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I used to hate praying. I feel like I should qualify that statement so you don’t think I’m completely beyond redemption. I’ve always thought prayer was essential for faith. At the right moments—say, praying with other people—I loved laying hands on someone and lifting up their need to God. I loved when others prayed for me.
I longed to love all prayer like that, to toss off prayers ‘without ceasing’ as Paul urged me to do.
But the truth was, I felt like a prayer failure.
Once I told my husband I hated praying for troubling world events. Even if I only offered a single word for each of them, I’d drown under the accumulated sorrow.
Once I got a book about listening prayer and nearly had a panic attack as I waited, eagerly, to hear from God (spoiler alert: I didn’t hear squat).
Once my friend told me she used her insomnia to make more time for prayer, and the next time I couldn’t fall asleep I felt horribly guilty for not wanting to pray.
Also, my ‘prayers’ sounded suspiciously like anxious navel-gazing, and I got bored if they went on too long.
I felt about prayer the way most people felt about public speaking. On the spot, completely inadequate, and showing off my worst character flaws.
Changing my performance anxiety about prayer didn’t happen overnight. But it did change. I no longer feel like a prayer failure. More importantly, prayer brings me into regular communion with God—which is, after all, the point. Here’s what changed for me—and why prayer doesn’t need to be a burden, a source of anxiety, or a way to fall short.
As a young Christian, I heard people around me critique liturgy, such as the traditional prayers recited each week in Catholic services. My teachers said liturgy was formulaic, and meant worshippers recited words by rote. But to my surprise, liturgy was the first key that drew me into deeper communion with God.
After reading Phyllis Tickle’s memoir, I looked up the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer online, and began praying some of its Daily Devotionals when I had time. At first,I found the words a little repetitive. But after only a few weeks, I memorized them without meaning to. Liturgy made me feel like a child learning ABC’s by repeating after a parent—if my parent were two thousand years old and also a book. I didn’t have to think as much when I prayed liturgy—but for me, a chronic over-thinker, that was a good thing. Liturgy also didn’t require my cleverness—the prayers were ancient beautiful and meaningful on their own.
But the deepest benefit was this: in times of struggle, quiet, or fear, the words of the liturgy I’d memorized surged to my mind. I’d begun to pray without even trying.
Liturgy gave me a taste of God’s grace and provision. It was humbling to need such basic help, but the longer I prayed liturgy, the less I cared about my pride.
For a time when my kids were little, I let go of praying for other people, world events, and even myself. I was struggling back then (I’d gone through post-partum depression, and then had another baby), and so I decided only pray liturgical prayers for the time being. I expected to feel like prayer wasn’t complete without those requests, instead the quiet transformed me. Before, praying felt like a golfer getting balls into holes. Had I done too much intercession and not enough thanksgiving? Had I focused on myself and forgotten others? Was the prayer long enough? Sincere enough? Humble enough?
But when I let go of my prayer list, I noticed that prayer became less of a thing to do and more of a way to be. One prayer, Phos Hilaron, especially resonated with me. In it, I’d say, “We sing your praises, Oh God…you are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices.” During some truly bleak moments, these words came to my lips.
As I recited Phos Hilaron, I wasn’t creating a list of action items for Jesus. Instead, I rested and gloried in him at a moment where, humanly speaking, I should have been bereft, angry, or despairing.
Focused on God’s holiness kept me whole despite myself. Prayer in those moments was my ‘hiding place,’ as the Psalmist says. It was an ever-available respite and invitation to be with God no matter my circumstances. I didn’t need to qualify for it, work for it, or deserve it. It was a gift generously given at any moment.
Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers also changed the way I think about prayer. Her one-word prayers—Help (intercession), Thanks (thanksgiving) and Wow (praise) sum up how we can approach God. And even if you’re a nervous Nelly like me, you can manage a single-word prayer.
Some days, I’ll feel despondent, and prayer sounds like the last thing I want to do. When I feel my spirit’s cynicism, I nudge myself to pray HELP. You would not believe how many times that single word transformed a moment of sullen alienation into a sudden yearning for the Almighty.
I’ve also simplified prayer requests. When praying for my prayer partner sounds overwhelming, I’ll simply say a single word to stand in for her request. This shorthand motivates me to pray faithfully and reminds me that God’s provision isn’t about how fancy my prayers are, but on the Lord’s omnipotence. Funnily enough, when I give myself permission to pray one word, my heart often opens up to pray more. Keeping prayer easy and joyful means I yearn for it—and end up praying more overall. Rather than having to remember to bow my head, I’ve begun doing it reflexively. It isn’t more work. It has become like breathing.
The simpler my prayers are, the more easily I pray them. The easier prayer is, the more often I dwell with Jesus. And the more Jesus inhabits my every moment, the more I submit to His Lordship.
Praying more often didn’t involve trying harder, being more faithful, or taking my faith more seriously. Instead, it meant depending more on God then on my own power. It meant recognizing that God invites me to cry out to Jesus easily, in every moment. It meant affirming that even the most incompetent of my prayers ‘work’.
Yes, incompetence is the right word. Because the more I learn how to pray without ceasing, the more I realize my competence isn’t the point. The longer I pray, the more I see it’s God who empowers me to do all things—even to fall on my knees.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.