During one memorable Sunday School lesson, the instructor proudly spoke on how our Church discourages “rote and memorized” prayers. He emphasized that we encourage prayers to come from the heart instead, spontaneous and sincere. “Except in important instances, such as in the priesthood ordinances like baptism and the Sacrament, we don’t use memorized prayers.”
“But we do,” one student responded. “’Please bless this food so that it may strengthen and nourish our bodies,’ even when we’re eating ice cream for refreshments.”
“How about ‘Please bless us that we’ll all drive home safely’?” another student said.
“Or ‘Please bless those who are not with us today that they may be with us next week,’ when we don’t even know who they are, or have any intention of encouraging them to come,” said another.
It’s clear that even though the Church does not give out prescribed prayers for every instance of the day and night, we still fall into the trap of rote, memorized prayers that we recite out of habit, but not from the heart. Prayer, at least prayer available in the lowest common denominator of Church culture, just hasn’t been cutting it for me the past few years. I’ll admit, my prayer practice began to fall apart over time, until it was almost non-existent. This isn’t to say I had nothing to discuss with God, nor that I had grown cold and unappreciative of life. My life was actually getting better in every single way. But I didn’t know how to communicate with God sincerely when I found myself saying the same phrases over and over again. I didn’t know how else to communicate.
Of course, receiving the news that we were expecting changed my lazy dynamic. When the kiddo came around, what family traditions of prayer did I want to teach? I didn’t want my child to suffer under the same lackadaisical, stiff, boring prayer traditions I had found myself mired in. I needed to change the routine up while still keeping true to the spirit of what prayer is supposed to be. And so, I began to experiment.
Prayer of Thanksgiving – I picked up this practice during my time in the Missionary Training Center, and I sadly only practiced this sporadically. We often make a lot of demands in our prayers; in fact, I would think that often our demands outweigh our praise and gratitude in our prayers. We always need something to go well – to find a job, maybe for someone to get better, or for just general safety and wellness. We want to be happy, for our friends and family to be protected, for whatever we’re eating to magically become nutritious and nourishing. But often times, we don’t thank enough. I know for me, I make really general blanket statements of thanks – thanks for this food, thanks for this Sabbath, thanks for the opportunity to be with family, or if I’m in a real rush, thanks for all of our blessings, whatever that means.
The adage to count our blessings really does help lift moods and bring appreciation for everything we have. In a prayer of thanksgivings, lay off on the demands for a while. Only thank God in the prayer. And when you do thank him, thank him individually for everything. Thank him for every friend and family member by name. If there’s a particular favorite food you like, thank him for that. Thank him for the sun, the sky, green grass, a song you heard that especially touched you. Sometimes I find myself thanking him for things that I might never have otherwise brought up in prayer – (thus far) mostly proper DNA replication in the body, or maybe for that really great deal in potting soil to start our patio garden. I have no idea if God made Costco give a great deal on potting soil; I have a feeling he actually doesn’t really care about the market price of potting soil (then again, he could?), but I’m grateful for potting soil and I’m grateful for the ability to grow a garden on our patio, so why not? It can’t hurt.
You’ll be surprised how powerful a periodic prayer of thanksgiving can be. Sometimes we feel like God isn’t really looking out for us. And though times certainly get really tough sometimes, I think the vast majority of us still have an incredible lot to be thankful for (especially if you live in the States!).
Meditation – My first encounter with meditation was during a world religions class in high school. My friend Kim sat next to me, still, silent, serene. I, however, couldn’t tame my highly active monkey mind for more than a minute; my mind kept getting distracted by, yes, shiny things, among other distractions. Over the years, I’ve never developed as strong of a meditation practice as I should, but I’ve noticed the benefits whenever I do it.
I know of Mormons – and Christians, for that matter – who get wary around the idea of meditation. Recently, meditation has come to the American cultural spotlight as a mostly Eastern religious practice. However, Western religions also have a strong meditation practice, especially in the all-important monasteries. One of the activities we are told to do with the scriptures – along with praying, pondering, and reading – is meditating. Meditation is simply the practice of sitting down and clearing the mind. Many focus on a mantra, a phrase or word to repeat over and over in order to train the mind to clear out all distractions.
