Prayer Frequently Asked Questions
I haven’t prayed in years. Where do I start?
What do you want to say to God? God longs to hear from you, and as in any good relationship, your communication with God should be as open and honest as possible. God is waiting to listen to you, whether your words are anguished or full of joy, trivial or momentous, eloquent or stammering. You can pray in words, without words, with your emotions, with your intentions, or in images. You can pray silently, aloud, or in writing. The most critical aspect of prayer is that it come from your heart as an authentic, felt communication.
Start with where you are. What are your most pressing concerns and questions for God? Many of us have a sense that we need to pray to God in a formal, established kind of speech. However, it’s possible to use your own spontaneous language to speak to God about your real feelings. If you don’t have any idea of what you would like to say, just sit quietly for a while and talk to God about whatever comes up. Or you can dedicate your prayer time to God and just sit in silence, trusting that God will be with you. Our longing for God is a prayer.
For those who find themselves unable to pray spontaneously, a set prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, or the Jesus Prayer can be very helpful:
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. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
A prayer that we know by heart can feel like a lifeline when we are in danger or distress and need something to hold onto.
I’m uncomfortable with the idea of God as a personal being. Why should I address God in that way?
You don’t have to address God in that way. If you’re uncomfortable praying to God as if God has a personal aspect, then you can engage in some kind of silent prayer or meditation instead. See the Centering Prayer section of this website for instructions on one way to do this.
However, it can sometimes be helpful to try praying to God as a personal being even if you feel some resistance to it. If you would like to have a closer relationship with God, it requires some work, which involves breaking down the obstacles within ourselves that separate us from God. Our culture encourages us to be as independent and self-reliant as possible, but in order to become closer to God we must recognize the ways in which we need God. This is very difficult for almost all of us. We are frightened of intimacy and frightened of needing others, especially an other as mysterious as God. If you try praying to God in a personal way, you may find it a very emotional experience. Be gentle with yourself and God will help you.
I was brought up as a Christian, but I’m very uncomfortable with Christianity because of the intolerance and bigotry I see in some Christians in the world today and throughout history. How do I pray?
Many deeply prayerful Christian people are embarrassed to be Christians today. Christianity sometimes seems to be a code word in our culture for everything we consider un-Christian. Yet there are as many different Christianities as there are Christians. The teachings of Jesus maintain their power and continue to attract followers in spite of the wrongs that have been done in their name.
Many of us who were brought up in the Christian tradition may feel so distressed by certain aspects of Christianity that we feel forced to leave and explore other options. This exploration can be deeply healing. The teachings of different faith traditions may help us to understand our own tradition more deeply and to find new ways to interpret our tradition and live by our beliefs. The Exploring Different Faiths section of this website looks at this subject in more detail.
It is possible to pray to God even when we’re not sure what religion we belong to. We can ask that God guide and help us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can pray that God will guide us towards communities in which we can love and serve God, remaining open to what those communities might look like.
The word God makes me think of an old man with a beard. I like to think I’m a little more sophisticated than that. Can I pray without using images?
There are many, many ways to think about God. We can think about God in images, of which there are many in scripture and art. The idea that God is revealed in words and images is known as kataphatic theology. However, there is another theological tradition, the apophatic, in which God can never be reduced to words and concepts and always remains other than our words and concepts. In the apophatic realm, we attempt to experience God without images.
Zen Buddhists experience this lack of images and thoughts as emptiness, and Buddhist meditation techniques have much to teach us. As we sit in meditation and follow our breath, letting go of thoughts and emotions and all our usual ways of interacting with the world, we may experience spacious emptiness. Zen Buddhists are non-theistic, meaning that they do not believe in God. They experience the ultimate in spacious emptiness.
There is a tradition of wordless, imageless experience within Christianity as well. In the fourteenth century, the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart described how we must make ourselves empty and innocent, like a desert. Then God will come flooding into the empty place inside us. The anonymous fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing described a method of wordless prayer in which we learn to relate to God in silence. According to the Cloud author, we remain attached to God through our “leash of longing,” our ceaseless and ardent desire to be with God that transforms our silence into a form of prayer.
There may be points in our spiritual life when we are deeply drawn to wordless prayer or meditation. For some of us this is the most natural form of spiritual activity.
Nevertheless, although images of God have obvious limitations and can never truly express God, they can sometimes help us to understand God’s nature. Images of God can also help to free us from false images that may confuse and oppress us. The very strangeness and discomfort we experience when we encounter certain images of God in scripture, art, and spiritual writings can challenge us to examine our thoughts and feelings about God in a way that can lead us deeper into relationship with God.
Even if we don’t believe in a visual image of God as an old man with a gray beard sitting on a throne, some of our attitudes towards God in our prayer may suggest that we are intimidated as if God were a tyrannical ruler. God may seem so perfect, so high above us, that we cannot always approach God honestly and just be ourselves. Some of us are uncomfortable asking God for anything; that would be too selfish. Some of us who are angry or in pain are waiting to pray to God until we feel better; after all, how could we share our furious feelings of hurt with someone as great as God? If our lives have become so overwhelmingly difficult that we are ready to give up all hope and just sink into despair, why would God want to hear from someone as pathetic as us? How could we possibly bring our complaints to God when we have been taught not to say anything if we can’t think of anything nice to say? Wouldn’t God just tell us to stop whining?
