Thank you again for your letter. Your question, “How do I pray?” is one that has been echoing in my own heart for the last twenty years.
Needless to say, I was deeply moved by it and I wish to take it very seriously. In my opinion, this is the most important question one can ask in life. The reason for this is simple: prayer, unlike anything else, reveals to us the truth about God and ourselves.
One could become quickly overwhelmed, however, at the vast array of literature that exists on the topic of prayer. There are countless books, seminars, and podcasts on prayer. One hears about Carmelite prayer, Franciscan prayer, Benedictine prayer, etc. Also, prayer is often characterized as being either contemplative, meditative or vocal. Then there are numerous suggestions and ideas about things like posture, breathing, and material to pray with. Should I sit, should I stand, should I kneel, where should I pray, and when?
Somebody who is considering diving into this ocean we call prayer, can quickly become overwhelmed and feel like they are drowning before they even get their feet wet. I would suggest, in the meantime, that you ignore everything mentioned above and simply understand prayer as this: learning to look at Jesus and allowing him to look back at you. That, I am convinced, is the essence of all prayer, regardless of what form or shape it takes.
I can remember a few years ago coming to the startling realization that during my official “prayer times” I was spending little time actually praying. What was I doing? I was daydreaming, worrying, planning, self-analyzing, etc. Rather than looking at Jesus, I was looking at myself. I can remember thinking, “I must be in a dark night because God appears absent to me!” I would soon discover, however, that the darkness I was experiencing was the result of my own self-obsession, which was preventing me from looking at Him. Hence, God was not absent as I believed, I was.
Therefore, it is important, Brian, to remember that whether you are praying with Scripture, in Eucharistic adoration, journaling, etc. that your focus needs to be on Jesus. This might seem like an obvious point, yet how difficult it is to do! Anyone attempting to pray for five minutes will become acutely aware of the seemingly endless current of distractions, temptations, and random thoughts that so easily steal our attention away from Jesus. In fact, many people say that they feel worse when they begin to pray because prayer is revealing to them how distracted they really are.
The good news is, they are not getting worse, but simply experiencing at a deeper level their own need for a Savior.
I mentioned above that prayer is learning to look at Jesus and allowing Him to look back at you. What does this look like practically in one’s life? First, our gaze in prayer is primarily extended outward, away from ourselves, towards God. Christian prayer is not a self-help exercise, a stress reduction program, or a therapeutic tool to help us cope with our problems. Of course, prayer can provide insight about ourselves and help to calm our emotional and psychological states, however, these are not ends to be sought in prayer. In prayer, God is the end, and so I must extend my gaze beyond myself.
Second, since we all struggle with a tendency towards self-obsession, we need something to help us look at Jesus, particularly if we are new to prayer. A scripture passage, a few decades of the Rosary, or simply sitting before an icon or crucifix, etc. can be a tremendous aid in helping us to look more intentionally at the Lord during official times of prayer. As your prayer life and relationship with God matures, many people discover less of a need for something external to help them gaze upon Jesus. That, however, is a topic for another letter!
Finally, Christian prayer is relational. Though it is true that God is always greater than our ideas, concepts, and images of him, it is also true that God is not merely some energy or force “out there” in the universe. Despite what we can or cannot know about God, this much is true: God is a personal presence. Hence, our relationship with him, particularly in prayer, is relational. In prayer we are communicating with a Person, who listens to us, speaks to us, and most importantly, loves us.
In this first part of prayer, learning to look at Jesus, you are discovering who God is. In the second part, allowing Jesus to look at you, you are discovering who you are. Quite honestly, the first part of prayer is relatively easy. Once the presence of Jesus captures our attention our distractions and thoughts tend to dissipate for a time, allowing us to gaze upon him with wonder and intrigue. Interestingly, it is the second part of prayer that many people find the most difficult, and cause some to abandon prayer altogether.
What you will discover, Brian, as you allow Jesus to gaze back at you in prayer is a presence that is gentle, attentive, and loving. As wonderful and attractive as this may sound, the purity of his gaze upon us is unlike anything we experience in this life. It is both confronting, yet disarming, intense yet peaceful, demanding yet patient, all of which leaves us feeling both consoled and afraid.
When we allow Jesus to gaze upon us it can often feel like staring directly into the sun on a hot summer day; even though we enjoy the warmth and brightness of the sun, our eyes need time to adjust to its presence. My prayer for you is that you allow yourself time, not only for your eyes, but your heart, to adjust to the dazzling light of His presence.
Unfortunately, throughout most of our life, we are merely seen “exteriorly.” Things like social status, fame, and our physical appearance capture a significant amount of attention from the world. What is ironic is that by remaining merely on the exterior, the person who has become the object of fascination is never revealed. Thankfully, Jesus works in the exact opposite way. What he desires is you, not the you that is presented on social media or the you that your career and social status might indicate, but the you beyond all these temporary aspects of your life. Hence, without prayer, one can only live on the surface of life.
Does all of this appear too good to be true? Whereas it is good and necessary to talk about prayer, the most important thing is that one actually begins to pray. I hope that if anything, this letter inspires you Brian to pray by simply looking at Jesus and allowing Him to look at you, because it is here, more than any other place, where you will discover both who God is and who you are. After all, isn’t this what we are all looking for?
Prayer is the key that unlocks the door to these great mysteries.
Sincerely in Christ,
This post was first published on From the Friars and is reprinted here with permission.
Photo courtesy of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and @martin.jernberg.