We Learn to Pray by Praying

By Cathy H. George

Collect of the Day: Almighty God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve; in the quiet of this hour open our hearts to your love for us and teach us to pray.

Every time I hear or pray the prayer, the Collect as we call them, assigned for today, it takes me by surprise. Each year it is prayed on this Sunday, which means I have heard it at the very least 30 times. And every time it takes me by surprise: God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray — and to give more than we either desire or deserve.” Really? Could it be true? Do you find that as astounding as I do? I don’t pray as if God is always ready to hear or willing to give me more than I desire or deserve.

Prayer is the many-faceted relationship between what is human and what is divine. It is a lifelong practice. One goal of prayer is to gain an increasingly transparent relationship between ourselves and God that unites with what is mundane and extraordinary in our daily lives.

Most of us have an easier time praying when we stop, are quiet, pause in the woods, or come and sit in a church. We pray by thanking God for things, asking for help, praying for those we love. And it is easy to forget that our prayer rises from the pew and goes with us. The actions of our day are as sacred and glorifying to God as our prayers in quiet.

When we are working in a laboratory, washing dishes, editing a manuscript, performing surgery, watering a garden or caring for a child, we can be at prayer. When the engine of our body’s energy is linked to its source, divine energy, we can see our life and breath, ideas and creativity, skills, patience, and kindness as active prayer. Our work becomes a form of prayer, a way to remain in connection with God as significant as the prayer of quiet.

Prayer is our relationship to God. It takes many forms. In its ancient, monastic form, prayer was not only what a monk or nun did in chapel. Prayer sets out from the chapel bench and surrounds us in our boardrooms, classrooms, and kitchens. Prayer is the energy given to us to complete the tasks of the day. As Bishop and scholar Krister Stendahl defined it, the Holy Spirit, one manifestation of God in Christianity, is best understood as “Energy for Life.”

In the back of our prayer book is the Catechism, the formal teachings of the Episcopal Church. They offer definitions and descriptions of the elements of our theology, history, and practice as Episcopalians. For those of you who are confirmed in the church, your confirmation might well have been the last time you looked at them.

The Catechism defines prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” It is an expansive definition of prayer. Simple, and profound. It affirms that our actions are prayers, our thoughts are prayers, what we do, what we say by word or action or without words at all, are prayer.

Let’s begin with the opening. Prayer is responding. Prayer is not something we initiate. The Spirit of God stirs us to prayer. The initiative is God’s; prayer is all the ways we respond to God. Prayer is free, no fees, only commitment. No commute involved, no need for an appointment, no technology glitches to worry about — prayer is always available to us. We can never overindulge in prayer.

Prayer asks three things of us: our time, attention, and honesty.

Look at a prayer you may have been saying for years, a prayer that in the Scriptures Jesus teaches us: the Lord’s Prayer — short sentences, everything expressed in a few lines; heaven, earth, food, life, death, good, and evil. The prayer can live with us as we go about our day and help us pray in a whole new way. Prayers take form in our mind when a scene of good or evil is in the news. Deliver us from evil. Give bread to the hungry. Lead us not into temptation. We watch the world through eyes of prayer. Prayer is a form of life.

Some simple suggestions. Nike got it right: Just do it. It is true of physical exercise and true of practicing an art like writing, painting, or dancing. Thinking about it, talking about it, buying new pens and a notebook, or running shoes, is still not doing it. Praying is something we just do. It is not something we are good or bad at, the more we do it, the more comfortable we get at doing it. We try, we try again, we go back to it every day, we forget, sometimes for weeks or months or even years. Then we start over.

The Scriptures invite us to “Pray without ceasing.” That means that prayer belongs everywhere we go and can be found in everything we do. We pray together here in church, and our prayer goes with us from here into the lives we live in the world. As we exercise the muscle of prayer, it becomes stronger, more agile, just as the more you walk or run, the stronger your legs get; the more you practice a new language, the better you get at speaking it.

Not unlike breathing, prayer always takes place in the present. We can’t take a breath in the past, or breathe now for the future. Breathing exists in the present moment. Prayer cultivates an ability to be fully present in the moment.

Prayer is not easy. It gets messy. It isn’t always orderly, or well-formed. We are human; we make mistakes every day. We do things we wish we had not done. We regret decisions we make. So, this means that if we meet God in the present moment, the fact is that there are a lot of “present moments” I don’t want God to be part of! I want to hide from God. I am impatient, even cruel. I say things that are mean. I don’t want the presence of God with me all the time, to see every white lie I tell and every time I blow it. What does our opening collect have to say to this?

God is more ready to hear than we are to pray, and more willing to give more than we either desire or deserve — that changes things. We are not living life on a stage performing for God and running behind the curtain when we do something we don’t want God or anyone else to see. God knows us, completely, fully, intimately. There is no hiding and no running.

Someone came to me once to talk about prayer and he told me he tried to pray in the morning, but he liked to have his coffee and his calendar to begin each day. It never dawned on him that his morning coffee and calendar could be part of the prayer he was devoting time to each day.

There is no secular world. Pray while running, while listening to music, at work, on the bus or train, driving kids around after school. Pray in the woods, or under a tree in a city park, pray while cooking or gliding across a lake in a kayak. A full-time teacher with four children asked me with embarrassment if God would be offended if she prayed at the gym on the treadmill. If that is the time she has at this stage of her life, God is more ready to hear than she is to pray. God has planted the desire to pray in her.

Something to beware of, to look out for: negative, critical voices talking you out of praying. They sound something like this: What a waste of time. You think God is listening? If you were good at prayer, you wouldn’t do it on the run. The evil one despises prayer. And he often doesn’t bother with us until we take a step closer to God, until we begin to pray.

When we do, our efforts are undermined. Pray in the car? Don’t you have a better time for God than this? Pray in a boardroom? God doesn’t listen in an office! Stop wasting God’s time and yours. Get busy, do something worth your while. Walking is not real prayer, it’s exercise. How could the Creator be in your creativity when your painting looks so bad, and your poems never sell? Give it up, get busy, do something productive, you’re no good at prayer. Open the door and invite the negative voices to leave.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron warns us that this voice “keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks often disguised as the truth … a cunning foe.” Every time we get smarter, it does too. Pray for protection from the adversarial voice. Laugh at it when you recognize it (Oh, you again, you’re such a bore, go away). Don’t be surprised by its presence as we commit ourselves to pray. Most important of all: remind yourself that as you pray for protection, the adversary loses its force before the light and love of God.

Speak to God as you go about your day with honest, simple words. Ask for what you need. Practice gratitude as a life stance. Do not assume God knows everything: talk to God. The Spirit within each of us connects us to the Spirit of God, That Spirit listens to us and guides us when we ask for help and direction. God has initiated the desire in you to pray. Your prayer is a response to God’s invitation, and God is more ready to hear than we are to pray and to give more than we either desire or deserve.

“Praying” by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The Dr. Cathy H. George is associate dean and director of formation at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and assistant dean of Yale Divinity School.


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