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The Discussion: How Can I Pray Better?

Andrea D’Aquino

And should better prayer even be a goal?

Many of us grew up thinking of prayer as prescribed and one-sided. But we can also view it as an ongoing, creative conversation with the divine; something that connects us to the God of our individual understanding—and helps connect us with other people, too.

“Prayer is so often misunderstood,” sighs Rev. Bridget Kelso Anthony, the minister of engagement at West End Collegiate Church in New York City. “It doesn’t always have to be a formal practice,” she says. “You don’t have to sit in one place and in one posture or say certain words. Prayer is as natural as the heart beating.”

Prayer can be deeply individual. Your prayer life need not look like anyone else’s. “I find myself in conversation with God in a number of ways,” says Rev. Bridget. “In fact, I find myself more aware when I’m not in conversation with God than when I am.” The role of a religious leader in prayer, she posits, “is like opening a door. I don’t pull you through. I set the mood so you can feel the presence of God, so you can feel you are surrounded and guided by love and support and find whatever you need in that moment.”

Find your own cadence. Rev. Bridget grew up in the Baptist tradition, where, she says, “Prayer had a cadence and is an art form.” Rev. Bridget made history as the first woman of color ordained in the new Reformed Association of the United Church of Christ. She says, “I used to be hesitant to pray out loud. But when I did my clinical pastoral education, I had a great supervisor, Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum. [Rabbi Appelbaum teaches healthcare chaplaincy, such as how to work in a hospital or hospice setting]. He says every time you go into a room, you offer a prayer. I thought, ‘Oh no!’ But it forced me to develop my own cadence.”

What is your personal cadence? What things feel most comforting to yourself when prayed out loud, or with others out loud? What feels more comfortable as an internal voice in your heart?

It’s deeply creative. “People think prayer is serious, but it can be fun. And if it’s not part of our daily life, then it’s not that useful,” says Kelly O’Dell Stanley, the author of Praying Upside Down and the upcoming #Instaprayer: Prayers to Share, which arrives in April. The graphic designer and writer is based in Crawfordsville, Indiana. She posts daily prayer prompts at kellyostanley.com. She also has subscribers who download a monthly version.

“For me, creating the prayer prompts is not about bringing people in for prayer so much as God made me personally a creative person. When you do your daily activities and think of them as worship, your everyday acts are sacred. We were each given certain skills and when we fully embrace and use those skills, in a way it becomes a form of prayer, an act of worship.”

If you want to try prayer prompts, they are available from many perspectives and different faiths and sources. You might also try writing in a prayer journal, Stanley suggests. “I’ve found that when we let go of expectations, we can better see what is in front of us, and how things get resolved.”

Praying with and for others.

Some of the anxiety over the subject of prayer comes from when people use it as a weapon or a form of punishment. The attitude of “such-and-such situation happened to you and not me, and it’s because you haven’t prayed enough,” says Rev. Bridget. “I don’t believe that God is transactional. Lots of people pray and bad things still happen.”

At West End Collegiate Church, as at many houses of worship, congregants write down names of people they want prayed for. “We read it out loud,” says Rev. Anthony. “We lift it up to the church. The church takes this very seriously. A large group of people with a single intent carries a weight; it means something when everyone sends their love and attention to God or to an individual through God.”

As for Stanley, she says her book title about praying upside down came to her during the drawn-out process of trying to sell her home. She was praying, she says, envisioning a woman who would buy her house. But when the home eventually sold after two years “and I finally met her, I realized I’d been praying upside down.” Instead of the quick sale or big profit she thought she was praying for, Stanley was able to see how the house sale affected and helped the woman who bought the home.

The point? “When we pray, sometimes we’re making it about us instead of the divine,” observes Stanley. “When we pray for other people, on the other hand, we experience empathy and compassion, if nothing else to at least notice them.”