God created us and saw that we were good. God is love itself, a more perfect expression of love than we can imagine. So why can’t we trust God to love us even though we have needs and are in pain, or even because we have needs and are in pain? After all, God knows that we are human beings. We need to have the courage to pray to God bringing all of ourselves, trusting that God cares about us as we are.
I’m uncomfortable praying to God because traditions and scripture make God sound like a man. Can I pray to a female God?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God has usually been referred to as a “he” and a father. Within this tradition God has a personal aspect. Even though God is not a human being, we pray to God as a person and not as a thing. God is an other with whom we hope to develop an intimate relationship, and personal pronouns such as “he” and “she” may help us to feel this intimacy.
In Hebrew scripture a number of metaphors are used to compare God to a mother, suggesting that we can think of God as a female force. Deuteronomy refers to “the God that gave you birth” and Isaiah describes God bringing creation into being like a woman in labor.
In keeping with this biblical tradition, a number of great saints and teachers have seen God as a mother. The fourteenth century anchoress Saint Julian of Norwich writes of the motherhood of God. The seventeenth century Carmelite lay brother, Brother Lawrence, writes of resting his “loving gaze upon God” as if he were a baby at its mother’s breast, and calls this state “the breasts of God.”
In the Hindu tradition, God appears in many different manifestations, including female goddesses. There are many Hindu people who pray primarily to the goddess because they feel most connected to this female face of God, and for women in particular it can be deeply healing to pray to a female God image and to believe that we are made in this image.
Images of God help us to come closer to God in different ways, and if we see God as a loving mother, perhaps it will be easier for us to believe that we are held by God and seen by God with the greatest tenderness, patience, and love and that God will nourish and comfort us.
I’m uncomfortable with the whole idea of sin. Do I need to talk about sin when I pray?
Many of us resist the idea of sin because it makes us feel like we are being judged and someone is trying to make us feel bad about ourselves. But sin can be seen not so much as badness but as the aspect of ourselves that separates us from God and causes us to turn away from what is most valuable and sacred in our lives and get distracted by other, less valuable things. All of us have a tendency to addictive or obsessive behavior, losing ourselves in things we later realize were not important. When we pray, we review our lives and examine ourselves in order to understand ourselves better. We don’t need to use the word sin, but it’s important to be honest with ourselves about our limitations in order to grow and become closer to God.
I’m uncomfortable asking God for anything. Doesn’t God know what I need better than I do?
Many of us feel guilty about asking for our own needs to be met. It’s sometimes hard for us to admit that we need anything. We may feel that it would be selfish to ask for anything for ourselves. But God longs for us to express ourselves in prayer. As we articulate our thoughts and feelings in prayer, whether silently or aloud, we enter into a deeper relationship with God. In a conversation with a friend, as we talk about a decision we need to make, we may sometimes make that decision without our friend needing to say a word; our friend's presence and caring help us to focus. Similarly, addressing ourselves to God may help us to clarify our thoughts and develop a sense of what God wants for us. We place our thoughts in a larger perspective by imagining how God sees them and we offer ourselves up to be transformed by a force greater than ourselves. As we acknowledge the power and presence of that which is other than ourselves, we become connected to a world of meaning that is greater than the meaning of our own individual lives.
When we ask, we do not always get what we want, but by asking we open ourselves to receive. In this state of openness, whatever we receive may feel like the answer to our prayer.
What do I do with my doubt?
Doubt is a very important, even essential aspect of spiritual life. If we are to grow spiritually we must eventually confront all the doubts and fears that trouble us. This is part of the honesty that’s required for a deep relationship with God. The great spiritual writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, "Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith."
In the Gospel of John, the disciple Thomas is not with the other disciples when they see the risen Christ. When they tell him what they have seen, he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” When Jesus reappears, he says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas’s doubt leads him into a more intimate relationship with Jesus; he is the only one who places his hand inside Jesus’s wound. As long as we do not allow feelings of shame about our doubt to turn us away altogether from matters of belief, our doubt can be a measure of our serious concern. Active doubt is very different from apathy or complacency. If we follow our doubts and questions, they can lead us deeper and deeper into our exploration of who God really is and what we really believe.
Sometimes it is difficult for us to believe anything at all, much less that God would be listening to our voices in prayer. Yet doubt does not disqualify us from praying. We can lift up our feelings of doubt in prayer even when we’re not sure what we’re lifting them up to, or we can pray wordlessly, accepting that our doubt is part of our prayer. Rather than trying to hide our feelings of doubt from God as if they were shameful, we can bring our doubts to God and ask God to be our partner in our exploration and quest for faith.
I have felt doubt that God existed, wondering if I am creating God for my own comfort, and I have felt so attracted to Zen Buddhism, a non-theistic faith, that I have wondered if I should let go of God and become a Buddhist. Ultimately, I was not able to let go of God, but by trying I learned that God’s presence in my life is not optional.
Why should I listen to anything you have to say about prayer?
I certainly don’t have all the answers about prayer. Prayer is a very personal process and will be different for everyone. I work as a spiritual director and am trained to help people to listen to God and to their own inner voice. Finding the next step on the spiritual path is a deeply intuitive process. I don’t want to tell you to pray in any particular way. I would like to help you to find the way to pray that is right for you. I’m kind of like a doctor. I’ve seen a lot of the symptoms and I have experience about what often helps, but I still get sick myself. None of us prays perfectly. Prayer is a process, sometimes a messy one. One of the hardest things is to remember that God is always there, longing for us to turn towards God. If we can remember to keep pointing ourselves towards God, that is the main thing. How we actually do it is secondary.