When I was an enthusiastic evangelical Protestant, I understood true prayer to be the free, spontaneous expression of heartfelt adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication to God, whether "delivered" vocally or silently.

Admittedly, I often felt that it was a one-way street. But I knew I was in conversation with my loving and merciful Creator, and I patiently and silently listened for His still small voice. For many Christians like me, to read or recite a formal prayer -- that is, one with a given form, composed by someone else -- was anathema.

Upon becoming Catholic, I was introduced to written and memorized formal prayers: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Divine Office, the prayers of the Mass and many more. Though all Catholic spiritual writers emphasized the importance in the spiritual journey of spontaneous prayer as well, I found myself slowly becoming awkward, self-conscious, even paralyzed when I prayed unless I followed some official form.

For 15 years, on a daily basis, I struggled with this. I would pray the written prayers of the Church, yet feel adrift -- where once I had felt so free -- whenever I'd try to pray spontaneously to my loving Lord. And often, after I'd prayed the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary, I'd wonder: Had I merely recited words? Or had I in fact done what I most truly needed to do, as a son to a Father: listen and learn, and then follow His most intimate instructions?

I asked several spiritual confidants, "How should I pray?" One loving, insightful, humble friend answered, "Listen to the Church."

At first, this advice didn't really help. I thought I was already doing precisely that. Then one day, by the grace of our Father's intimate love, I was able to "listen to the Church."

I was sitting in Mass, admittedly distracted by a crying baby, an uncomfortable pew and a once-beautiful sanctuary that had been wrecked in the name of "renovation." I was repeating with those around me the prayers of the faithful.

The deacon was progressing through his list of requests, which we obediently punctuated with "Lord, hear our prayer," when I experienced a new and liberating insight: How do we pray every time we recite the Psalm in Mass or join in the prayers? How do we pray at the closing of every aspect of the Liturgy of the Hours? What is the model for prayer we learn from the Psalms?

We pray in litanies -- a form of prayer that brings great power and freedom.

I suspect that many of us view the litanies of the Church as just another written devotion for us to "offer up" as we kneel painfully through line after line of praise, earning us some level of meritorious indulgence. But in truth, I think, litanies can train us to pray.

Generally, litanies consist of a series of petitions or praises followed by a repeated phrase or antiphon, such as "Hear us, O Lord," or "Have mercy on us, Lord Jesus." Usually, the assembly repeats a brief antiphon while a priest or other leader reads more extensive lines.

For this reason, some may think that the repeated words are less important. But on the contrary, it is here that we discover a great aid to spontaneous prayer. The continuing, even ascending, focus of a litany is in the repeated line of praise, petition or thanksgiving, being progressively informed by the content of the various interspersed petitions.

If you struggle with spontaneous prayer, consider this approach: Recollect yourself in a peaceful, quiet place. Choose a phrase of praise, petition or thanksgiving, such as, "Praise to You, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Repeat this phrase slowly, silently, several times, as you focus your attention, and then begin inserting between your repeated antiphon spontaneous words of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and praise.

As you pray, be sure to thank God for the graces He has already given that initiated your desire to grow closer to Him in prayer. TCA