What Makes A Good Prayer? Part One

When was the last time you were satisfied with your prayer life? I suspect that for most of us prayer is something we are never completely satisfied with - we feel like we should be doing more of it, doing it for longer, and doing it with more sincerity.

Perhaps we don’t even know yet what kind of prayer works for us. As SCM is an ecumenical charity prayer styles often vary wildly in our meetings and events. In the office there are those of us who love to pray through liturgy, those who like more freeform prayer, and some who prefer companionable silence to anything spoken.

It’s good to be able to pray in a variety of styles as not only is it useful in ecumenical settings, but being exposed to different styles can help you discover what it is you need from prayer, and where your own prayer life is lacking. In fact, learning what kind of prayer works for you is the first step in enhancing your own prayer life.

But none of this means very much if you don’t know how to pray in the first place. Time and again I’ve heard students say that they don’t know how to pray because they have never been taught. So I’m going to ask you some questions to get you exploring where you are with prayer, and how you can grow into it more.

What is the purpose of prayer?

Often the Bible speaks of prayer as an ‘offering’ to God, at other times it is a supplication to the Divine, to the One who answers prayers. In much of the Hebrew Bible the writers beseech God to hear their prayer, as in Psalm 54: ‘Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth.’ Prayer therefore has something to do with being listened to by God and being granted what you have asked for.

But prayer is also a sacrifice, a gift towards God, as in Psalm 141: ‘Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.’ Prayer is something that the ‘righteous’ engage in, and therefore something that it is our duty to perform.

Reflection: What do you think the purpose of prayer is? What do you expect when you pray? What is your intention in praying?

How are you?

Your mental and physical health will also affect your prayer life. In my more dramatic moments of illness I have been known to fling my arms open and cry: ‘Oh LORD, why do you let your servant suffer?’ This is a prayer, albeit not a very gracious one. Similarly, if you are in a dangerous or stressful situation you might only think ‘help’, but this too is a prayer.

If on the other hand you are in top health and feeling fine you might be more effusive in your prayers, or you might neglect them entirely. This very much depends on your disposition and what you use prayer for – if you only use it for comfort you might find that prayer dries up once you no longer need that comfort, or you might find it harder to pray when you feel unwell.

Reflection: How do you feel physically and mentally? How does feeling ill affect your prayer life? How does feeling well affect your prayer life? What can you do to achieve more consistency in prayer despite emotional or physical fluctuations?

Where are you?

There are some spaces that inspire prayer because they are so beautiful and have that ‘holy feel’ like a cathedral or a huge stretch of water. There are some spaces that are easy to pray in from habit – like a church building. There are some places that are harder to pray in – like your bed or the bus to work. Bear in mind that your setting will affect how you pray, and what type of prayer you can reasonably do. In the Gospels Jesus is often depicted as going away to pray alone – on a mountain top, in a garden, or in the temple; he doesn’t fit prayer in where he can but dedicates himself to it as a priority.

Reflection: Where do you like to pray? Where do you find it easy to pray? How does physical location affect your prayers? Would going to a specific place to pray be beneficial to you?

For this week I'd encourage you to focus on the three questions above. When you’re praying try to notice what your intention is, how you are feeling, and where you are. Tune in for part two, with some more reflection questions, next month!