What would you consider your go-to means of prayer? Do you tend to pray spontaneously — speaking to God from your heart — or do you tend toward structured prayer, such as the Rosary or Chaplet of Divine Mercy?
Both are excellent choices, but when we lean more toward one than the other, we risk becoming unbalanced in our prayer life.
“Our prayer life should have balance,” said Deacon Greg Kandra, who serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., and is known for his popular blog, “The Deacon’s Bench.” “It needs a certain amount of discipline, but it also needs a certain amount of freedom, to pray in a way that is most comfortable.”
Prayer as a conversation
Feeling comfortable with the way we pray is important because being uncomfortable can be an obstacle in developing our relationship with God. If we’re spending more time and effort struggling with the prayer itself than actually praying, we’re limiting its effectiveness.
“Prayer is a conversation with our Creator, and we should do it in a way that encourages us not only to speak what is in our hearts, but also to listen — as St. Benedict wrote, listen ‘with the ear of the heart,’” he said.
It may help to view prayer as a dialogue rather than a monologue. We’re talking with God, not to him.
In between structuring time for praying the Rosary and attending Mass, for example, we need to make time to simply be in the presence of God so that we can listen to what he has to say to us.
“That takes time and a certain diligence,” he said. “It’s easy to think, ‘OK, I’ve said my five decades of the Rosary and prayed my chaplet, I’m done for the day.’ That’s just the start. We need to think of prayer not as something we do, but as something we are. We need to strive to make our lives a prayer — every act, every choice, every word can be a kind of offering to God. If we do that, think how we might not only change ourselves, but also change the world!”
Types of prayer
When we use formalized prayer, we tap into the heritage of our faith, following the practice of saints such as Thérèse of Lisieux, Padre Pio and Ignatius of Loyola, who were great advocates of the Rosary. Often, we pray such devotions in a group or community.
“They connect us in a profoundly beautiful way to the Body of Christ, our brothers and sisters praying with us and for us around the world,” Deacon Kandra said.
Spontaneous, or improvised, prayer is uniquely our own.
“It comes directly from the heart, and from the deepest needs, longings and aspirations,” he said.
“Like a fingerprint, every one is different. It’s also uncommonly intimate between you and God and can be done in utter silence, almost subconsciously.”
A matter of preference
Like prayer itself, the individuals interviewed for this article had differing views of what works best for them and when.
Ana Alcoreza is a retired accountant and mother of four grown children in San Antonio, Texas. Disabled due to Post-Polio Syndrome, she volunteers at a local religious goods store and suffers from chronic pain. It’s her prayer life that gets her through each day.
“I rely on both [means of prayer],” she said. “I start with structured prayer, and then it becomes unstructured. Structured prayer gives me order, organizes my thoughts, empties my head of distractions and allows me to meditate. Unstructured prayer just pours (out) at any time during the day and brings me into dialog with our Father.”
Elizabeth Boyle has three special needs children and works full time from home on the steering committee of the San Antonio Catholic Women’s Conference and as a lay apostle for the Servants of Divine Mercy. She relies more heavily on unstructured prayer, although she starts and ends her day with structured prayer.
“I find that throughout the day I rely more on short praises or exclamations,” she said. “I think the reason I default to the unstructured prayer is that I can say it quickly in my head while dealing with the chaos and difficulty of taking care of three special needs treasures.”
Rosary as a prayer tool
Boyle feels that she’s closest to Jesus when she cries out to him in challenging moments. One of her favorite spontaneous prayers is, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Still, she looks forward to the times in her schedule that allow her the luxury of structured prayer. What’s more, she said, the more she prays — by either means — the more she wants to pray.
Melanie Rigney, author of “Sisterhood of Saints: Daily Guidance and Inspiration” (Franciscan Media, $15.99), vacillates between structured and unstructured prayer.
“It’s a matter of the way the Holy Spirit moves me,” she said. “I say the Rosary most days, often at night. It helps me focus on what’s important in life — God and bringing souls to the kingdom — and clears my mind of distractions. I tend to listen better after saying the Rosary.”
Sometimes, Rigney finds unstructured prayer more fruitful. “Then there are times when I just pour my heart out to God, in gratitude for the great gifts he provides in a less gracious, ‘OK, you gave me this, I accept it, but what do you want me to do with it’ way, or for people who have asked me for prayer. I don’t think I listen as well during those times, but I trust he does and is patient.”
More important than whether our prayer is structured or unstructured is whether it’s productive.
“You know you’re out of balance when your prayer life dries up,” said Father Thomas Boyer, retired priest of the Diocese of Oklahoma City and widely known retreat master. “You’ll realize, ‘something’s wrong here’ and feel the need for change.”
Father Boyer uses the image of a five-step ladder to describe how we typically mature in our prayer life.
The first step is like infancy, when our prayers are always about ourselves. “Me, me, me,” he said. “It’s all about us.”
In the second step, we express demands. “Gimme, gimme,” he said. “It’s all about begging for what we want.”
Third, we begin to look outside of ourselves to other human beings. “Give them, give them,” he said. “We start looking outside of ourselves and ask for things for somebody else. That’s intercessory prayer.”
The fourth step is focused on gratitude. “Thank you,” Father Boyer said. “We see that somebody did give something, and we are grateful.”
Finally, we reach the step in which we praise God. “Instead of looking at what we got, we acknowledge the Giver and we give back to him in praise,” he said.
Beyond these five steps, Father Boyer noted, is the wordless prayer of the mystics. It’s the state to which we all aspire, but not all of us reach. “This is when we truly know God from our own experience,” he said.
Most people believe that, in order for prayer to be productive, it has to feel good. That’s not reality, Father Boyer explained. Prayer is not about ambivalence; it’s about God and our relationship with him. If we stop (or even decrease) praying, we curtail our communication with God and endanger that relationship.
Even when it seems awkward, we must keep praying. “Prayer’s purpose is not to make us feel good,” he said. “Its purpose is sacrifice and praise. Prayer puts us in tune with God. We don’t pray to get something; we pray to become something.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.