If you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying.

Thomas Merton

What is prayer? Talking to God, right? And there is no wrong way to talk to God (except not to, of course). So why can spending time in prayer be so challenging? Why did Jesus have to teach us how to pray? And how can we grow in our life of prayer? When we think about prayer, many of us think of it as simply talking to God – asking God for help, praying for our loved ones, for those on our prayer list, etc. Or we think, perhaps, of praying the Lord’s Prayer, or going to a worship service in our church. And prayer is certainly all of those things, but it is also more than that. 

Prayer is not just talking to God; it is spending time with God. And that is different, isn’t it? I can spend quality time with my wife without talking to her. I can just listen to her, or we can simply walk in silence together (which is one of our favorite things to do). Words will be spoken, but not always, and that is perfectly okay for us both. Spending time with someone we love is not just a wonderful thing to do – it is also a great way to think about prayer. And thinking about prayer in this way – through the lens of relationship – helps expand our idea of prayer and discover new ways to deepen our life of prayer. What makes for a good, healthy relationship? Those same things are also important to our life of prayer. 

A healthy relationship, for example, needs time. If we never spend any time with a loved one, our relationship with them will suffer. That is also true of our relationship with God. It needs our time – time in worship, time with God’s word, and time in prayer. “If you want a life of prayer,” Thomas Merton wrote, “the way to get it is by praying.” Another writer, Dom Chapman, wrote that “the only way to pray is to pray; and the way to pray well is to pray much.” Our prayer life, our relationship with God, needs time. 

A healthy relationship also needs good communication – not just spending time with someone, but also talking to them and listening to them. As Robert Capon put it, “Prayer is just talking with someone who’s already talking to you.” God is already talking to us. Prayer is just our way of entering into that conversation. This means that prayer is a conversation that is as much about listening as it is about speaking. How do we listen in our prayer-time? We will be exploring this very question throughout our time together. 

A healthy relationship also needs work. In the words of Henri Nouwen, “prayer asks for a serious effort, while it can only be received as a gift.” It is true that prayer is God’s gift to us, but it also requires effort, just like any other relationship. And prayer can be hard work because we don’t always see immediate results. It can often seem like it would be easier to do something rather than to pray about it. After all, prayer takes time, time that takes us away from everything else that is urgently demanding our attention. But prayer for a Christian is important work, and it is important for many reasons – first and foremost because God wants us to do it. And also because, as Martin Luther put it, “Whatever good may be done is done and brought about by prayer.

A healthy relationship is also one that is always growing. Just as we continue to grow in our relationship with our loved ones, and learn new things about them over time, so we can grow in our relationship with God. Prayer draws us into a relationship with our Creator, a relationship that we have had since birth, but one that grows over time when we care for it well. Jane Vennard describes this well when she writes: “Prayer often surprises us. Just as we think we have figured it out, something new and different emerges … In prayer we are in relationship with a mysterious God, because God can never be fully known.” Growing in this wonderful, mysterious relationship with God is what we were created for, and what prayer is all about.

Prayer is, first and foremost, a relationship. It is spending time with the God who loves to spend time with you. As you ponder ways to grow in your life of prayer by spending time with God, may God bless your every effort.

The desire for prayer is prayer, the prayer of desire.

Mary Clare Vincent

14 thoughts on “What Is Prayer, and How Can I Grow in My Life of Prayer?

  1. If “God is already talking to us,” I must be God-deaf. I never hear or feel anything in response to my “prayer” or at any time in my life, praying or not praying. I must be missing something, but how is it that he “talks to us?”

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    1. I came across this line in my reading today from the philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno: “Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair, can in their consolation believe only in the God idea, not God himself.” Keep wrestling, Mich. And I’ll keep praying.

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      1. Well, one thing I do have, based on my life-and-death need to communicate or commune with my wife about certain regrets and guilt, and to re-avow my love, is “anguish in mind” — so I’ll take that as a plus and keep trying. As always, thank you for your prayers — I don’t deserve them but I accept them with humility.

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    2. Maybe he’s giving you the silent treatment! (Sorry, just kidding!) Seriously, though, I feel for you on this one. I went through a period of seven years like this and it was so much harder than times I can feel him talking with me. In that “dark” time, I thought my faith was gone. But really it was just that I had formerly believed I had more faith than I really did. Somehow, even that tiny mustard seed that died in the dark soil was enough. No matter our personality type (thinker, feeler, etc), a tiny seed buried in darkness is life enough. Yes?

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      1. Yeah. I guess I’m expecting too much — the key to unlocking the spiritual door to God is, of course, faith; and faith is a silent, private, elusive affair that doesn’t respond to endless questioning and scrutiny. It’s like an electrical pulse in the mind, the hard part is tapping into it.

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  2. I agree! When I was young, I used to think that the verse “pray without ceasing” was an impossible order. As I’ve aged, I feel more that every thought is conversation with the Holy Spirit who is always with me. It is a relationship. It is growing, loving, supportive, encouraging and inspiring.

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