How to Pray Effectively

Dr. Purushothaman
November 6, 2014

Sometimes the ordinary things we do deserve a second look, like praying for example. As a child I used to pray before going to sleep or taking dinner. In both cases my prayers were intended for beings that were not really seen but believed to be in the heavens. I prayed that my guardian angel for example will always be at my side, and will guide and lead me from danger; I also prayed and asked the Lord to bless the food that gives me nourishment.

As time goes by however, my prayers are becoming like empty rituals. I say or mumble words on different occasions without knowing the meaning of what is being said. In making the sign of the cross for example, for Catholics like me, the act is being done rather hurriedly than reverently. Many times too I follow a prayer formula which consists of The Our Father automatically followed by the Hail Mary and concluded by the Glory Be.

What happens is that the original fervor of praying like a child has become routine and has been reduced to simply just "tasks" like tying shoe strings or preparing a cup of coffee. And I end up saying words without meaning what I say and vice versa.

A great and saintly Jesuit Theologian named Fr. John Hardon in his article - The Meaning of Prayer, practically explained that first of all, "…prayer is conversation with the invisible world of God, the angels, and the saints." In other words, when we pray we are actually talking with the sacred beings. Just imagine that, I am talking to "invisible" sacred beings. And foremost among these sacred beings is God Himself. In prayer we are conversing to and with God.

In the context of Fr. John Hardon's practical view on prayer as a conversation, there can be four ways to make our prayers effective.

Firstly, Fr. Hardon tells us that before we even converse with someone, we have to be aware that this "someone" exists. Otherwise, the good Father tells us that no real conversation takes place. This piece of information is timely especially today, where God is taken out of the human condition, let alone His angels and saints, the sacred teachings, encyclicals and dogmas, and the like.

In other words, if in today's world, I forget to pray, it is probable that I am not anymore aware of God, but is probably aware of other things like money, power, and recognition and all the other things tangential to the three.

If I am preoccupied only with my work and more work so that I can have more material resources, position, and fame then how can I ever be "aware" of this "other invisible/immaterial world", spiritual in nature where God, the angels, and the saints dwell? Serving God and mammon is not just difficult but impossible since the nature of both are totally different from each other. To be Godly is to be immaterial and spiritual, and to be under mammon is to be under its material spell.

Secondly, after being made "aware" of God et al, I should be willing to share what I also have to and with the one that I am conversing. In prayer "…I enter into conversation in order to share." I share my thoughts, my feelings, wishes and desires, etc. and focus all these to God Himself. Take note of the word "focus" because this entails that in real prayer, there is not so much focus on oneself but rather on the other who is God.

In fact Fr. Hardon makes a keen observation on the words converse, conversion, and conversation. He says that: "We seldom reflect on the fact that the words convert, conversion and conversation all have the same fundamental meaning of redirection; a turning away from one thing, in this case self, and toward something else, in this case another person."

What is so profound about Fr. Hardon's observation is that in real prayer, one seeks the goodness of God and affirms the "other" rather than the "self". The Lord's Prayer comes to mind when He says, "…Thy will be done…" In other words, rather than using others - and that includes God, for our own selfish desires and wants, real prayer asks for what should be done instead and making oneself an instrument.
Fr. Hardon distinguishes between using others and being used: "So often, I believe, we use other people, as we say, as sounding boards to listen to our own voice. They are just convenient to help us in what is still a continuous soliloquy. All real conversation, therefore, has this element of self-denial, or from another viewpoint, self-sacrifice where I turn from preoccupation with my own thoughts and desires and direct them toward someone else."

Thirdly, prayer unites us with God, in the same manner that real conversation makes us closer to one another. In fact Fr. Hardon tells us that, "the highest act of charity among human beings is conversation, provided it is genuine and not spurious conversation." Moreover, in prayer we create our intimacy with Jesus Christ in union with God and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity.

Fr. Hardon adds that: "Our Savior expressed for all time the deep meaning of conversation as communication when He told the Apostles how they were no longer strangers to Him but His friends (cf. Jn.15:15). Why? Because "I have shared with you what is in Me. I've told you what, before I spoke, was only on My mind. Now it's also on your minds. We have become united because part of Me is now part of you. You and I are united because I have communicated to you what before I spoke to you was only Mine." And then to emphasize the gravity of what He was doing He said it was the Father, who first in conversation with the Son, had shared the plenitude of the divine nature so that the Son in turn might share of that fullness with others who would mainly become His children because they would now receive what before belonged only to the Trinity."

Fourthly, our prayers should be answered. Even on a human level, we need to get a response- in whatever way possible, from the person with whom we are conversing lest everything we say is put to naught because the words that we have spoken have just fallen on deaf ears. A prayer that isn't answered, either directly or indirectly, cannot by all means be considered as a prayer!

The good Fr Hardon says that: "Every conversation in some way or other employs a response from the one to whom I am speaking. Conversation is not merely talking to someone, it is talking with someone. Unless that person also says something to me I may be giving a speech or making an announcement, but I am hardly conversing. The way that a person responds to me is immaterial. It may be just a smile, or depending on what I said, a frown. It may be only an occasional word or two; it may be only a yes with different inflections. You know, of course, there are at least fifty ways of saying yes. No matter what I say to that person, it must evoke something that he says to me or we are not, in the deepest sense of the word, in conversation."

So next the next time we pray, be aware of God's loving presence, share our very self, be intimately united with Him, and listen to whatever He has to say… and there will be an answer.
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