“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God,” wrote Saint John Damascene. Whether we are speaking with words or sitting in silence, prayer is time spent mindfully in God’s presence. Prayer is, quite simply, being with God.
It sounds so straightforward, even effortless. What could be more natural than spending time with the God who created us, who loves us, and who holds us in existence? And yet, we know from experience that prayer does not always feel natural. In fact, it can be hard work.
Prayer requires discipline, motivation, and even creativity. We may find ourselves approaching our prayer lives as we do other difficult tasks like exercising and eating right. We may start out strong and then slowly lose enthusiasm. We may be disappointed in the results of our hard work and gradually give up.
Even if we are dedicated to prayer and keep at it despite its inevitable challenges, we can easily find ourselves in a prayer rut. We may feel that we are not progressing in our spiritual lives or experiencing the “spark” we might expect from spending time in God’s dynamic presence.
Whether you are trying to get into a regular habit of prayer or looking for ways to enhance your existing prayer life, trying new ways to pray can be beneficial. Here are 10 ideas for prayer that can jump-start or enrich your prayer life.
1. Focus on images, not words.
Sometimes you desperately want to pray, but your heart is so heavy with suffering, or your mind is such a jumble of thoughts that you can’t think of the right words. You know what you want to communicate, but putting the words together is tedious, tiresome, or just not happening.
Remember that we do not always have to pray with words. Our minds and hearts are not one-dimensional. We live in a colorful world, and are gifted with vivid imaginations. Try praying in images instead of words.
Is there someone you want to pray for? Visualize that person in your mind and heart, and offer him or her to God in this way. Are you worried about a damaged relationship, an upcoming event, or a big decision? Envision those people and situations, and offer the images as heartfelt prayers.
God already knows your mind and heart. These “image prayers” will make every bit as much sense to him as your words.
2. Visit God in your past.
Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty, a Russian immigrant to North America, once wrote a letter to her close friend Dorothy Day in which she described a fascinating way of praying. She told Dorothy that she had been making pilgrimages into her past, stopping here and there along the way to thank God for the joys and sorrows of her life.
She wrote, “Short as my life is, as any human life is, there are, strange to say, many a shrine in it before which, as is the custom of my people, I can bow low from the waist, touching the earth with my hands, and singing alleluias in my heart for each.”
Consider taking your own pilgrimages into the past. Visit the shrines in your life—the places, relationships, and times when God was present, although you may not have noticed him. Stop along the way, thanking God, asking him for healing, or “singing alleluias” in his presence.
Remember, God is eternal, and all moments are equally present to him. The God who described himself as “the one who is and who was and who is to come” (Rv 1:8) is present in your past. Why not worship him there?
3. So old it’s new again.
For many contemporary Catholics, “old school” forms of prayer such as novenas and litanies have been relegated to the bookshelf, and rosary beads are languishing, forgotten in a nightstand drawer. If this sounds like a familiar scenario, perhaps it’s time to rediscover those traditional forms of devotion.
A novena (meaning “nine”) is a prayer, often written to a particular saint, repeated for nine days in a row. While there is certainly nothing magical about the number nine, the novena is a way to purposefully offer a particular intention for a set amount of time. These deliberate prayer vigils can establish a rhythm in your prayer life and help you set aside time to pray for a particular person or intention. Novenas can easily be found in prayer books or online, or you can write your own!
Litanies are another classic form of prayer that is worth reintroducing into your prayer life. The beauty of the language and the natural rhythm of the prayers will invite you into a meditative, spiritually receptive state. The call-and-response pattern of litanies also makes them ideal for group prayer. You can find a wide variety of litanies in prayer books or online, as well.
Finally, if you have given up on the rosary in the past, try saying just one decade. Choose one of the mysteries of the rosary (which are all events from the lives of Jesus and Mary) and reflect on what it means for you in your own life. Then offer one Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be for a particular person or intention. Say that decade slowly and mindfully, being comforted by the weight and movement of the prayer beads in your hands.
4. Try different prayer postures.
We all know how powerful body language can be. When we are in the presence of another person, his or her posture toward us, gestures, and facial expressions communicate a great deal. The same can be true in our prayer lives. The way you use your body when you pray influences your state of mind and the nature of your prayers.
Try experimenting with different prayer postures. If you usually sit when you pray, try kneeling in an attitude of humility and openness. Walking while praying can be meditative, helping to clear your mind and keep the ideas flowing freely. Holding a small cross during prayer can comfort you, give you strength, and anchor you solidly in Christ.
Don’t be afraid to try things that might look strange to other people. If you are praying privately, prostrate yourself on the floor before God (as you’ve seen priests do on Good Friday), considering what your body and spirit are expressing to God by doing this. Or sit or stand with your arms and face extended to heaven, in a gesture of offering your prayers to the Father. You will be amazed how these different postures help you open your heart to express yourself to God.
