He could have responded with amazement: “How can you not know how to pray? I have been with you all this time. You have heard me as I prayed. You know that when I pray, I simply communicate with the Father. Are you so dense that you can’t even imitate a little of my prayers?”
Instead, he was gracious, gentle and insightful. He taught them from the depths of his heart and soul.
“Our Father, who art in heaven …”
With heart and soul — I try to do the same when someone asks me how they should pray.
I do get asked that question occasionally. I am certainly no expert on the subject other than the fact that I love to pray, in a variety of ways and at a variety of times throughout the day and night. I consider prayer to be a key part of my vocation, a key aspect of my calling as a Catholic Christian. But where prayer is concerned, I’m still a work in progress. I still have much to learn.
I try to help nonetheless. The person posing the question may be someone who didn’t grow up with any faith tradition and thus never was taught how to pray. Or the person might have strayed from the faith of their youth. Perhaps they are enduring a dry period of prayer. Or they might have suffered through some situation that separated their mind and heart from God, and they don’t know how to return to conversation with him.
No matter whom they are or what their background might be, I always start with the same suggestion:
It’s that simple … and yet it’s that complicated. You can start in a small way. Near the end of every day, perhaps right before you go to bed, pull out a piece of paper and write down three things – only three – for which you are thankful. It might be something that happened to you. It might be a nice thing someone said to you. If the day wasn’t a particularly good one, then the three things might not seem special. But if your list says “took a shower, ate something, had a roof over my head,” then so be it. Be grateful for whatever is on your list and thank God for that list as you fall asleep.
Or it could be a slightly more involved yet energizing activity. It can start from the moment you open your eyes in the morning and step out of the bed. You might say things such as this:
I can feel my feet on the floor. I’m standing up. Thank you, God, for my feet and legs. I had a roof over my head last night. I slept in a soft, warm bed. Thank you, God, for my house and my bed and the alarm clock that awakened me.
You don’t have feet or legs? You don’t live in your own house, your bed isn’t warm or soft? Well, things are definitely difficult for you, challenging, seemingly hopeless at times. But … praise God anyway.
I need to get ready for work. As I step into the shower, I feel the warm and clean water washing my body, waking me up a little more. The water’s sound fills my ears. I can feel the soap in my hands and fingers. I can smell the pleasant scent of the shampoo in my hair. After the shower, I see the soft towel to use to dry off. When I brush my teeth, the toothpaste tastes fresh and delightful. Thank you, God, for giving me a job, a reason to get up in the morning. Thank you for the warm water. Thank you for my senses – my ability to hear, to feel, to smell, to taste, to see.
You hate your job, or you don’t have a job? Praise God anyway. Your water isn’t warm or perfectly clean – or perhaps you aren’t able to take a daily shower? Praise God anyway. Maybe you’re like me: I have lost 70 percent of my hearing in my left ear, 30 percent in the right. My sense of smell isn’t sharp. I need glasses to see well. If your senses are less than perfect … praise God anyway.
Think of your spouse, of your children, of your parents and siblings and everyone else among your extended family. Think of your best friend – think of all your close friends – and your neighbors. Think of the people you see at church every Sunday, the people with whom you work, all of those boys and girls you played with as a child, the memories of smiles and laughter and prayer and work together. Thank God for all of those people.
You don’t have a spouse, because of divorce or death or never having been married? Or you don’t have a good relationship with your spouse? You don’t get along with your children, you worry about your children’s plight or you never have had children? You don’t feel like you have many friends? You don’t attend any church services, perhaps because of a bad experience with organized religion? You don’t have good memories of your childhood? Well … praise God anyway.
This is what Habukkuk – one of the 12 minor prophets in the Bible’s Old Testament – understood extremely well. Life is filled with blessings. Sometimes, we don’t recognize them as well as we should. Life also is splattered with difficulties, and we do recognize those things immediately. It shouldn’t matter. We should be grateful to God for everything.
From the third chapter of the Book of Habakkuk:
O LORD, I have heard your renown, and am in awe, O LORD, of your work.
I hear, and my body trembles; at the sound, my lips quiver.
Decay invades my bones, my legs tremble beneath me.
I await the day of distress that will come upon the people who attack us.
For though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit appears on the vine,
Though the yield of the olive fails
and the terraces produce no nourishment,
Though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
and exult in my saving God.
GOD, my Lord, is my strength.
Your life has its challenges. Everyone’s life has challenges, so you are not alone. Sure, you might feel alone in whatever your specific circumstances are. But others have lived lives similar to yours. Others understand. The cupboard may be sparsely filled, the fridge somewhat empty. Your car might be old and needing repairs. Your body might be breaking down with age, as you feel new aches and pains every day, or you might be battling some illness. The bills might be intimidating and debt growing. You might cry often. You might think you have no one to listen to your woes.
Or there might be so many good things happening in your life that you aren’t sure you deserve them.
Whether you are enjoying the scenery atop the mountain or suffering down in the valley, there is only one way to behave: “Rejoice in the Lord. Exult in my saving God, who is your Lord, your strength.”
Praise God anyway!