How Should You Talk to God?
I shall have to train my senses, make them at once stronger and more delicate, at one moment tough, at another fragile; in a word, more lucid. I shall hear with my sense of sight and with my skin; I shall cover myself with eyes. Everything, even judgment, will be touch and hearing. Everything must be felt. I shall also think with my eyes and my hands: Everything must think. —Octavio Paz, “From Criticism to Offering”
Last year, I began praying for the first time in almost two decades. I don’t remember the precise reason I started back up, but I sure as hell remember why I’d given up prayer many years ago. It was the night of December 17, a week before Christmas Eve. I was 13 years old, and I’d just been told, by my mother, that my father had been found dead in his apartment. I remember thinking God, I don’t really feel like talking to You tonight, and indeed, I ended up keeping that line of communication shut off for many years.
I was bereaved, but I had a lot of other feelings I couldn’t quite identify, and I had an angry child’s understanding of divinity. Like many people, I imagined humankind’s relationship with God to be a quid pro quo kind of deal: I behave and think like a good Christian, and in return, good things happen to me. Among the many other effects it had on me, my father’s death shattered my preconceptions of cosmic justice and equilibrium. Dad prayed every night, and he went to church whenever his ravaged spine would allow him—so why did God let this happen?
Half a lifetime has now passed since then, but only recently have I realized I was asking the wrong question about the wrong kind of God. I’ve long since abandoned the Catholic faith, but I never entirely lost my feelings of spiritual kinship and curiosity. My decision to start praying again was, in some ways, a personal commitment to fully reimmerse myself into a spiritual mindset.
I was shocked by how quickly I took to prayer once I practiced it on my own terms. It felt as though I could finally mentally exhale with a metaphorical fullness of breath that not even therapy had been able to offer me. Over time, I felt myself becoming more observant, slower to judge and castigate, quicker to try to help. And after only a little bit of study and meditation, I became alarmed at how contrary to spiritual growth the mainstream understanding — and teaching — of prayer can be.
There are myriad problems facing modern American spirituality, but a great deal of it has to do with the perception of what God and prayer are for. For example, this video clip from Steve Harvey called “Are Your Prayers Too Small?” illustrates a common materialistic approach to spirituality.
Essentially, Harvey says that God isn’t answering your prayers because you aren’t asking Him for big enough things. “Lord, help me fix my car so I can make it to work,” he mocks. “Stop praying over these raggedy cars! Why don’t you ask God for a car that don’t need fixing?” You can extend this oversimplified logic in almost any direction. Imagine being told your prayers for a raise aren’t being answered because you should be asking God to make you the CEO of the company, or that you should be praying for a cure for cancer instead of for your health insurance to cover the next round of chemo.
While there’s a nugget of spiritual truth — that you should allow yourself to want great things from your God without feeling as though you’re being selfish in your desiring of them — it’s buried under a heap of condescension and magical thinking. If God isn’t fixing your car, it’s not because you’re asking Him for something too large or too small. It’s because that’s not what God is there for.
Harvey’s deeply flawed discussion of prayer has consequences that can’t be ignored. Men like him have influence over the mindset of the typical American Christian. This kind of self-serving, materialistic spirituality can, and frequently does, hobble the souls of the faithful.
How you talk to God plays no small part in how you see the world He has made for you. So, how should you talk to God?
There is no such thing as perfect prayer. But my advice as a neophyte spiritualist might make starting a conversation with God a little bit easier for those who curious about trying it. Before I get into the who, what, where, when, and why of prayer, a couple of things to mention:
- I’m going to mainly be using vocabulary from Western spirituality, but I think a lot of these ideas can apply to Eastern forms of thought as well. Many of these tenets can hold weight with meditation or chant, for instance. Eastern and Western religion are obviously not interchangeable entities, but I think for many of these concepts, you can substitute the vocabulary you feel most comfortable using and keep the core ideas more or less intact.
- From this point forward, I’m going to be referring to God as “They” rather than the more commonly prescribed “He.” This is because I think it’s not useful to gender an eternal and all-powerful being that has no corporeal form.
