“I call you friends because I have made known to you everything.”
— John 15:15
To understand prayer, we must place it into the context of spirituality. You may say, "But I'm not spiritual. I'm not a 'religious person.'" You don't have to be. We are all spirited people. So let's begin there.
What is spirituality?
Today spirituality means almost anything and everything.
But for a long, long time in the Christian world, spirituality had only one meaning — life from the Spirit, the Holy Spirit.
"What is spirituality?" is a dangerous question, because it will rob us of everything that we will gladly give away. First of all, it is not about our spirit, whether yours or mine, and we tend to be our first focus — me, my spirituality, that which I choose or reject as I live my life. Yes, spirituality is about my life and person, my deepest life and person. But, at that depth I meet Someone and Something Else. St. Paul puts it this way, "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me." Spirituality, your deepest life and self, is life from the Spirit of Christ. And it is a way of living all aspects of your life from that perspective.
Is spirituality about finding myself, the real me?
Yes. But that is not the full meaning, the true passion and excitement of spirituality. As engaging and interesting a person as you are, do you want it all to come down to finding yourself? Sooner or later, even you would tire of you!
What do you want? What do you really want? What did you really want last year, or last month? Maybe you got it — and soon enough got tired of it. Did any of it satisfy you for the long haul?
Look to your desires. They are such a powerful sign of life and of seeking. But of seeking what? St. Augustine would say seeking God. He says that even in our sins we are seeking God. "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
The promise of a spiritual life is an inner core of peace and love — a safe sanctuary of absolute acceptance (no matter what) from which to move about our world through all its storms and trials. It is to find God, get to know Him, have Him get to know you, get to like Him, and have Him like you. No, it is more than that. It is to fall in love with each other. (Oops! He is already in love with you.)
And it is in the safe circle of divine love that you find the freedom from worldly attachments that you think you need (money, power, possessions, lifestyle).
Well, I could certainly use a little more love in my life. But I don't think about God much. So, how would someone like me get started?
Just talk. Talk to your Best Friend — to God, but keep in mind that "talking" could take on many forms.
What do you mean?
What do you do with your friends? Sometimes you talk, but other times you sit together quietly. Sometimes you take a walk together or listen to music. Together you share life and experiences, and the friendship grows and deepens. You form a relationship. We call that prayer. There's no one way to do it; this relationship forms in a highly personal and intimate way, as all relationships do. A woman told me once that when she truly wants to pray, she bakes a cake. Another cleans the house.
Maybe I'll mow the lawn!
Whatever works. An old and holy Teacher once said, "The will to pray is to pray." But, as with any relationship, you must nurture it, pay attention to it, and spend time. If you want to say a prayer, you are saying a prayer. The point is that prayer is always there for you. You can always say a prayer. It may not be very pretty. It may even include swear words. God can manage anger and swear words. There is not a single thought that God does not already know, and He loves you all the same. Prayer is mutual revelation — the more of ourselves we reveal to God, the more He reveals Himself to us.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
— Mark 10:51
It still seems a little confusing. Is there a "right way" to pray?
Prayer is the breath and breathing of the spiritual life. As easily and as rightly as you breathe, you can pray. St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church, insists on this: You always have the grace or gift of saying a prayer. Imagine what it would mean to a person with emphysema, gasping for breath, to know that the next breath would always come!
Prayer is deeply, personally yours. God fits the gift of grace to you, whether you pray looking like a Buddha or like someone mowing the lawn.
Just as you become more at ease the more time you spend with a Friend, the more you pray the more you will want to pray, and the more secure you will feel in your sanctuary.
I'm more comfortable with a little more direction. Can you help me?
St. Thomas Aquinas points out three necessary elements of prayer. First, the intention of approaching God, of addressing ourselves to Him. Second, the request for something, maybe something definite, like success in a job interview, or indefinite, like God's continuing oversight and protection. Third, the basis of the approach to God and asking Him for something. This may be God's goodness or mercy in itself, or the remembrance of His being good to us in the past. This actually amounts to a fourth element — thanksgiving.
Here's an example from the Liturgy of the Catholic Church:
Father, you show your almighty power in your mercy and forgiveness.
Continue to fill us with your gifts of love.
Help us to hurry toward the eternal life you promise
and come to share in the joys of your kingdom.
That is an official prayer, and sounds it. But here is a prayer from a Breton fishermen. It has everything Aquinas would require, at least implicitly: "Be good to me, Lord. Your ocean is so big, and my boat is so small!"
Is there anything I should pray for particularly?
Pray for anything, except something evil. Pray for health, for loved ones. Even pray to win the lottery. At the bottom of all prayer is the prayer of Jesus, as he taught us in the Our Father: Thy will be done.
But here are two important suggestions. Pray to know God and to know yourself. And pray to see the will of God for you, and in seeing it, pray to be able to do it.