How to Pray?

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Many people find the thought of praying on their own disconcerting. How do I pray? What do I say? What should I do? For those who have such questions, or are nervous or embarrassed, the first thing to realise is that God just enjoys your company. After all, he made you!

The next thing is to overcome our own inertia, whatever form that may take. It may be reluctance to find time, distractions, boredom and lack of interest, or just fear of being on our own. The truth is, though, that God is gentle with us, gentle as a feather on the cheek.

At the heart of prayer is the awareness that this is our natural state – the state for which we were created. It is ‘the practice of the presence of God’, as others have more eloquently said. It is learning to be comfortable with Christ sitting beside us, and with the Holy Spirit resting upon us.

What is needed, at least to begin with, is stillness and silence. No television in the background, or radio chattering away. No mobile phone demanding attention. No pressing task nagging at our conscience. The closing of the eyes, the quietness of the breathing, the relaxation of the mind and body, and the opening of the spiritual ears and heart to the still, small voice of calm.

A good place to start, then, is with the Lord’s Prayer, said quietly and slowly, taking a breath at the end of each line ( ♦ ), and allowing the words to soak into our soul, like soft rain on the dry soil. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, and these are words our Lord taught us. They are filled with eternal life; they are living water. It doesn’t matter which version you use – whatever is most natural is best.

Our Father in heaven, ♦
hallowed be your name. ♦
Your kingdom come. ♦
Your will be done on earth ♦
as in heaven. ♦
Give us, today, our daily bread. ♦
Forgive us our sins ♦
as we forgive those who sin against us. ♦
Lead us not into temptation, ♦
but deliver us from evil. ♦
For the kingdom, ♦
the power, ♦
and the glory are yours, ♦
now and for ever. ♦
Amen.

Our Father, ♦
who art in heaven, ♦
hallowed be thy name. ♦
Thy kingdom come. ♦
Thy will be done on earth ♦
as it is in heaven. ♦
Give us, this day, our daily bread. ♦
And forgive us our trespasses, ♦
as we forgive those who trespass against us. ♦
And lead us not into temptation, ♦
but deliver us from evil. ♦
For thine is the kingdom, ♦
the power, ♦
and the glory, ♦
for ever and ever. ♦
Amen.

This is, of course, not the only place to begin. There are many, many guides to help with prayer, and as many techniques. The Eastern Orthodox approach, which has been found helpful by many thousands of people down the centuries, is to focus on what is called ‘the Jesus Prayer’, or Prayer of the Heart. It is a simple prayer, said in much the same way as described above, quietly, and slowly, focussing on each word with a pause at the end of the sentence:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The prayer is repeated fifty, a hundred, two hundred times (which is why prayer ropes are sometimes helpful), allowing the words to work their way into our hearts until they become our centre. This is why is it called Prayer of the Heart. There is an extraordinary setting composed by John Tavener for, and sung by, the Icelandic singer, Björk, that expresses this prayer beautifully. (It is sung nine times in Greek [eight at the beginning, one at the end], eight times in Coptic, and eight times in English.)

The prayer can be shortened:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy

Lord Jesus, have mercy

or even just

Jesus

Whatever form is used, it is said with the mind in the heart – a cry from the centre of our being to the One at the centre of our being.

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