If you’re still with me, let’s carry on.
Who to pray to
To me, who or what you pray to is the least important aspect of prayer. Whether you’re praying to a deity or the embodiment of a concept, the point is that you’re speaking and putting the wants and needs of your soul not into the ether but into the hands of someone or something you believe is listening. I’d go so far as to say that, at first, it doesn’t even particularly matter if you think you’re being heard or not.
At Alcoholics Anonymous, I was told that it’s good to pray no matter what your beliefs are simply so that you can keep an awareness of forces outside your own will. I found it to be useful advice in early sobriety, and it’s an idea that remains at the forefront of my spiritual philosophy to this day.
If you have doubts that you’d be able to convincingly pray to something more abstract than God—like nature or the cosmos—take another look at the quote I started with. That’s from the poet and critic Octavio Paz, and while the language he uses is devotional and ecstatic, he’s not talking about anything having to do with religion: That excerpt is from an essay about learning to be a better judge of painting. Anything can be imbued with a sense of holiness. Even daily affirmations of gratitude and thought exercises that encourage positivity can be gateways to or expressions of the spirit.
When I started praying again, I reverted to the simple “Our Father” format because that was the structure of prayer I grew up with and was the familiar way to talk to God. I haven’t thought of myself as Catholic since middle school, but at that point in my spiritual exploration, the intent of my words was more important to me than my articulation of them. I’m currently exploring ways to have a more open, less formal and ritualistic communication with my God.
Your beliefs as to who or what is listening are personal. The important thing is that you believe that there is an entity hearing you and that they can offer some kind of deliverance for you and the people you love.
What to pray for
Let’s go back to that Steve Harvey clip. It’s difficult to understate how contrary to proper spirituality it is to opine that it’s foolish to pray for your car to run but wise to pray for a new car. In neither case is God likely to open the cosmic nexus and bequeath you with either, no matter how nicely you ask, but the latter desire smacks of prideful inclinations in a way the former doesn’t.
Ask any Texan if they think it’d be worthwhile to ask for a brand-new automobile every time their radiator craps out because of the heat. My friend Sylvia has had the same “raggedy” pickup truck since high school, but as long as she has the money to get the parts she needs to make it to work on time and occasionally visit her mom in Amarillo, she doesn’t see the need in replacing it. When she wants new clothes, she sews them herself. Sylvia is an avowed atheist and doesn’t think of herself as having a spiritual bone in her body, but in the way she moves through the material plane, she hews closer to a traditional Christian life than Harvey’s avaricious worldview could hope to touch.
Having faith means having a certain level of trust that God knows what you need. Harvey even mentions this, but he doesn’t process this notion to its logical conclusion. The spiritually prudent option would be to ask God for neither a fixed car nor a new one, but that They be able to carry you wherever you are best capable of serving Them—whether by means of a car or through something else.
Your specific needs can change entirely from one moment to the next; you may get the new car you pray for, and it might end up being a lemon or it rolls off the road the first week you use it. When you instead ask God for the ability to move safely and freely through Their world however They best see fit to allow this for you, you relinquish yourself to a holy willpower and broaden your energies away from the overly specific endpoint that you might become entrapped in.
It’s also possible to spread yourself too thin by focusing your prayer on particulars. I used to name those who had wronged me as people I wanted God to bless, but I found that forcing myself to dredge people who have caused me pain into my good graces every night was starting to take its toll. Now, what I say instead is, “God, please bless those I don’t have the strength to keep in my own heart.” If I were physically or emotionally capable of everything I desired to do, after all, I wouldn’t feel the need to pray in the first place.
We do not know our own minds or our own souls nearly as well as we think we do, and much of what we do know is cloaked in denial of our darker, more destructive tendencies. Even acting in kindness, we constantly err and do harm. Prayer ultimately needs to be about summoning forth a wisdom that is deeper and more effective than your own. This wisdom will guide you toward a purposeful tranquility more than a request for any specific object or situation ever could.
