meant to restrict us as we pray, but rather to free us by providing a format for our conversation with our Lord that may open us more fully to his Holy Spirit, and help us to fall more deeply in love with our Lord.
In many eastern religions, meditation or mental prayer (used interchangeably) is all about emptying one’s mind. Within the context of Christianity, just the opposite is true; rather than being empty, we strive to fill ourselves with the mind of Christ. In order to do so, it is often helpful to use Scripture or some sort of other spiritual book to help us focus our conversation. Whether you chose a scene from the Gospel’s or St. Josemaria Escriva’s The Way, look for a text that has short, dense chapters designed for prayer. Choose topics that motivate and inspire you, and try to avoid books that are more academic in nature. If possible, it can be helpful to read the passage you have selected for prayer the night before so that the passage is fresh in your mind for prayer the next day.
In creating a habit of prayer, the saints encourage us to pray at the same time each day, and to make this time before noon if at all possible. It is helpful to write this time into our schedules, honoring the time as we would a class or any other timed appointment.
Further, it can be helpful to pray in the same place each day, and while not always an option, it is ideal to find a way to pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Finally, right before you begin your conversation with our Lord, it can be helpful to take a few minutes and re-read the passage you have chosen for meditation, once again bringing the topic to the forefront of your mind.
Praying like a Saint
Now that we have chosen a topic, time, and location for our prayer, we now turn to the structure of prayer itself.
There are four main sections in this method of mental prayer:
We will un-pack each section in the paragraphs below.
Preparation – The saints often comment that preparation is the most important part of our conversation with our Lord. The two-fold aim of the first five minutes of our prayer is first to humble ourselves before the presence of God, and second, to call to mind that our prayer is in response to the great love God has for us as His sons and daughters.
First, we place ourselves in the presence of our Lord, begging the Holy Spirit to lead our prayer, for truly we cannot pray without His help. We are reminded of this by the Liturgy of the Hours, the universal prayer of the consecrated men and women of the Church, which always begins “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me pray.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. Man is a beggar before God.” With this is mind during our preparation, we ask God to forgive our sins, speaking to Him “out of the depths of a humble and contrite heart” (CCC 2559).
You may have heard it said that “If religion is man’s search for God, Christianity is God’s search for man.” With this in mind, the second action of our preparation is to remember that we always pray in response to the great love that God has for us. Alluding to the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, the CCC 2560 states,
“If you only knew the gift of God!’ The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is He who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; His asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.”
The following prayer, or something similar, can be used to help us cultivate both a spirit of humility, and a greater understanding of the reality of God’s great desire for our hearts.
My Lord and My God, I firmly believe that you are here, that you see me, that you hear me. I adore you with profound reverence; I ask you for pardon of my sins and grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My Mother Immaculate, St. Joseph, my Father and Lord, my Guardian Angel, Intercede for me.
Consideration – It has been said that one cannot love what one does not know. Consequently, during the first part of the body of our prayer, we seek to fill our mind with knowledge and thoughts of God and the virtues that will lead us to know Him more so that we might love Him more. In order to do this, we talk to God in general about our chosen topic. We consider the topic in our mind, using our understanding to attempt to fathom the subject, calling on our memory to recall what relates to it, and if our topic is a story from the Gospels, using our imagination to try to picture what it would have been like to be a participant in the story ourselves.
For example, if one was meditating on the story of the Annunciation, one might talk to Jesus about Mary’s humility and her perfect abandonment to the will of her Heavenly Father. One could meditate on what Mary would have been wearing, what her voice would have sounded like, and how she would have felt when Gabriel first spoke to her. In sum, the aim of the consideration section is to use our minds to think about our topic, to fill our intellect with these ideas, and to speak to our Lord about all that arises during our reflection.
Conversation – In the second part of the body of our prayer, we seek to love our Lord more through meditation on how our chosen topic relates to us personally, pouring out our hearts to our Lord and telling Him everything that rises from our desires and our will as a result of our consideration. It is during this time especially that we strive to fall more deeply in love with our Lord, making acts of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and intercession as we meditate on the intersection of the circumstances of our lives and the topic of our prayer.
For example, using the story of the Annunciation once again we might praise God for the beautiful example we have in our Lady. We might make a self-examination of how we are living out the virtue of humility in our lives, calling to mind specific instances where we lack this virtue and asking for forgiveness and grace to overcome our weakness. We might give God thanks for the example of individuals in our lives who have given a sincere “Yes!” to our Lord as Mary has done, and we might pray for a close friend who is struggling to trust God with the challenges of his life.
The word “conversation” implies that there are two persons speaking to one another. Leave room for silence during both the consideration and the conversation so that God might have the opportunity to speak to your heart. Through a proper preparation and constant awareness of God’s presence, “the heart allows itself to be driven by the Holy Spirit and God is able to do more with it by His grace than the heart could do by its own efforts.”
Conclusion – As our time of prayer draws to a close, we thank God for the time we were able to spend with him, and we ask him to show us how we might take what we have learned through our daily meditation and allow it to affect how we live our lives. Traditionally, the saints encourage us to take this step by making resolutions and a motto.
According to St. Vincent de Paul, “The principle fruit of mental prayer consists in making a good resolution.” Looking back on our conversation with Christ, we are encouraged to choose a specific virtue or habit that we want to cultivate and create a general and specific resolution in relation to this goal. Turning a final time toward the example of the Annunciation, we might make a general resolution to grow in trust in God’s faithfulness in our lives in imitation of Mary’s trust in God when she was asked to be the mother of our Savior. Our specific resolution might be that each time we find ourselves worrying about finding a job after graduation; we place this anxiety in the hands of Our Lady by praying a Memorare.
Finally, we sum up our conversation with God into a motto, a single statement or phrase that we strive to repeat to ourselves frequently throughout the day to make the fruit of our prayer present in the daily activities of our lives. In the case above, our motto might be “Lord, let it be done to me” in imitation of Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel. Our motto should be short, concise, and easy to recall so that it can easily reconnect us to our time of prayer. Many have found it helpful to record their resolutions and motto each day in a notebook or prayer journal, and to return to the resolutions as part of their examination of conscience each night.
This is eternal life…
John 17:3 states, “This is eternal life that they know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” The method of prayer outlined above is meant to help us pursue our goal of knowing and loving Christ, and it has been developed and endorsed by many who have reached the heights of sanctity. However, by no means is this method the only way to pray, and if at any time you find that it hinders rather than helps you communicate with our Lord, speak to a spiritual director about alternative methods of prayer. Being caught up in a loving relationship with God in heaven is what we hope to be doing for the rest of eternity, and the more we grow in love for our Lord, the more we experience eternity in the here and now, and the more we are able to be a channel of God’s eternal love to those he places in our path.