How to pray – it isn’t the words or the ritual. It is a feeling.

Prayer is communicating with God. God wants to hear from us, and for us to hear from him. But how do we do this?

Communicating with God is real. Everyone can do it. It isn’t for the chosen few. Not everybody can do it easily, but everybody can learn how. Hearing from God isn’t as easy as picking up the phone. It isn’t the same as turning on the television. But it is a skill that you can learn.

Consider a marathon runner. She doesn’t wake up one day and start running 26 miles. She may not even like to run to start off with. But she hears about a marathon and she thinks about it. She finally decides to start. She trains. She gets better. She may walk more than run at first. First it is a mile run around the block. Then two. Then five. It can take a long time and many setbacks and blisters to get up to 26 miles, but then one day she is there.

This is also true of hearing from God. It requires practice and effort and persistence.

First, it is important for you to know that God loves you. God made you. You are needed and part of God’s plan. This is why you were made. The fact that you are alive is proof that God needs and loves you. Right now. As you are. Warts and all. You may not feel worthy of God, but God thinks otherwise. So God wants to hear from you. God wants to connect with you. This is true communion, or union-with.

The book “The Isaiah Effect” by Gregg Braden says something very interesting about prayer. It says that prayer isn’t something you do, it is something you feel inside your body. This is very important. This totally turns our Western idea of prayer upside down.

It isn’t the vehicle that is the focus. It isn’t the how-to. It is the destination that is important. You have to get to that feeling in your body that indicates you are in the right spot. Prayer is a feeling, not a ritual.

Prayer isn’t the candle or the words or the gestures. It is the connection with God that is produced when you use those things, or anything else that helps you get there. The candle or the words or the gestures are like a car that you get in to go visit a friend. Getting to your friend is the most important part, not how you get there. Perhaps the car breaks down and you have to walk. That is fine. You got there. Don’t focus on the car.

But because we are physical beings, we often need props to help us. Just remember that the prayer isn’t the props.

C.S. Lewis says “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” Our bodies need reminders of our souls. I’ve written before about how I use prayer bracelets, tattoos, painted toenails, and going barefoot as reminders. There are many different ways to remind you to pray and nourish your soul with a connection with God.

Prayer does not have to be passive. It doesn’t have to be sitting in a chair with your hands in front of you saying a prayer that somebody else wrote. It can be active. There are probably as many different ways of praying as there are people. Painting, walking, singing, doodling, meditation, yoga practice can all be used as forms of prayer, for instance. Compassion in action is also good. Volunteering is a form of prayer.

How often should you pray? If you are Muslim, you are to pray five times a day. Some people pray before every meal. If you are Jewish, you are to give thanks to God at least 100 times a day. All of these practices are ways to remind you to pray. Constantly praying is constantly being in communion with God. The more you pray, the better the connection gets between you and God.

In order to hear from God, you have to put yourself in a place where you can hear from God. It is kind of like you want to get a phone call from a friend, but you don’t realize that your phone is turned off because you didn’t pay the bill. You’ll never hear from your friend with that kind of connection.

This is attributed to Saint Francis – “Pray constantly, and if you must, use words.” Prayer doesn’t have to be words, but it can. Part of my goal here is to open your mind up about what prayer is. It doesn’t have to be what you think it is. Trying other ways can be helpful.

Do you use a prayer book, or not? Do you find it helpful or stiff and canned? Jesus tells us that we are not to mutter the same words over and over again, but to pray from our hearts. We learn this in Matthew 6:7 “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” (New American Standard Bible) But sometimes that is hard because we don’t know what to say. Then there is this helpful verse from Romans 8:26 “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” (New Living Translation)

So you don’t have to use a prayer book. God knows what you want to say. But if you feel you need a prayer book, be sure to read every word carefully and feel them, so that the prayer becomes your own. It isn’t the words that get you there, but the feeling that happens when you read the words. A friend told me a Jewish story about a little boy who didn’t know what how to pray so he just recited the alphabet and let God pick out all the right letters. That works too – but again, it isn’t the letters. It is the feeling you get when you are there, talking to God.

Many different faiths use prayer beads. You can study how they use them, or you can make up your own ritual. They can be used to center you and focus you. Just handling beads can be very calming and centering.

When you pray, remember the feeling you get if you ask for something. Then see if your prayer is answered. Compare the feeling with the result. Journaling can help you keep track of the results. This is a way to learn how God is talking to you. God always answers prayers, but they aren’t always “yes”. With practice, you can learn to “hear” the “yes” from the “no” from the “not right now”. I often “hear” the reply as a feeling, rather than a word. This is often the first way that we hear from God, as feeling.

When I pray for a specific intention, I get a feeling of ease when the prayer is going to be answered as a “yes”. I get a feeling of resistance when it is a “no”. It took a while to learn the subtle difference of feeling between the two. It isn’t as easy as “this is hot” and “this is cold” – it was far more subtle. But it is there. It just takes practice to sort out where and how the feeling feels to you.

I think it is essential to always be ok with the idea that you aren’t in charge. Sometimes it is best you don’t get what you prayed for. God is not your waiter. You don’t always get to have it your way.

God can use anything as a way to answer. You can “hear” God all around you. Nothing is a coincidence. We are like fish who are unaware of water. We are surrounded by God, as everything is from God.

It is perfectly ok to pray for the ability to pray. It is OK to ask God for help in how to pray. Just like in the story of the prodigal son, when the son started back towards his Dad, his Dad saw him and went running to meet him. God wants us to pray, to connect with him. He’ll make up the difference in distance between us.

You’ll get stronger the more you do it. So pray constantly. Be patient with yourself if you slack off and get out of your routine. That is normal. Just start doing it again. Nobody is consistent at their prayers. But the more you pray, the better you’ll get at it, and the more you will connect with God.

Read the Bible, and pray beforehand for the Holy Spirit to help you understand. The Bible is the Word of God. If you want to hear from God, it is a good idea to start off with a known good. This way when you get to the point that God is talking to you in words, you’ll be able to measure up and know if it is God talking and not just your imagination.

Read the prayers of other faiths. There might be something that helps. Like buying a one-size fits all suit, sometimes prayer life needs to be altered and adjusted. I’ve found a lot of comfort in reading about other faith systems. There is a lot in Buddhism for instance that helps to inform my Christianity. I’m enjoying a podcast that is all Torah study as well.

Remember to make time for prayer. Turn off the television. Turn off the iPod. We fill our heads with a lot of noise. How can God get a word in edgewise if we are so noisy all the time?

Consider getting a spiritual director. A spiritual director can be a priest or minister, but doesn’t necessarily have to be one. She or he is trained to help you achieve intimacy with God. I consider such a person to be like a guru, but for Western faiths. I’ve learned more from my spiritual director than I’ve ever learned from any minister.

I’ll leave you with a little poem.

Make your life into a prayer,
and everything you do will be a love letter to God.
And God will answer back, I love you, I love you, I love you
from every rock and rainbow,
from every smile from every stranger.