If any word could aptly describe our fast-paced, post-industrial, modern life, it’s “distracting.” We have a million distractions vying for our attention, and it takes a toll. Meditation is a way to step out of those distractions and focus on the divine. Combine meditation with scripture memorization. Pick out a verse that brings comfort, and use that as a mantra. Many people don’t know how to start. Others are embarrassed that when discovered, people will make fun of them. But meditation is easy. Just sit down, try to clear your mind of thoughts, and be still, and know that God is God. If you’re afraid people will make fun of you, literally take the advice Jesus gives – meditate in a closet. Sometimes I’ll lock myself in the bathroom. And it doesn’t have to be a marathon meditation session. Try meditating for just a minute. Then two minutes. Then five. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes, and how often times, how reluctant you’ll feel to leave that peaceful meditative bubble. Sometimes, words are clumsy and fail in communicating to the divine. Wrapping yourself up in the present moment with meditation can help us interact and experience the divine when words don’t seem to come.
One extra benefit from meditation is a new-found ability to forgive myself. It’s nearly impossible to try to clear your head of thoughts, just as it’s impossible to muck through this life unspotted from the world. In meditation, when a thought enters my mind, I acknowledge its presence, then dismiss it and focus on the mantra. It’s unproductive to self-castigate or flagellate yourself for your failure. This practice of self-forgiveness has spilled into other parts of my life, where if I make a mistake, I acknowledge it, then continue on, refusing to dwell on it. Focus on the larger goal and move on. It’s a nice feeling.
Hymns and psalms – a hymn is a prayer to the Lord, as the saying goes. If you don’t feel like praying (and who doesn’t feel like this from time to time), just sing a hymn. If singing isn’t your thing, try reciting a psalm instead. The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew poetry, originally used for singing. When on the Cross, Jesus quoted Psalms. Many Christians memorize their favorite psalm to recite when feeling distressed.
Sometimes, we don’t know what to say. My wife often feels that she doesn’t have any pressing demands, nor is she really bursting and overflowing with gratitude every minute of the day, and so she often prays to simply “check in,” like a college student calling her parents once in a while to make sure they know she’s not dead. But she doesn’t like doing that with God. We’ve decided if we ever feel like we’re shortchanging him, or feel like we’re just simply “checking in” with words, but not with our hearts, we’ll either sing a hymn, or if we’re too tired, recite a psalm. And maybe it’s just years of conditioning from the Church, what, with hymns usually preceding prayer, but sometimes singing hymns just helps you get into that prayer mood.
Change up the time – During the mission, I struggled making the transition from night owl to early riser. The mission schedule is brutal to night owls, with its daily 6:30 in the morning wake up call. Often times, I struggled just to flip over onto my stomach, push myself up, and pray with my face pressed into my pillow. Often times, I’d fall asleep mid-prayer and just lie there, in some kind of twisted, bizarre Child’s Pose, for fifteen minutes or more, sleeping under the guise of prayer.
One of my friends on the mission hated this; I wasn’t the only one who did it. He eventually told me that what I should do is get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then get down on my knees for my morning prayer. God appreciates a clear head and a sincere prayer, not half-mumbled phrases I can’t distinguish from my dreams the night before. I tried it, and it helped a lot. Not only did my prayers make more sense (I remember sometimes praying for help from the bears that are trying to eat me), but I found my prayers to be a little bit more…different. More real. More about what I was about to do, and less about vague generalities (or man-eating bears).
Sometimes all you need is a break from the routine. The general times of praying are in the morning, at night, and before meals. However, praying outside of those times can help break the monotony. Instead of praying right before bed, try meditating a little in the evening. Instead of praying right when you get out of the morning, try praying in the car right before taking off for work. Often times, limiting ourselves to certain times when we must pray makes prayer start to feel like a chore, our predetermined times as some sort of quota. If we want to make prayer spontaneous and sincere, more of a lifestyle rather than a commandment, we must also break free of the idea that prayer should be done at specific times in the day, an idea that quickly becomes a prison. If you don’t pray immediately in the mornings, but pray during lunch for help in the unexpected things you must finish that day, I wonder if God cares much about the time discrepancy.
Hugh Nibley once wrote that “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.” We could also amend that to say “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to say a bad prayer than to get up at nine o’clock to say a good one.” This is a dangerous attitude to have about prayer, one that holds us back from any real spiritual progression.
Prayer, and communion with the divine in general, helps us develop a deeper appreciation not just for what is in store, but also for our lives now. One of the greatest blessings of Mormonism is its celebration not only of the future afterlife, but also the nitty gritty, dirty, dusty, mortal life we live today. True, sincere communication can help us secure a place in the next life, but it can also bring love and joy in the now, despite its difficulties and heartache.