How do I pray?

Published on 20 Mar 2016
A woman praying with a bible

There is no right or wrong way to speak to God.  But there are some key insights taken from the experience and reflection of St Ignatius of Loyola, which can truly allow God to transform our relationships, with Him, with ourselves, with others and with our world. What are they?

Firstly, surrendering

St Ignatius, like a good teacher, recognises the importance of preparation: to have prepared, where it is possible, a regular time and place for prayer with a passage of Scripture chosen and read in advance. However, far more important is the regular habit of surrendering, handing over, our wills to God. So often our prayer, like our lives, is so full of our own words and activities, that there is little room for God, and then we wonder why we can't see or hear Him! We need to surrender ourselves to God, asking that we might see with His light whatever He wants us to see and to be led by His love to wherever and however He wants to meet us.  

Secondly, desiring

If we need to begin by surrendering our wills to God, then we need, also, to open up our hearts to God. As one wise spiritual director once said, "If we shut out our feelings, we shut out God." I wonder how many of us were taught, either consciously or sub-consciously, not to bring our feelings and our desires to God in prayer. Such feelings and desires were considered to be "self-centred" or "selfish", and so we only prayed for everyone and everything outside of ourselves. The result was a beliefthat God was only interested in everything and everyone outside of myself. What an unbelievable discovery it is, then, to begin to experience that, not only is God interested in me, my life, my feelings, my desires, but He also wants me to tell Him all about them! So, unlike some other religions and meditation techniques, Christian prayer does not involve long hours of struggle, trying to rid oneself of "distractions," for, all those so-called, "distractions" - those thoughts, feelings, memories, lists, things to be done - reveal to us and to God, precisely what we care most about and so become not a "distraction", but the heart of our prayer, our conversation with the Lord. In other words, our feelings and our desires, if we notice them, reveal to us and to God what it is we most deeply desire and it is this which St Ignatius says is crucial to our relationship with God: "What do I desire?"

Thirdly, listening

If, having acknowledged our feelings and our desires, we left our prayer at that, perhaps playing the same 'record' over and over again in our minds, perhaps complaining that God doesn't listen, we could, indeed, be accused of being 'self-centred', 'selfish'. This is why we need to start listening. As in any relationship with someone we love, we not only want to tell them what we are thinking, feeling, desiring, we want, also, to know what the other person is thinking, feeling, desiring. So, it is with our relationship with God. However, it is this which is difficult. It is almost too wonderful to believe that God is interested in me and my cares and my worries, my hopes and my dreams - "surely, God has something better to do than to waste time with me"  - and, yet, this is the extraordinary mystery of the incarnation. Amazingly, because of the incarnation, God wants to share with us all that we experience, feel and desire. It is when we begin to believe this, when we begin to share our desires with God and, crucially, ask Him to share with us what He is thinking, feeling, desiring, that we and our world begin to be transformed. We begin to see God, ourselves, others, our world, through God's "eyes" and with His "heart".

Fourthly, re-viewing (seeing again)

We were taught, perhaps, to do an 'examination of conscience' at the end of the day in which we reviewed the day, noticing what was good and, in particular, where we had been bad: "that was good", "that was bad"; "that was good", "that was bad". There is, no doubt, a great deal we can learn from such an exercise but I wonder how many of us have found such an activity ultimately unsatisfying, a bit like our "list" of sins for the sacrament of reconciliation - the same old "record" being played over and over again. How different we, our relationships and our world become when, instead of seeing everything through our own eyes, we ask the Lord to show us what He wants us to see. We begin to notice, to see, to remember moments, experiences, relationships which we had, perhaps, over-looked, either consciously or sub-consciously, and we allow ourselves and our world to be seen in the light of God's love. His loving presence makes all the difference.

"Finding God in all things."

So, it might be that we are not able to find a time and place to pray regularly but, if we have the desire to do so, the opportunities will not only appear but we will, also, recognise those opportunities, instead of letting them pass us by. It might be, for example, that it is during the ten minutes in the car, driving to and from collecting a parent or grand-parent, a child or grand-child from the doctor or football or music that, instead of turning on the radio or making another call on the cell phone, we take the opportunity to surrender ourselves again to the Lord, speaking to Him of all that is in our heart and listening to Him speak to us of all that is in His heart. Slowly, gradually, gently, deeply, we will not only begin to recognize the Lord's loving presence in our lives and in the lives of those around us, what St Ignatius referred to as, 'finding God in all things', we will also recognise His voice "speaking" to us, leading us, guiding us in every moment of every day. And so, as Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the previous superior general of the Jesuits once wrote: prayer ‘is less a matter of searching for God than of allowing oneself to be found by Him in all of life's situations.'              

Fr Simon Bishop SJ

A possible structure to our prayer

A preparatory prayer

Father, show me who You are,

Holy Spirit, let me see with Your light, whatever You want me to see,

Jesus, lead me to wherever You want to meet me, so that, 

I may know You more intimately,

Love You more whole-heartedly and

Follow You more closely,

To Your greater service, praise and glory. Amen.

Pause  – make the sign of the Cross (slowly). Notice how God is looking at me.

Notice – how am I feeling: happy, sad; relaxed; worried; grateful; angry; peaceful; irritated?

Offer – this time of prayer to God’s greater praise and service.

Ask – God for what I want: what do I want, desire, need, today?

Listen – to God, especially in God’s Word, speaking to me: what word, phrase, picture, memory, moves me?

Silence - allow God to speak to me in the silence of my heart.

Conversation – speak to God about what is in my heart and let Him respond.

Finish -  thanking God, with the Our Father. Make the sign of the Cross (slowly). 

Review – what happened during this time of prayer?