Am I Praying Correctly?
To use much speaking in prayer is to employ a superfluity of words in asking a necessary thing; but to prolong prayer is to have the heart throbbing with continued pious emotion towards Him to whom we pray. For in most cases prayer consists more in groaning than in speaking, in tears rather than in words. But He sets our tears in His sight, and our groaning is not hidden from Him who made all things by the word, and does not need human words.
St. Augustine’s Letter to Proba, Chapter 10, Paragraph 20
Happy Easter season!
Earlier this month, I was experiencing difficulties in prayer: I often felt distracted during my daily holy hour or Mass, and I got the sense that I wasn’t praying “correctly,” meaning in a way pleasing to God. From this experience, I found myself coming into agreement with two subtle lies: (1) If I don’t pray “correctly,” then God will not be with me that day, and the opposite (2) If I do pray “correctly,” then God will show up and I will feel His presence. When I fall into this all-or-nothing attitude, I also notice that I tend to grasp for good things to be under my control, instead of simply receiving what I need from God as gift.
Both of these propositions above are rooted in a negative performance-based mentality. This means I fell into thinking that my own “performance” in prayer or service to others results in earning God’s presence or love. In this thinking, “the better I pray, the more God will love me”. Thankfully, God’s love for us and His presence in our lives are not based strictly on our own ability; God loves each of us more than we could ever imagine, and He shows up in our lives in a multitude of ways.
If God seems absent from my life, I may need to evaluate my expectation for HOW God will show up. Perhaps I have a preconception that I will have a strong feeling of God’s presence during Mass, especially the consecration. When I then find myself distracted during that particular time of the Mass and I don’t feel God’s presence in a strong way, my conclusion is that God is absent.
God’s presence in my life, however, is not limited by the finite ways I can imagine He will show up. He is more present to me than my mind can even understand. Indeed, by not necessarily verifying my preconception of how He should show up, but showing up in a different way, God is expanding my understanding of Himself. I cannot constrain God’s presence to feeling a particular thing during a particular time in Mass; God shows up in the flesh, everyday, in the people around me, the words of encouragement I receive from the girls at Lisieux House, the gentle gifts He provides in my life, the opportunities to share the faith at work and with my family, and the deep desire within my own heart for relationship with Him and others.
Instead of being so concerned if I am praying “correctly” then, I have learned that “to pray” is to simply show up and acknowledge my real need before the Lord, and to accept the good things He wants to give me as gift. In the Early Church (A.D. 412), a widow named Proba reached out to her bishop asking how to pray better. Her bishop, who just happened to be the great St. Augustine, responded with a full letter response to Proba, in which he says the following:
When we cherish uninterrupted desire along with the exercise of faith and hope and charity, we pray always...And therefore, what else is intended by the words of the apostle: Pray without ceasing, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 than, Desire without intermission, from Him who alone can give it, a happy life, which no life can be but that which is eternal?...But at certain hours we recall our minds from other cares and business, in which desire itself somehow is cooled down, to the business of prayer, admonishing ourselves by the words of our prayer to fix attention upon that which we desire, lest what had begun to lose heat become altogether cold...Whence, also, when the same apostle says, Let your requests be made known unto God, Philippians 4:6 this is not to be understood as if thereby they become known to God, who certainly knew them before they were uttered, but in this sense, that they are to be made known to ourselves in the presence of God...
St. Augustine’s Letter to Proba, Chapter 9, Paragraph 18
As St. Augustine reminds Proba, the foundation of prayer is to acknowledge the reality of our need before the Lord. We use words during prayer time to simply remind ourselves of this desire for God. To grow in awareness of our own need for God, I have found that reading the Psalms - the book of poetry in the Bible - helps give me the language I need to express my longing for God. Psalms 42, 63, and 84 are particularly helpful in this.
Now, when I feel God’s absence in my life, I try to ask myself: What preconceptions am I holding on to that are limiting my ability to perceive God’s presence? By identifying these preconceptions, I can see where I am putting God is a box of sorts instead of letting Him love me as He desires.
Finally, when I feel like I am not praying “correctly” and start to fall into a performance-based mindset, I can turn to St. Augustine’s advice to simply “fix attention upon that which we desire,” that is, for relationship with the One who loves me beyond all imagining, and for whom my soul longs “as a deer longs for streams of running water” (Psalm 42:1).
For the full letter of St. Augustine to the widow Proba, please see the link here.