There was once a day when the best prayer I had in my arsenal was more or less a negotiation tactic. A bargaining with God, you could say. “God, if you get me out of this mess, I promise to be a good boy,” was more or less the deal I was willing to make when I found myself in a painful jam. Other than that, I mostly avoided communicating with God until I came to a turning point in my life that required a spiritual solution.
The problem was, I had no spiritual weapons. I was told to pray, but with little guidance on how to do it. I knew of a few Catholic prayers from growing up, so I employed those here and there. It felt like it wasn’t enough. It felt like I was just reciting words that I wasn’t even acknowledging the meaning of. I said the serenity prayer. A lot. I constantly repeated it to myself as I was haunted by feelings of remorse, temptations to return to the bottle, and horrible bouts of self-pity.
Either because it was the best solution to my problem or because he wanted to deflect the question, my spiritual guide through the early stages of my recovery would ask if I had spent time praying about whatever it was that was bothering me. “Sometimes, the best thing you can do is be still and do nothing.” Heeding this advice, I had no idea that I was beginning a life of prayer to supplement my slowly growing set of spiritual tools.
So what is prayer and how do you begin to be prayerful?
Put simply, prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God. Keep it simple. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in theology to pray. You need not be in a state of holiness to enter into prayer. God does not ask to see a certificate before entering into communication with Him.
Moreover, you don’t even need to “know how to pray” in order to enter into prayer. As Saint Paul write in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:26), “For we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
What a gift it is that upon raising our mind and heart to God, we need not have the right words or even be able to articulate to ourselves what it is that we want and need. The Spirit of the Lord can enter into our hearts and prayers to reveal the deepest groanings—those longings—within us!
Along those same lines, your prayer also doesn’t have to be pretty. I recall many days in early sobriety when the only thing I could bring to God was, “Help me.” My body ripe with grief and discomfort, I broke down and got on my knees next to my bed, throwing my arms in the air towards the heavens. “Help me,” was all I could my heart could muster as I maintained my humble posture.
Looking back, I see moments of prayer like this as some of the closest that I have come to God’s mercy. Like the merciful father running towards the lost son (Luke 15:11-32), God came to meet me when I came back seeking him. He still does, every time.
I would like to offer a few different types of prayer that have been useful in every day occurrences and help form a regular pattern of spiritual connection with God. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of prayer types, but a good start for one who is looking to establish a foundation for prayer or grow in their interior life.
Prayer of Gratitude/Thanksgiving
Acknowledging the gifts you’ve been given is a great way to humble yourself and recognize that the things—material or immaterial—that we have are not of our own doing. This can be simply thanking God for the daily reprieve given to stay sober/free one day at a time. Whether done via direct communication with God or not, I believe this is a prayerful act that is an acknowledgment of divine good and can be a very powerful practice, especially in moments of suffering.
Many people suggest reciting or writing down a gratitude list. For many spiritual giants, this prayerful exercise is an integral part of their daily routine. It can be a great weapon to escape moments of self-pity and interior suffering. I might suggest making a list of five or ten things you’re grateful for and spend some time dwelling on those blessings. I’ve found a lot of help when reciting an alphabetical gratitude list as well, starting with something/someone I’m grateful for that starts with the letter ‘A’, then ‘B’, and so on…
Prayer Acknowledging Current Situation
This can be a very honest conversation had with God, just as if you are communicating with a good friend. Making your present situation known to God creates a trust that the Lord understands your condition and seeks what is best for you. While this may not necessarily make the circumstances any different, it can bring an awakening to the fact that our emotional conditions are only temporary and used to build us in virtue. Moreover, I’ve found that by simply sharing my mental/emotional state with God can help take the sting and the power away from the situation at hand.
Ronald Rolheiser puts this really well:
Because we don’t understand what prayer is, we treat God as an authority figure or a visiting dignitary—as someone whom we don’t tell the real truth. We don’t tell God what is really going on in our lives. We tell God what we think God wants to hear…
The problem is that we are trying to lift to God thoughts and feelings that are not our own. If we take seriously that prayer is “lifting mind and heart to God,” then every feeling and every thought we have is a valid and apt entry into prayer, no matter how irreverent, unholy, selfish, sexual, or angry that thought or feeling mays seems.
Simply put, if you go to pray and you are feeling angry, pray anger; if you are sexually preoccupied, pray that preoccupation; if you are feeling murderous, pray murder; and if you are feeling full of fervor and want to praise and thank God, pray fervor. Every thought or feeling is a valid entry into prayer. What’s important is that we pray what’s inside of us and not what we think God would like to see inside of us.[i]
There is a great deal of wisdom in the prayers suggested by the Church and from recovery programs throughout the world. The most famous one handed down by Jesus Christ himself, The Lords Prayer. These prayers—some of which you may be familiar with from growing up, others which may be completely new to you—are a great starting point when you don’t know what to pray (and ending point when you do know how to pray).
There is a beautiful rhythm to these prayers that combine intercession, thanksgiving, petition, and adoration. See the list of some suggested prayers for more of these, some which deal specifically with recovery and working the twelve steps.
Some Tips on Prayer
- Pray whenever you can. As noted above, you don’t need to be in a place of worship or feel like you’re in a “holy state of mind” to enter into communication with the Lord. Every moment offers and opportunity to lift your heart and mind to God.
- With that being said, find a quiet place and time for intimate prayer. It may be hard to do at first and may require slowly building up your routine. Free yourself from all other distractions (including your phone) and take time to join in communion with God. If necessary:
- Start with five minutes then add another minute or two over the course of some time.
- Use a stopwatch so that you’re not thinking about how much time it has been. (I know, I know: the only stop watch you have might be on your phone. If you have to use your phone’s stopwatch then put your phone on airplane mode to guarantee you’re not distracted)
- Holding something physical, like rosary beads or a palm cross, can give constant reminders of what you are doing and add to the sensory effects of prayer.
- Don’t be discouraged if your mind wanders. Recognize it when it happens, take note of where your mind is going, and refocus yourself. With continual repetition and persistence, your mind will wander less and less during your devoted prayer time.
- Posture is important. As mentioned in my personal experience above, bending down on your knees to pray can give the body, mind, and soul a natural sense of humility. An open posture (arms not crossed but open and available) can bring a degree of reception to whatever may come and help in the listening process of prayer.
- Breathing is important too. If you don’t know what to pray, I may also suggest taking deep breaths in while envisioning the breathe of God entering your body. On your exhales, envision that sin/worry/doubt/fear/shortcomings are exiting your body. This can be a very enriching prayer process. In addition, it’s also very biblical! God’s breathe gives life to man (Genesis 2:7) in the creation story and is the source of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2-4).
- Keep a prayer journal to focus your thoughts and be reminded of what is on your heart. Some people can form prayerful thoughts easier if they write it down. This can also help shed some distraction.
- Use scripture to pray and listen to what God is saying to you at that moment. In addition to the bible—which “is living and active, sharper than a double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrew 4:12)—recovery literature can be helpful to aid in focusing a thought or reflection to bring to prayer.
[i] Rolheiser, Ron. Prayer: Our Deepest Longing. Franciscan Media, 2013.