I don’t know how to pray…
I recently confessed this to Sister Dolores Clerico SSJ, Director of the Ministry of Spirituality and a spiritual director. Certainly, as a child, I was taught prayers that I dutifully recited at school and in Church. Never did I think about what those words meant, not really.
For the past five years, as Director of Communications, I have had the great privilege to share, through words and pictures, how the Sisters of Saint Joseph live and work to unite all people with God and with one another. Daily, I witness how powerful and life-giving prayer is for them. Lately, however, something has been nudging me, bit by bit, day by day, toward praying.
My confession: “Sister Dolores, I don’t know how to pray. I know there is more to it than reciting prayers, but each time I attempt to pray, my mind wanders. What am I doing wrong?” To help, we invited Sisters Trudy Ahern SSJ and Maria McCoy SSJ, also spiritual directors, for what turned out to be, for me, a transformative conversation. I suspect that this struggle is not unique to me. If you are like me, I hope my story helps you with your desire to pray.
Prayer Is About Relationship
Prayer is a relationship—a conscious relationship with God. It is a waking
up to God. It’s noticing that there is something larger than myself, and having an awareness that there is something more to my life than me. Like a human relationship, it can be enriched and deepened. For example, when you want to become friends with someone, you take the time to get to know that person, to pay attention to him or her and he or she to you. That relationship requires taking the time to develop and nurture. Just like a human relationship, it has all the ups and downs. Sometimes it feels great, sometimes it feels very intimate, at times it might feel a little stale—there are highs and lows and periods of an even keel. Now, think about a friend, someone you love and imagine how you would be with them if you could spend 15 minutes, a few hours or a day alone together. You would share how you are doing, how your day was, what’s bugging you, what’s holding you back, what’s been hard and what’s been joyful. You would wait to listen for his or her response. Sometimes, you would like being quiet together. It’s the same thing with God.
What is Prayer?
There are infinite ways to pray. Often, as we move through stages in life, our modes of prayer change. Prayers that are universal, like the Hail Mary, the Our Father and the Glory Be have been prayed by Christian people for centuries and are respected and honored. Perhaps like me, you share the sense that those prayers are not
enough. I am coming to learn that they can become more personal if we think about what the words mean, when we make those words our own, when they come from our heart and if we think of the words as a dialogue. In addition to traditional prayers, having informal conversation with God is also prayer. For example, “Please, God, help me through this challenging day,” or “God, I am about to have a difficult conversation, please help me to find the best words,” or “Thank you, God, for this beautiful sunset.”
If like me, your mind wanders when praying, it may be helpful to use traditional prayers as a way to prime the pump, to draw attention back into focused prayer. Concentrating on your breathing may be another way to focus and gently shift attention back into prayer.
Finding Time for Prayer
Caring for a family, a home and a full-time job leaves little free time in a day. Finding time for God—for intentional prayer—may be a challenge. Think about the Bible story of the woman at the well. Jesus met the woman at the well because that is what she did each day—she went to the well. Jesus met her where she was. Instead of carving out some new time, incorporate time with God into your daily life. During the commute to work, instead of turning to the radio, turn to God. Perhaps walking on the treadmill can be a spiritual and physical exercise. For me, I can spend 10 minutes every Tuesday morning tending to my relationship with God while I tend to my office plants. At home, I have a lot of landscaping that needs regular watering and maintenance. To help ensure I water each plant sufficiently, my mother taught me to say a Hail Mary—now, I will pray the Hail Mary. And, come spring, I plan to meet God in the garden for conversation, while I water, weed and prune.
Being Attentive to It…
My Aha Moment
How do you recognize when God responds? How do you know that it is God’s voice, not yours?
Being direct with God may be helpful. For example, if you pray to God to help you through a difficult day—at the end of that day, ask God, “Will you show me how you helped? How were you there for me?” Think about moments during the day and interactions with people you met. Did some event or conversation stir an interior movement within you or strike you in some way? This, in fact, may be a place where God is reaching out to you through that person or event.
Yes! I have experienced this. This past summer, my dear friend and coworker, Sister Rose Reda SSJ, fresh from a retreat, stopped by my office. She said, “I want to share with you something I told my spiritual director during my retreat. I told her that, ‘For me, Cecilia is the face of Jesus.’ ”
That. Stopped. Me.
I heard nothing else she said after that. At that moment, I recognized it as important. No, not just important—it was absolutely the best thing anyone has ever said to me. I also recall having a physical reaction to it. It was a release—a cleansing feeling that began at the crown of my head and swooshed down my body and out of my feet. Now, I recognize it was GOD answering me through Sister Rose. I recall what was happening with me earlier that day, before Sister Rose came to see me. I was having a stressful morning, riddled with thoughts of inadequacies. Thoughts, such as, “I am a lousy wife and mother. Last night I was not my best self as a caregiver to my special needs niece. Am I truly making a difference at work? Wouldn’t someone else do a better job?” Yes, God answered me through Sister Rose.
God does answer us. It is not always immediate, or obvious. However, if we are attentive to it, we can recognize it.
Since my conversation with Sisters Dolores, Maria and Trudy, I find myself thinking about God throughout the day. I recognize that my confession, “I don’t know how to pray,” and that something nudging me bit by bit, day by day, toward prayer, was God reaching out to me. God wants to be in a relationship with me. God longs for something more for me—he always has—I just wasn’t paying attention.
Now, my eyes are open, my ears attentive and my spirit is alert for finding God in my everyday life. Yes, God has my attention now.