You are currently viewing Field Notes on Prayer

Field Notes on Prayer

When it comes to prayer, I have to be honest: Although I pray every day, I’m not good at it. Even though I’m no expert, I want to share some of what I’ve learned from praying in the hope it will encourage you. Think of it as field notes from a practitioner. It certainly isn’t a master class.

What may be more helpful than my thoughts on prayer is sharing the wisdom of others who have encouraged me. Wherever you find yourself on the spiritual journey, I hope this reflection will encourage you to grow in prayer.

First, my thoughts . . .

More and more, I’ve come to view prayer as the intentional cultivation of my relationship with God. I’ve shifted away from seeing it as a task or an item on my “to-do list.” Approaching prayer as a relationship helps me enter into it aware of my weakness and need. Then, I can simply let God be God. The awareness of being in God encourages me to open myself, let go, and receive.

Ultimately, all prayer is surrendering to the divine presence. In that sense, every prayer is a version of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) It is an attempt to consciously surrender to God’s will and God’s way. My surrender is almost always a mix of letting go and holding back. Yet even my holding back opens me to conversion and lets me seek God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Now, some encouraging words from others . . .

“The longing to pray is the first prayer.” This insight comes from Father Edward J. Farrell and his wonderful book, Prayer is a Hunger. Longing focuses our energy and attention on what we desire. When our longing is focused on God, it is prayer. Hunger and thirst are frequent prayer images. It is there that prayer is born.

“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart.” For St. Therese of Lisieux, prayer emerges from the deepest place within her. It directs her attention toward God. She describes prayer as “a simple look toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.” 1 Her prayer encompasses the full scope of her experience – from joy to struggle.

A frequent image in Therese’s prayer is recognizing her sinfulness and running to the loving embrace of God. Her images of prayer depict her intimate relationship with God and her total dependence on God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love.

“I am so busy now that if I did not spend three hours each day in prayer, I could not get through the day.” Martin Luther’s prayer practice upends the notion that busyness prevents or excuses us from taking time to pray. He emphasizes that prayer is an essential grounding for thinking, deciding, and acting. Prayer provides the spiritual guidance we need to ground our lives and our service of others. Without the consistent spiritual nourishment of prayer, our life and our actions can become superficial and soulless.

“The only thing you can do wrong is quit.” The late Father Thomas Keating’s wisdom encourages persistence in prayer even when we are distracted or find ourselves in a dry season. He taught centering prayer to literally thousands of people. With gentle humor, Keating reminds us that prayer isn’t a skill or any kind of self-conscious achievement. It’s intentionally opening ourselves to the divine presence – no matter how often we are distracted.

When we get distracted and our minds wander off, Keating encourages us to return to our intent to be with God “as gently as setting a feather on a pillow.” No matter how awkward and distracted our prayer is, we don’t need to be good at it. We simply need to keep praying.

“Pray without ceasing.” Paul sees prayer at the heart of the Christian life. It is the spiritual equivalent of breathing. Prayer is living consciously in the presence of God: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5: 16-18)

When prayer is an intentional practice, it slowly begins to permeate our lives. Our superficial preoccupations and distractions begin to give way to a deeper sense of being in God – not just while we are in prayer but throughout our day.

These field notes provide emerging insights from my continuing journey. They end where they began: Although I pray every day, I’m not good at it. The good news is that my vulnerability and need open me to God. My lack of expertise urges me to trust the divine presence. Knowing I’m not good at prayer gives God room to work. My hope – and perhaps my ultimate prayer – is to persist in prayer until my life becomes my prayer. I long for my life to be a heartfelt surrender to God’s will and God’s way. As my journey continues, I trust Thomas Keating’s words of wisdom.
The only thing I can do wrong in prayer is to quit.

Invitation to Prayer

Wonderful God,
I come to you aware of my need
Help me open myself to you
Resting in your presence and love.
Give me courage so that I may
Let go of my agenda and my frantic efforts
Trust you more deeply than I trust myself
Relying totally on your mercy, forgiveness, and love.
In the midst of my distractions and busyness
Draw me ever closer to you
Warm me in your presence
Deepening my commitment to you.
During this time of prayer and throughout my entire life
Help me surrender to your will and our way . . .

1 My insights into Therese’s prayer are based on a wonderful book by the late Joseph Schmidt
and Marisa Guerin: Life Lessons from St. Therese of Lisieux. (The Word Among Us Press,
Frederick MD, 2022) Thank you!