A good portion of my seminary coursework has been in the area of spiritual direction. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to take practicum classes amid more heady intellectual work, and I really enjoy having the chance to talk with people about God and their experience of God. A common question in spiritual direction is, “How have you been praying about this?” Sometimes this is an easy question to answer, but often it isn’t. In fact, I’ve talked to plenty of people who just aren’t that keen on prayer—and I’ve been brought up short by the question plenty of times myself.
When I hear someone say they don’t really pray, or that prayer is boring—both lines I have used—my first instinct is to question how they pray. While kneeling at the bedside running through a checklist of thanks and intercessions has a long and venerable history, the truth is that it just doesn’t work for everyone. It’s also possible that a prayer practice that worked well at one point ceases to be helpful at another, or vice versa (this happened to me when I began studying at seminary).
If your prayer life feels dry or even nonexistent, you may simply be thirsty for new ways to pray—or, very probably, you are praying already but haven’t recognized or named it as such. In the off chance I just described you, dear reader, allow me to share some ways of praying that I have found helpful.
This one goes way back, to about the fifth century. It is based on the idea that by invoking God’s name, we invite God’s presence. The words are simple, with common variations like “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or simply “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” It is designed to be used repetitively, sometimes combined with physical practices (e.g. breath). This prayer is a good way to invite the presence of God and to pray actively when we don’t have other words.
Mindfulness is having a moment right now. Throw a stone at a bookstore (actually don’t do that) and you’d have a pretty good chance of hitting a relevant title. Simply put, it’s the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment, emphasizing awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensation, and the surrounding environment. Mindfulness has a strong correlation with well-being and perceived health. Meditation is a common way to develop mindfulness, but not the only way.
Mandalas are rooted in Indian religions, and are often used now to refer to any diagram, chart, or patter that represents the cosmos. They’re often used as an aid to meditation, and are very helpful for those of us who are easily distracted. You can create your own mandalas from scratch, but there are also many printable images or coloring books available. Mandalas can represent stability and unity with God and the cosmos—and, according to Jung, can teach us about ourselves.
Moving your body can be a great way to get out and pray, especially if you find you’re too distracted in your usual indoor spaces. You don’t need anything special for this (except maybe comfortable shoes), but if you happen to know of a labyrinth near you, that can be a good way to use an ancient practice to make your walk more intentional and meditative.
This is really just another way of being mindful (sensing a theme here?), but bringing mindfulness to cooking can be a great way of connecting to God—being thankful for the food and for the fellowship it may bring, wondering at the magnificence of creation, or simply enjoying the process of preparing a meal. Brother Lawrence tells us that even the most mundane of tasks—even washing the dishes after cooking!—can bring us closer to God.
A writing practice can be another way of praying—whatever form it might take. A journal or particular type of journal (e.g. a gratitude journal) can be a way of becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings, and over time can show us how God has been at work in our lives, even if we didn’t notice in the moment. Journaling isn’t the only way to pray through writing, though—working on a spiritual memoir, a poem, a blog post, or even a piece of creative fiction can be a way of drawing near to God.
These are a few of my favorite prayer practices—maybe they’re for you; maybe not. If you have prayer practices that work for you, I would love to hear more!
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.