5. Pray with Gospel stories.
The Gospels are the very heart of our sacred Scriptures, and provide fertile ground for prayer. Read one of the stories, imagining yourself in that Gospel scene. Look around you and notice details. Try to engage all of your senses. What are you feeling? What do you want to say to Jesus? What does Jesus say to you?
This practice of prayerfully using your God-given imagination is a way of bringing to life the stories that make you a Christian and a follower of Christ. It can help you engage with Jesus and his message in a powerful, life-changing way.
6. Change your prayer environment.
If your prayer time feels empty and uninspired, try something as simple as changing your regular prayer environment. Think about special prayer times you have had when it seemed easiest to pray. Were you in a beautiful church? Were you listening to a choir or focusing on a cross or some other beautiful religious art? Were there candles burning? Were you sitting on a sunny porch or in a dark, quiet room?
Different people will find different environments to be prayerful and inspiring. Think about what has worked for you in the past and try to incorporate some of those elements in your own prayer space. It may be worth stopping in a quiet church on your way to work or turning a corner of your room into a peaceful, inspiring prayer space.
7. Recite the Jesus prayer.
Another classic prayer that is worthy of reviving is the Jesus Prayer. Based on the humble prayer of the tax collector in one of Jesus’ parables (Lk 18:13), and prayed with purity and simplicity for centuries, this ancient prayer has the power to center us, relax us, and remind us of who we are and who Jesus is.
The classic form of the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The beginning of the prayer is a declaration of faith in Jesus as Lord, Christ, and Son of God. The second half of the prayer is a declaration of our own sinfulness and a petition for his hallmark mercy. Or use the shortest form of the Jesus Prayer: simply speak the name “Jesus.”
Try using either form of the Jesus Prayer with your rosary, slowly moving your fingers bead by bead while speaking the Jesus Prayer or the name of Jesus on each bead. The Jesus Prayer can be offered as a prayer of praise, petition, faith, hope, and love. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “The name of Jesus is at the heart of Christian prayer” (435).
8. Write a personal prayer.
You know what you want to pray about on a regular basis, how and why you want to praise or thank God, and the ways you need God’s help. Write a prayer that includes all of these things. Take your time and add to it or edit it over time.
Remember, your prayer does not have to be beautifully written or grammatically perfect. God is listening, not grading. Once it is written, you will have a personalized prayer—one that is easy to pick up and pray every morning or evening. It will include what you most want to say to God on a regular basis.
9. Read the psalms.
In the Book of Psalms, we have 150 ready-made prayers. Found in the middle of the Bible, these prayers are inspired, sacred Scripture that for generations have been prayed by both Jews and Christians. The authors of the psalms call upon God for rescue, praise him for his greatness, and pour out their hearts with honesty and raw emotion.
The psalms range in tone from elation to desperation and capture just about every human emotion in between. The psalms can help us pray when we have no words of our own. As you pray the psalms one by one (try saying one each day), mark the ones you find most meaningful in your own prayer life.
Go back to your favorites, the ones that help you express your own struggles, sorrows, joys, and emotions. God has heard these prayers many times. The beautiful thing is that he will know exactly what they mean coming from you.
10. Talk to your friend Jesus.
Many Catholics do not grow up talking to Jesus. Rote prayer is comfortable and familiar, but simple and spontaneous conversation with God is new and intimidating. It may even feel silly or childish. But these are not reasons to avoid speaking from the heart with the one who is always waiting to hear from you.
Some people talk to Jesus while they are driving to work, while others sustain an ongoing dialogue with him throughout the day. Some imagine God sitting or walking next to them.
Do what works for you. There is only one rule here: speak plainly, from your heart. Yes, God already knows your heart and your needs. But, like any friend, he wants to spend time with you.
Embrace the Process
As you try some of these prayer ideas, remember two things. First, give yourself time to adjust to something new. Allow yourself to feel a bit uncomfortable as you slowly “break in” a new way of praying. Writing your own prayers or praying with your arms extended may not feel right at first, but after some time and patience, doing these things can feel as natural as slipping on your favorite old sweater.
Finally, as the spiritual master Saint Teresa of Avila taught, when it comes to prayer, “Do that which best stirs you to love.” Sparks will not always fly when we pray, but over time, prayer should lead us more deeply into love.
So do that which brings you most mindfully into God’s presence. Do that which raises your mind and heart to God’s love.
Amy Ekeh is a freelance writer from Milford, Connecticut, where she writes her blog amyekeh.com. She is a retreat director and instructor in the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Biblical School.