What I got wrong about prayer

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Father Jacques Philippe’s treatise on mental prayer, “Time for God.” I just knew that I felt a need to pray more.

In our busy world, stealing away minutes for prayer each day often feels more akin to another on a long list or a luxury for when I get caught up with life. I go through fits and spurts of different devotions — praying the Rosary through Advent and Lent or reading the Bible in the morning. The spiritual consolation from such actions is easily tied up with the act of completing them: They have a beginning and an end, and after doing them I feel a certain duty has been completed. I have prayed today.

But after reading this book, I realized that it is a devotion to mental prayer that not only animates all other devotions but also provides an environment in which I can pray at all times, as the Bible encourages.

Mental prayer is not a technique

In a world where we love DIY tutorials and “how-to” videos, it can be easy to forget this primary principle, and this is exactly where Father Jacques Philippe begins. Our time in prayer is not something that we can master as we do other tasks like grocery shopping, cleaning or running errands.

“The first, basic truth, without which we will not get very far, is that the life of prayer … is not the result of a technique, but a gift we receive. … There is no ‘method’ of praying, in the sense of a set of instructions or procedures that we merely have to apply in order to pray well. Though true contemplative prayer is a gift that God gives freely, we do need to understand how to receive it,” writes Father Philippe.

This is hard for our modern ears to hear, but when we accept this as fundamental, we realize the freedom in this truth. Our prayer life does not depend on us. It is not, as Father Philippe says, something that can be “manipulated at will.” We do not go to prayer to create our own results or find our own answers. We only need to be faithful to our prayer time to receive the gift God desperately wants to give us — communion with him.

Believing he is here

Because the life of prayer is not a task to be mastered but a gift to be received, Father Philippe turns his attention not to things to do in prayer or ways to pray, but rather to the disposition needed to receive this gift.

“The first and most fundamental disposition is an attitude of faith. … In starting to pray … we must believe with our whole heart that God is present. Regardless of what we may or may not feel, the preparation we have or haven’t made, how good we are or aren’t at stringing beautiful thoughts together — regardless of our whole inner state — God is there, with us, looking at us and loving us.”

This recognition and belief in God’s presence in our daily lives — in our homes, workplaces, and community — is essential to a life of prayer. Without even realizing it, I often approach my prayer life with a feeling that I must leave my “normal” life and find God.

By recognizing God’s presence here and now, I train my mind to view prayer differently. Entering into prayer doesn’t require me to leave where I am. As I sit at our table or on the couch, I look around our home and I think to myself, “God is here, now.” This thought alone and the belief in this truth shifts my gaze from an attempt to find God to an attempt to remain in God’s presence. He’s here as I make dinner, vacuum, speak with my husband or walk our dogs. He’s here as I work or rest.

Primacy of God’s action

Finally, Father Philippe encourages us to recognize the “primacy of God’s action.”

“What matters in mental prayer is not so much what we do, as what God does in us,” he writes. “It is enormously liberating to know this, for sometimes we can do nothing at all in mental prayer. Really, though, it doesn’t matter much, because even if we can’t do anything, God can. … The essential act of prayer, after all, is to put oneself in God’s presence and stay there.”

When the Bible encourages us to pray always, God is inviting us to stay in his presence as we live our lives. By growing faithful to time in mental prayer, we remember this truth and root ourselves in it. In this way, God’s gaze of love penetrates our hearts and minds, changing us from the inside out.

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