What is prayer? Why should I pray? How do I pray? This page gives some answers, but basically we should pray because to pray is to be truly human.
Why should I pray? ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’. These words of Saint Augustine tell us that we all naturally desire God. Look into the depths of your heart and you will find that this is true. This desire is often fixed on earthly things, not God, but it is what enables us to pray. We should pray because to pray is to be truly human.
What is prayer? Prayer is talking to God; prayer is asking for things; prayer is lifting up your heart and mind to God; prayer is the sweetness of union with God.
What is the best prayer? An essential part of prayer is common worship with other Christians, what we call ‘liturgy’. The best prayer is the Eucharist, which Jesus commanded us to celebrate, where we join our prayers to those of Jesus as he offers his one sacrifice on the Cross to the Father. At the Eucharist we are helped to pray by ‘angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. In addition to the Eucharist, Jesus taught us to pray in other ways. At different times, different ways of prayer help us.
How should I pray? Jesus said: ‘…whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret’ (Matthew 6.6) and ‘pray in this way’ (Matthew 6.9-13): Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
A wise old monk once said, ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. Our task is to find the best ways for us to pray and we can ask God to help us in this. Possible ways may include silence, talking to God, writing, making music or making things. Others are mentioned below. Each of us is unique and is loved by God just as we are. Our way of prayer will develop as our relationship with God grows and we should be attentive to this. Words often slide into silence.
To whom should I pray? We have seen the answer to this. Jesus told us to pray to God our Father in heaven, and Christian prayer is often offered to the Father through the Son or in his name (John 16.23-24). Jesus is also God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, so we can pray to him as St Stephen did at his death (Acts 7.59). Likewise the Holy Spirit is God and so we can pray to the Spirit as the Church does when it prays ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. At the Eucharist we pray to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. All Christian prayer is Trinitarian.
A Christian never prays alone, we are always surrounded by angels. We can also ask others to pray for us. From the beginning of the Church, Christians have realised that we can also ask those who are close to Jesus in heaven to pray for us, the Virgin Mary, the angels and the saints. We don’t have to do this but, if I ask my friend to pray for me and if I take the communion of saints seriously, how much more should I ask my friends who are close to God in heaven to pray for us. One popular prayer, centred on Jesus, is: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death (Luke 1:28, 42).
Prayer is not just something we do. We clear the ground but prayer is really God’s work in us. We are invited to participate in this work. St Paul knew this as he wrote: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8:26).
A French priest once noticed that an old man spent hours in his church sitting before the image of Christ on the Cross. When he asked the old man what he was doing, he said, ‘he looks at me and I look at him’. This is prayer.
You can pray anywhere and at any time but, as athletes and musicians need to train and practice, it is helpful to put aside time each day to be with God. As little as ten minutes might do in the beginning and the time and place must be realistic – it might be in a quiet place or it might be during a commute. More on prayer, with the words of some prayers, is found on the Healing page.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘I am far too busy to pray for less than two hours a day’. This may sound unrealistic but we are commanded to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17) and if prayer is a heart fixed on God we can do this whatever else we are doing.
Some things that can help us pray
THE PRAY AS YOU GO APP
This is a 12 minute meditation for busy people. You can listen to it on your laptop or mobile device anytime, anywhere. The Pray as You Go App is available on Google Play or the App Store
This centuries-old way of prayer involves the repetition of a few familiar prayers while meditating on the mysteries in the lives of Jesus and Mary. The Virgin Mary leads us to Jesus and is our model in prayer as she meditated in her heart on the mysteries of Jesus (Luke 2.19). In the rosary we use a set of prayer beads to count the prayers and engage our body while our mind and heart meditate on the mysteries. It is a simple way of prayer – once learned it is very easy, and the rosary can lead you into deep contemplation. It is very popular in the Roman Catholic Church but is often used by Anglicans. This video gives a practical introduction to the Rosary from an Anglican perspective.
One of the best books on the Rosary is by a Methodist, J Neville Ward: Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy: A Consideration of the Rosary. The texts of the prayers, the names of the mysteries, and all you need to know to start praying the rosary can be found here.
THE JESUS PRAYER
This simple way of prayer involves the repetition of the holy name of Jesus, often in the form ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’. It is often combined with our breathing. It was developed centuries ago in the Christian East and is often said using a prayer rope (called a chotki in Russian or komboskini in Greek). This video tells you more about the Jesus Prayer.
Helpful short books about the Jesus Prayer include: The Way of a Pilgrim, available in many translations; The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality by Kallistos Ware; and The Jesus Prayer by a Monk of the Eastern Church.
These words literally mean ‘sacred reading’ in Latin. Lectio divina is a way of reading the Bible slowly, paying attention to the words and letting them churn around in your mind, which leads to prayer and contemplation. It is a very ancient practice. About 1,000 years ago a monk called Guigo said it was like being a cow – you take a bite of scripture, chew it over again and again, until it is digested in the stomach and produces milk and cream. The four stages with their traditional names are: reading (lectio), slowly reading the text and attending to the words; meditation (meditatio), thinking your way around the text and wondering what it means in itself and for you; prayer (oratio), asking God for help in understanding the text; contemplation (contemplatio), when your thinking slows and stops and the Holy Spirit takes you out of yourself to enjoy God’s presence. This is very different from modern methods of study. To start, simply give yourself 10–20 minutes with your Bible, pick a shortish passage, perhaps one of the daily readings at the Eucharist, and begin reading. Don’t be afraid to go back over the text again and again.
Helpful books about lectio divina are: Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina; David Foster’s Reading with God: Lectio Divina; and M Basil Pennington’s Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures.
THE DIVINE OFFICE
Sometimes called ‘Daily Prayer’, this is the series of services throughout the day that have been prayed in the Church from its earliest days. At its most basic it is Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, perhaps with Compline or Night Prayer. Each ‘Office’ consists of psalms, scripture and prayers. Priests, monks and nuns are obliged to pray the Office every day but it has become more and more popular with lay people in recent years. Each Church has its own Office, that of the Scottish Episcopal Church is in a volume called Daily Prayer but individual Episcopalians also pray the Roman Office, the Daily Office of the Society of St Francis, or the Office in the Book of Common Prayer.
There are some useful websites and apps to help you pray the Divine Office: Scottish Episcopal Daily Prayer, the Church of England Daily Prayer app (which also has the Book of Common Prayer Office) and the Roman Catholic site Universalis which has apps and the ability to pray the Office in different languages.