Three ways to build a better prayer life
Failure can be a wonderful tutor of faith. I learned this well when my mother-in-law died. In the moments following her death, I stood next to her bed with family and tried to absorb what had just happened. At some point, my sister-in-law turned and asked if we should call the hospice chaplain assigned to Jane’s case.
I knew two things about this chaplain: 1) he lived 45 minutes away, and 2) he knew nothing about Jane. What could he pray that wouldn’t have been expressed better by someone who knew and loved her?
Everyone there knew I was the only practicing Christian in the room. It should have been the most natural thing in the world for me to say, “I can pray over Jane.” Sadly, I did not.
The chaplain came, offered a cursory prayer meant to comfort us and was gone within 15 minutes. I will always regret the missed opportunity to serve Jane one last time in the most meaningful way I could have—through prayer.
Since then, I’ve asked God to repair the broken part that keeps me from praying earnestly and often. I’m still not what I should be, but after searching for ways to improve my public and private prayer life, I’m better.
If you’re on a similar quest to improve your prayer life, here are some helpful strategies that could make a difference for you.
Lose the guilt. Shame is Satan’s friend. You know this, right? Your guilt can keep you from approaching the throne of God confidently. Admit you were wrong for neglecting your relationship. Ask for forgiveness. Then behave as someone who is forgiven. (That’s often the difficult part!)
Create a special place and time for prayer. Intellectually, I understand that we can call on God anytime, anywhere and in any circumstance, but what good is that if we don’t actually do it? A faltering prayer life is an emergency. Use every available resource you have to rejuvenate your relationship with Christ. For me, the path back to a lifestyle of prayer began by setting aside a cozy corner in my office to restore the habit of morning or evening prayers. It might be the positive association you need to “pray without ceasing” wherever you are.
Enlarge your definition of prayer. If prayer is communication, then there must be a multitude of ways to listen and speak to God, especially when words don’t come easily. In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: Spirituality for Real Life, Fr. James Martin, SJ, shares his struggle with prayer and offers a greater range of possibilities for prayer. Among them:
Contemplative prayer. Take a favorite passage of scripture and immerse yourself in that scene with all five senses. Pay attention to the insights that come from losing yourself in sacred events of great significance.
Lectio divina. Much like contemplative prayer, lectio divina (sacred reading) uses sacred text to draw you into a closer relationship with Christ. Select your text and ask for God’s help. Read it. Meditate on it by asking what God is revealing to you. Respond to God with your questions, feelings and reactions in prayer. Determine how you want to change as a result of any insights you had.
Centering prayer. This form moves us toward the part of ourselves where God dwells and waits for us. It’s not about doing anything; it’s about being with God. It has three steps: 1) Take a few minutes to quiet yourself and rest in God’s presence. 2) Choose a simple word such as love, mercy or God to help you focus. 3) Let that word anchor you in his presence when your mind drifts.
Examine yourself. Ask, “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?”
Martin’s book elaborates on all these techniques for having sacred conversations. He also dissects other prayer formats, including musical or rote prayers, nature, journaling and work as prayer. Another great prayer resource: Birth: A Guide for Prayer, by Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and Marie Schwan, CSJ.
For so many reasons, I have always struggled with the concept of imagining God or Jesus in front of me, engaged in an ordinary conversation. What form of prayer works best for you? How much dedicated time do you spend with Christ? How did you learn to pray?
Crystal Hammon works as a non-fiction writer and corporate storyteller. She is currently working on two books—a biography about a well-known fashion designer and a guide to caring for aging parents.
Crystal spends free time caring for family, reading, playing golf and appreciating music, theatre and the arts. She also writes a personal blog that started in 2010 as a celebration of vintage clothing/iconic women and became a dumping ground for this-that-and-the-other. Her favorite posts are tributes to people she has loved and lost.
Although she has been a Christian since the mid-1980s, Crystal considers herself a late-bloomer and feels the need to travel at the speed of light to compensate for decades of spiritual immaturity.