What is prayer? It’s like talking—and listening—to a best friend.

January 16, 2024 | Life Lines

When it comes to our prayer lives, we too often fall into the trap of setting goals, mapping “progress,” and jumping through spiritual hoops, as if our relationship with God can be tackled the same way we might approach a diet or exercise plan. But our private prayer practice — and our spiritual life in general — cannot fit neatly into a box with defined edges.

Ours is not a linear path with a neat end point and victory lap, at least not this side of heaven. We’ll never be done. There will always be another step, a new lesson, and occasionally a switchback that makes us feel as though we’re moving in the wrong direction. And while all of that may seem overwhelming at first glance, the truth is that this spiritual reality is completely freeing if we are willing to accept the mystery and majesty of a life lived in the constant presence of God right where we are at any given moment.

How do you approach your private prayer life? Is it a laundry list of words to be said and boxes to be checked? Or is it an ongoing conversation with God that includes not only talking but listening deeply? While the prayers we memorized as children and love as adults are wonderful tools in the vast treasury of our Catholic prayer life, those very same things can sometimes become stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth when we get so hung up on specific requirements that we close ourselves off to the movement of the Spirit.

When I wrote my book Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality, I described it like this: “When you take prayer out of that box and unwrap all the beautiful and varied ways of speaking to God, you begin to realize that prayer does not require anything more than a willing heart…As soon as you feel that desire within to deepen your connection to the divine, as soon as you turn to face God, you have already begun to pray, no matter what words you say or whether you say anything at all.”

And that is where prayer begins, with an intention and a heart and soul hungry for God. When we release ourselves from following specific “rules” and allow an inner conversation to flow, we begin to recognize more clearly and easily that God truly is with us at every moment. We begin to talk to God as we would a best friend, in an open conversation that requires no memorization, no notes, no user manual.

If you don’t believe me, listen to the words of St. Teresa of Avila: “For mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

What would it look like if you allowed yourself to share your joys and struggles and worries with God not only in dedicated prayer time but as you go about the tasks of your day — as you drive across town, shovel snow, cook dinner, walk the dog. This is where we learn to pray without ceasing. Our every breath becomes a prayer, and we begin to understand that prayer is not something outside us that we have to achieve; it is our very life.

In The Way of Prayer, Pope St. John Paul II said: “How to pray? This is a simple matter. I would say: Pray any way you like, so long as you do pray…Sometimes it takes courage to pray; but it is possible to pray, and necessary to pray, whether from memory or a book or just in thought, it is all the same.”

So just begin. Right where you are, with words or without. No expectations, no goals, no accomplishment in mind. Just an openness to the journey that will inevitably unfold when you begin a conversation with God.

This column originally appeared in the Jan. 18, issue of The Evangelist.


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