A Short Course on Prayer

By J.J. O’Leary, SJ

O’Leary explores the reality of prayer in a practical way. Some of the comments are directed specifically to students or teachers, but all of the content is relevant to anyone seeking a prayer life that touches the inner core based on an awareness of self.

These pages are written for people who are very busy, but at the same time, desire to explore their own spirituality and enhance a dimension already present in their lives. What follows are a few practical words about prayer along with some questions to facilitate discussion about your life with God, your family, and your studies.

If you are still reading, then somehow God is truly alive in your life. Spiritual writers all agree that an infallible sign of God’s presence is a desire for God. If you want to pray, you are already praying. The desire to pray is the evidence that God is already at work, at prayer, in you. The first graces we get are our desires and just to be reading this, shows desire in your life.

The prayer I would like to talk about is prayer of the heart, intimate prayer, praying from where we are. First of all, I believe most of us pray far more than we think we do. Anytime we reflect on our families, our children, our students, our job, something we are grateful for, that is beautiful prayer. Many of us think prayer is thinking about and talking to God out there. But prayer begins with reality. The first reality we have is ourselves and that’s where prayer begins.

Touching Our Inner Core

Karl A. Meninger, M.D., in an article on intimacy, talks about intimacy being a quality of a person not a relationship. He says “in so far as I can be close to myself, I can be close to others; in so far as I can be intimate to myself, I can be intimate with others.” The deepest part of each one of us is within us, we are touching the God within.

God speaks to us in our deepest human experiences, feelings, desires, thoughts, or ideas. So to be aware of these experiences is to become aware of God’s work in them and then to offer ourselves through them to God. We focus on our own experience to hear God’s word in them and then are called to respond. What is God saying to us through this? We don’t need to solve problems, worry, plan, or control. In other words, we recognize the God within and then listen reverently to the many ways God speaks to us through our thoughts, our feelings, our children, our students, our fellow workers.

Intimacy then is not primarily a sharing with another. Intimacy starts with being intimate with myself. Intimacy is knowing the core of things myself. Then what I do flows from where I’ve been. But intimacy begins with getting in contact with myself. I have to be in contact with myself before I can donate, give myself or share. It is important to get in touch with our deepest human experiences because that is where God is present to us. Where we are most present, God is most present.

For example, let’s suppose the one I love the most has a dislocated shoulder. Where is that person most present? Of course, in his/her shoulder, where the injury is. The pain is intense. When I think of that person, what do I think of? I wonder “How is the pain?” Wherever we are most present, God is most present. That is the importance of listening to where we are.

The Awareness of Self

Prayer, then, is a way of lowering our mind and heart to God present within us. In prayer we discover what we already have. We now have everything but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. All we need is to experience what we already possess. Rollo May says, “The more self-awareness one has, the more alive one is.” This statement is similar to the one made in 200 A.D. by Irenaeus of Lyons: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

The more self-awareness we have, the more alive we become. Many of us don’t live a life fully alive. I believe this approach to prayer helps us to live a fuller and deeper life. So often people say, “I become distracted whenever I try to pray.” My response to this is to suggest that people make this very distraction the content of their prayer. Not, again, to solve the problem, to figure it out, to dissect, but to hear God’s word in this person, situation, whatever it might be. It is usually the very subject situation, a person that I should be thinking reflecting, praying about in the presence of the Lord. So I think most of the distractions we get are really not distractions.

What counts is that we avoid running away from the center of our being. We start by becoming sensitive to what is happening within, being aware of our mood, our spirit because it is out of this spirit, this filter, that I will deal with others, that I will teach, and that I will receive all information.

How I Feel Right Now

For example, how did I feel, (not think), the moment I woke up this morning? For most of us this spirit, this mood will perdure throughout the day. Now just to be aware of this is valuable because if, for example, I am not my good self, I will be more guarded in what I say and more likely to receive what others say in a jaundiced way.

Some people find it very helpful to begin their prayer by making, not a “traditional act of the presence of God,” but an “act of the presence of self.” How am I? Where is my spirit? What is my mood? What is going on? Possibly, just bringing that to God will be someone’s prayer. Or by seeing if any special thought or concern surfaces. “God speaks to us most clearly through the events in our life,” says Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. And that may be where I would like to pray.

In the play Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye prays about the love of his wife, the marriage of his daughters, his own poverty, the loss of his homeland—because these were where he was present at that time. For others, prayer might center on a friend who is in some serious conflict; or it might be a student we have recently counseled, a regret we are wrestling with, my boyfriend/girlfriend, grieving a loss, or something I’m especially grateful for. Those are the situations where God is present in my life today.

