When it comes to prayer, one of the traps I seem to easily fall into is seeking the secondary effects of prayer instead of simply praying, conjuring a certain state of “prayerfulness” instead of simply getting down to the business of praying.
The problem (if you could call it that) is that sometimes prayer does lift me into a different state of mind. I am more in tune with spiritual realities, more in touch with God’s peace and kindness. It affects my emotions and my outlook.
But the trap is that when it is time to pray again, I inadvertently find myself seeking that state of mind instead of doing the activity that brought about the state of mind. I seek the secondary effect (“prayerfulness”) as a primary thing and thus lose both the primary thing and the secondary effect. I end up neither praying nor feeling prayerful! I vaguely try to conjure a certain state of mind and eventually give up, frustrated at how “hard” it is to pray.
But what I have been learning lately is to abandon the pursuit of “prayerfulness” and simply get down to the business of actually praying. This sounds absurdly obvious, I know, but it has been a profound revelation for me. Just sit down (or stand up, or walk around) and pray. Just start praying.
This is where I’ve found the Lord’s Prayer so helpful. It allows me to simply start praying. I don’t have to conjure a state of mind or come up with something new. I can just start praying. It’s like a portal into an awareness of God’s presence that I can enter no matter what I’m feeling like, no matter what state my heart is in. And no wonder: it’s the explicit answer Jesus gave his disciples to their request, “Teach us to pray.”
I’m not responsible to be in a certain state of mind, I’m simply responsible to pray. And Jesus didn’t make it a very mysterious thing as to how to go about that: “When you pray, pray like this…” As I do so, I am immediately made aware of God’s presence with me, that the Lord himself is here and I am speaking with him. If I don’t know what to say or how to start, I simply start with the words Jesus gave us, and it lifts me into the experience of prayer.
So instead of seeking a “prayerful” or peaceful state of mind, I can simply start praying by saying, “Our Father in heaven…” and then praying through the movements of the prayer I’ve been given, allowing it to do the work as I am simply faithful to the practice of moving through the phrases and attending to God’s presence and voice in the midst of them.