The ABC’s of Prayer
by Sister Marie-Aimee, O.C.D.
Throughout the history of the Church, the saints have directed our attention to the necessity of praying. Even in our own times, we have seen a renewed interest in prayer. The myriads of books published in the last decade about everything from angels to yoga reveal that many people are recognizing a need for something more. Why this hunger and thirst? Why this search?
This longing reveals a key truth about the human heart — that it is not complete in itself. Our tough attitude of self-sufficiency and our pride in our rugged individualism hide a gnawing sense that something is missing. Who hasn’t had the experience of looking forward to an event or a gift with great excitement, only to be disappointed by the reality? Or the experience of spending the afternoon with friends or family, only to find oneself lonely even in the midst of their voices and laughter? In these moments, we are experiencing the truth that we are creatures, not Creator, and we are not complete apart from the One who made us. We have only to listen to the words of Saint Augustine addressed to God sixteen hundred years ago, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” to know that our experiences are not unique to modern culture.
The only cure for a restless heart is a relationship with God; hence, our need for prayer. The vast body of writing about prayer may give the impression that prayer is complicated. Authors of every century, however, have written so copiously, not because the topic is complicated or difficult, but because the need for prayer is so fundamental to human existence. The psalmist’s cry, “O God, You are my God, for You I long! For You my body yearns; for You my soul thirsts,” (Psalm 63:2) echoes in the heart of every generation. Prayer is actually as simple as the ABC’s and it is as vital to our relationship with God as the alphabet is to language. We can use the first letters of the alphabet to call to mind the answers to three fundamental questions about prayer.
“How often should I pray?”
The letter “A” reminds us to pray always. Jesus told a parable about the necessity of praying always without becoming weary, giving us a vivid image of a worldly, corrupt judge doing justice for a poor widow because of her relentless persistence (Luke 18:1-8). Likewise, Saint Paul, in the first letter to the Thessalonians, writes that we are called to “pray without ceasing.” Our modern world, full of noise, entertaining distractions, and demanding to-do lists, may seem like the last place where praying at any time is possible, and yet it is precisely in this time and place that we are called to pray at all times. The first step to praying at all times is “to pray at specific times, consciously willing it” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2697).
Many of us would not dream of facing the day without at least one cup of coffee, yet how many of us face the day on our own, without asking God to be a part of it? If we are not spending time with God every single day in prayer, then it is time to start. If prayer is already a regular part of our day, it is important to remember that God is always calling us to a deeper relationship with Him. Once we are committed to a specific length of prayer time at a particular hour each day, we can seek to extend the fruits of our prayer throughout the day by frequently acknowledging God’s presence with us in our daily activities. Over time we will become more and more aware of His nearness, of His constant love for us.
How do I pray?
The letter “B” directs us to Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” We do not begin our relationship with God in stillness any more than a young couple begins their life together in silence. When you first find the one with whom you are going to spend the rest of your life in marriage, it may seem like there is never enough time to say everything as the hours fly by in conversation. But have you ever seen an elderly couple, happily married for years, sitting on the porch in companionable silence? They have not run out of things to say — words still have a place between them — but their relationship has deepened into a rich love and it is good to just be together.
If we keep praying, our relationship with God will grow and deepen into a rich union of hearts, allowing us to be still and know that He is God. We begin our life of prayer, however, with words, our own and the words of others, in particular the Word of God. When choosing material to pray with, it is important to choose carefully. There are many good solid books of Catholic spirituality, not to mention the writings of the saints, but sacred scripture, the inspired word of God, is the always the best source for texts for prayer. If we allow the words of Scripture to soak into our hearts and minds, we will be able to say with the prophet Jeremiah, “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16). Words help us to direct our minds and hearts to Him who loves us. If we are attentive to His presence, He will speak to us through the thoughts and phrases that strike us in the texts we use for prayer.
We are called to pray as we are able and as we are, whether we are tired, angry, joyful, broken-hearted, or at peace. If we are completely honest with God and we show up every day to be with Him in prayer, thanking Him whether His presence is tangible or not, He will work in our hearts and lives.
Why should I pray?
The letter “C” stands for our need for conversion, reminding us that we are creature, not Creator, and we need to cultivate an attitude of dependence. Our society has both lost a sense of sin and developed an aversion for dependence, especially in relation to God. It is not a coincidence that the two happened simultaneously, and it is not a new phenomenon. The tendency to seek our independence, even from God, began in the garden with Adam and Eve and has manifested itself in every age. The methods may vary from century to century, but the results are eventually all the same. When we remove God from His throne, we invariably set someone or something else on it, becoming a slave to our little god. God created us to be loved by Him, to find our happiness in Him, to be united with Him forever in the unending joy of heaven. Hearts created for infinite goodness, truth, and beauty, are never going to find satisfaction in the things of this earth. This world is as capable of filling our hearts as a cup of sand is of filling the Grand Canyon. Prayer is the antidote to our independent streak because it is a daily reminder that there is a God and we are not He. God doesn’t need our talents, skills, abilities, and experience in order to work through us. All He needs is a willing heart ready to serve Him. He will supply the power and wisdom. In fact, looking at His track record, He seems to enjoy using those who are noticeably lacking in all the things we think add up to success. Daily contact with God in prayer also helps bring our need for conversion into the light so that He can heal and transform us. The only sin God cannot forgive, is the one for which we refuse to ask forgiveness. He loves us too much to force His way into our hearts.
Prayer is not like having an important guest over to dinner, where we close the doors to the messy bedrooms or closets, set out the best china, and put on our company manners. God wants to be at home in our heart, familiar with all its nooks and crannies, especially the deep, dark ones we don’t tell anyone else about. Prayer is flinging open the doors of our heart and inviting God in without reserve so that His love can transform the darkest, most broken parts into light. The only way to grow into a deeper relationship with God is one day at a time. Read the lives and writings of the saints. We are not always called to imitate their methods and specific practices, but we can always gain inspiration from their persistence and final perseverance. Although our eff ort and determination are essential ingredients, prayer is less about what we do than it is about what we let God do in us. Just as in marriage, there comes a time when the “in love” feelings fade and love becomes a choice, we will face days or weeks, or maybe even months, where we are tempted to stop praying because “nothing is happening.” It may seem like God has taken a permanent leave of absence, but in reality He has drawn very near to us, allowing our faith in Him and our love for Him to be purified of all self-seeking so that we can be filled more completely with Him. In these experiences of dryness and darkness, we are called to wait upon Him in trust and confidence. Saint Teresa of Jesus said that the only way we can go wrong in prayer is to stop praying. If we persevere in faithfulness, our restless hearts will find a resting place in Him. The thoughts about a life of prayer in the letter following this article were originally written in code by Venerable Mother Luisita, the foundress of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, during the religious persecution in Mexico. Her words encourage us to build a life rooted in communion with our Lord through prayer.