People often ask “Where is God in my life?” The best response I can give is to ask “Where are you?—that’s where God is.” In this way prayer can be something very practical and steeped in where we really live. In brief, we recognize the divine within ourselves, rather than trying to engage a God out there somewhere. Because just to be is a blessing, to live is holy. Our lives are holy just as they are. If there is one thing Jesus revealed, it is that he loves what he finds. He loves us just as we are. Nothing in our life is distasteful to God.

Prayer starts where we really are because God is in us as we are. God doesn’t expect us to be any other than we are, except that there is a change that God is going to make in our lives. In a way we don’t have to knock, we’re in already. Prayer isn’t come as you are; it’s just be who you are.

A Readiness for the Lord

We also get into direct contact with God by our relationship with people. It is in concrete situations, the events in our life that God speaks to us—in our families, in the classroom, a chance remark by a friend, thoughts and feelings—these are the way God speaks to us. So prayer for some can become what I like to call “a sensitization period,” to become sensitive to what God is saying to me through the many relationships, events, and feelings that make up my life.

In fact, one can read scripture the same way by just taking the readings of the day and then seeing how they relate to the day that lies ahead. Oftentimes they jar our psyche because that is not where we are. I think it is more helpful to start by getting in contact with where we are, with what’s going on within and without, and then find a scripture passage that will fit with that. Prayer, then, can be a time of quiet reflection, deepening, enhancing of our mood, through the gentle presence of the Lord.

The Examen of Consciousness

A wonderful way to close the day is to re-taste and re-feel it, by going over all the things in the day that made me laugh, cry, sad, angry, joyful in the presence of God. Our hearts are like putty—if you knead putty it stays soft; if you don’t, it becomes hard and impossible to move. By quietly going over the events of a day, we keep our hearts soft, our minds aware, and our vision open to the presence of others—and of the Lord.

In summary, I’d suggest that the best thing we can do to nourish a prayer life is to regularly ask God to teach us how to pray. I don’t believe there is any gift God wants to give us more than the gift of prayer. But, it seems, so few people ever ask for that. And then with the few minutes that we spend in prayer, whether it’s five, ten, or sixty minutes a day, to ask the Lord to remember, to recognize where God is in the midst of our lives. This will provide a whole new tonality to our days and deepen in us the “20/20 vision” that helps us see life whole and in clear perspective.

Questions about Myself and God

  • What holds me back from becoming a more loving person?
  • How are my spirit, my mood this past week?
  • What makes me move away from my good self, my good spirit?
  • Have anyone’s words hit me more strongly than usual?
  • What is one thing I really like about myself?
  • On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how happy am I?
  • Do I feel called to do or let go of anything in my life?
  • When was I most aware of God, most alive?
  • If I die today, what would people miss about me?
  • What three words would I most like to have said about me if I died today?
  • What discourages me, buoys me up, preoccupies me?
  • Do I tend to be someone who frets and worries or am I able to let things go in trust?
  • Do I have to control people and things?
  • What keeps me from trusting?
  • How do I handle worry?
  • What situation would I most like to change in my life—but can’t?

Questions about the Family

  • What do I regard as my family’s greatest achievement?
  • What are my strong points as a son, daughter, or spouse?
  • What are my weak points as a family member?
  • What most separates me from my family?
  • Do I act or react with regard to my family?
  • Am I able to listen to my family or do I have the need to dominate?
  • Do I pray with my spouse, or boyfriend/girlfriend?
  • Do we ever explore new ways of praying together?
  • Do I pray for each member of my family daily?
  • Do I accept family members as they are, or do I have such great expectations that it separates me from them?
  • Do I affirm them?

Questions for Those Who Are Teachers

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book I Ask for Wonder makes this statement about teachers:

Everything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. S/he is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the Promised Land s/he must have been there himself. When asking, “Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say?” S/he must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read, the text they will never forget.

  • What kind of text are the students reading by my presence in the classroom?
  • Do I regard what I do as an accident or a summons and a call from God?
  • Where do I find God in my work?
  • How is this institution different from any other school?
  • What spirit do I bring to my work?
  • What can I offer to the other people I teach with?
  • Can I really love my students if I don’t pray for them?
  • What do I find most life-giving about my work?
  • What do I find most discouraging about my work?

From Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book © 2009 Marquette University Press. Used with permission.

Related Links
Praying with Scripture by Douglas J. Leonhardt, SJ
Why Do We Pray? by William A. Barry, SJ
Consciousness Examen by George Aschenbrenner, SJ