Two minutes of silence. Being one with nature while pulling weeds out of the garden. Singing “Jesus, I trust in you.” Helping someone reach the box of cereal on the top shelf of the grocery store aisle.
These are brief moments, but the creator of the universe lives in each one and each one is a prayer.
Every grand gesture Jesus made, from raising Lazarus from the dead to allowing a blind man to see to healing a woman afflicted with bleeding, came from a quiet, longing desire, whether tears of grief from Mary and Margaret, a plain request, “Master, I want to see,” or a touch of his robe.
As Catholics enter Lent and look to strengthen their prayer life after the traumatic events of 2020 that continue today, there’s a chance of missing the point of prayer.
“We want a formula. That’s part of our scientific mindset. A plus B equals C. Prayer is nothing about that,” said author Cackie Upchurch of Fort Smith, former Little Rock Scripture Study director and general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible. “Prayer is entering into the mystery of God and ultimately, I don’t think there’s a formula to do that. There’s lots of methods we can try that suits us, or suits us for a time, but I don’t think there’s any formula that’s going to work.”
Instead, the faithful can reshape their minds to look toward the mystery that is being in conversation with God.
Father Jerome Kodell, OSB, author, spiritual director and former abbot of Subiaco Abbey, said there are different definitions of prayer, but a favorite is “turning purposely to be attentive to God.”
“A decision to open yourself to the presence of God, however you do it. And spend time that way. It can be with words and without words, but the purpose is to be open to God,” he said. “... People get to put all kinds of pressures on themselves with prayer. God knows exactly who we are; he wants to listen to us and be with us.”
St. Augustine said, “The desire to pray is prayer itself.” While true, human nature can cause overthinking and frustration. St. Teresa of Kolkata, who struggled with not feeling God’s presence, said of prayer, “The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.”
“We want some kind of an emotional connection to the experience and that doesn’t always happen. So I think that makes us think, ‘I must not be doing this correctly,’” Upchurch said of prayer. “If our intention is to be with God, aware of God’s presence with us, I don't think there could be a wrong way to do that.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines five different types of prayer (no. 2623-2649), as shared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
• “Blessing and adoration; prayers of adoration praising God, dependence on him (Gloria and act of faith)
• “Petition; asking God for spiritual and physical needs (Our Father)
• “Intercession; make requests to God on behalf of others (Watch, O Lord, St. Augustine)
• “Thanksgiving; prayers of thanks to God for good things (Grace before meals)
• “Praise; prayers of praise we express love for God, source of all love (act of charity)”
An easy way to remember the types of prayer is remember ACTS:
A = adoration
C = contrition
T = thanksgiving
S = supplication
There are some personalities better suited to certain styles of prayer.
“I think people who tend to be introverted -- I don’t necessarily mean shy, but their inner life is more private, more quiet -- I think for them it might be more natural feeling to contemplate, to meditate, to use the rosary as a tool to enter into that mediation on the mysteries of Christ,” Upchurch said, adding that someone who is more “external” in their spiritual life may connect prayer with a work of service.
However, switching to a new style of prayer can create balance.
Poet T.S. Elliot said, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” That can easily be said of prayer, Father Kodell said.
“We can’t really program what’s going to happen in prayer,” he said. “One of the secrets of the saints is if you give time for prayer, it may be during that time God does not appear or show himself or make himself obvious. But then other times during the day, you might be surprised by God’s presence because you put the time in, because God is not on our schedule.”
Father Kodell said in his early years studying theology, he was “very intellectual” with prayer, which bogged him down. Today, it’s centered on trust in God.
“I like to repeat words from Scripture, especially those that have to do with vocations. For example, the words of Samuel who says, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’ Isaiah, ‘Who will go for us? Here I am, send me,’” he said. “To repeat different kinds of willingness to be present to God without thinking too much about it … it’s very comforting and it centers you.”
Repeating “Come, Lord Jesus” from Revelation 22:20 or the similar Aramaic phrase, “Maranatha,” can free someone’s mind, he said.
Throughout the day you can say breath prayers, also called arrow prayers. Shoot an arrow prayer just like you say hello, thank you or please. They can be a short Scripture or a few words. Arrow prayers can be something like “Jesus, I trust in you” or "Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief."
“I think a lot of times people set the bar too high for prayer and maybe if they haven’t been praying, they set the time to pray for 20 minutes or an hour and that’s hard. If you can be silent for two minutes in the silence of God, that’s a great effort,” Father Kodell said.
St. Paul said, “Pray without ceasing,” but that concept is hard to understand. Upchurch explained for most people, “You’ve got to have a job, you can’t pray all day,” but when a person understands prayer as an openness to God, it can change lives.
“This is how I'm responding to God at this moment, that’s prayer. Dedicating ourselves to our (career) calling, our call to our families, that's prayer,” she said. “... You show up to pray, but having a disposition of prayerfulness that permeates your life, that’s the goal.”
That doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t set aside time to talk with God and read Scripture as “It gives us the framework, the skeleton life of a disciple,” she said.
There are countless examples of prayer in the Bible, including Genesis 28 when Jacob stole Esau’s birthright “and has to get out of Dodge before his brother kills him,” Upchurch said. While sleeping in the desert, God promises protection, land and inheritance.
Jacob responds in verse 16, “Truly, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”
The idea of God’s constant presence can be a comfort amid tragedy or from all the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic -- loss of life and livelihoods, health concerns and loneliness -- when it seems God has not answered prayers.
“If we’ve had the courage to go to God in the first place, then we have to be open to the possibility that God is going to continue to work in our lives right within the tragedy, and we are going to be changed in some way and it may not be the ways we anticipate or the outcome we anticipate, but in the process we are going to be changed,” she said.
Jesus cried out in prayer, fully human, asking God from the cross, “Why have you abandoned me?” Beyond the physical suffering, Jesus experienced abandonment and loneliness from those closest to him. A central promise of Scripture, Upchurch said, is Jesus’ words, “I am with you always.”
“That’s the best we can hope for because it’s the very best,” she said.
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