When we were little, my father would close out our nightly prayers with the following request to God: “May I please be kind, wise, forgiving, generous, honest, happy, healthy, and safe.”
I hadn’t spoken, or even remembered, those words in about 15 years, and then a few nights after I started praying, they jumped into my head as though they never left. If continuing to pray allows them to stay there, I don’t think there’s anything on this Earth that could force me to stop.
Where to pray
Many Buddhist monks say meditation can not only be practiced over the course of daily life, but should be in order to maintain peace and equilibrium. I share much the same view of prayer: I believe there’s no inappropriate location for speaking to God. I still make the sign of the cross over my chest in situations that are dangerous or important. I think of it like throwing up a signal that I need help, and I trust God to help me.
Public prayer shouldn’t be an ostentatious display, but you also don’t need to be especially bashful about it. Any space where you can devote a moment to talking to God is a space where you can feel comfortable offering prayers.
When to pray
In a certain way this is interlinked with where to pray; after all, a “when” must always correspond with a “where.” But the “when” has proven to be a more complicated facet of prayer for me to reach a conclusion about. One can divide prayer into roughly two kinds of “whens”: spontaneous prayer and planned/ritual prayer. Both have advantages and drawbacks for your spiritual health and should be used in careful combination.
Spontaneous prayer happens at the total discretion of the worshipper. It can happen anywhere and any time, whether it be inspired by gratitude, fear, or simply because you’ve blown off praying before going to sleep for a few nights in a row and need to catch up. I like praying this way because it allows for a living connection to God. When you train yourself to instinctively say a prayer in response to strong emotions, it reminds you that God is everywhere, that Their presence is within and without you and not confined only to a chapel or a holy book.
Pray when you feel the spirit, but also pray with enough regularity that you become aware of that spirit even when you may not feel it in your nerve endings.
The drawback of spontaneous prayer is that it makes a connection with God conditional on your immediate sensations. When used as a crutch, it turns God into a thing of emotional convenience, something that is only there when you are aware of it. Its unplanned nature makes it so that you’re more attuned to God when you notice Them, but it runs the risk of dampening consistent spirituality by relying on a kind of holy overstimulation.
Planned/ritual prayer is any kind of prayer you do as a matter of routine. The previously mentioned Our Father is one of the most consistent and well-known ritual prayers in the West: One tends to say it at scheduled times and for scheduled reasons and almost always in the same structure with slight variations each time to account for the content of the prayer. People pray this way in Sunday church gatherings, at calls to prayer at mosques, during the morning cleansing rituals that some Hindus practice, and in their own beds before they go to sleep.
Though many of us learn to hate this kind of prayer when we’re young, it can actually be incredibly refreshing to practice when it isn’t being regulated into your schedule by a parent or preacher. Like anything worth doing, prayer does take practice: You need to learn how to articulate yourself to God, and you need to learn to inculcate or discard varying values and priorities in accordance with your spiritual evolution. Plus, having a routine contact with God keeps Them at the front of your thought process. It makes Them easier to acknowledge and work through in your everyday life even when They might not be going out of their way to make themselves known.
The downside to ritual prayer as a means toward spiritual growth is the same thing that causes so many children to see it as a chore: When done without purpose or focus it becomes tedious and rote. Everyone has had the experience of having their words lose meaning the more they repeat them, and this can happen whether those words are directed to another person, to yourself, or to an unseen cosmic entity. This is what ultimately caused me to abandon the Our Father in my relearning to pray: After a few months, I found myself asking for “blessings” for my loved ones with no passion or active goodwill, simply ticking the boxes I felt obligated to tick so I could get to bed faster. Prayer can stop being special if you never think about it except for when you have to, and if one’s awe and active awareness of God becomes dulled it rather defeats the point of prayer in the first place.
I still struggle with the “when” of prayer. I believe it must be done consistently enough that you have an open and active communication with God, but with enough flexibility that it never feels like an obligation. Pray when you feel the spirit, but also pray with enough regularity that you become aware of that spirit even when you may not feel it in your nerve endings.
Why you should pray
Prayer is seen as a ridiculous pursuit by many secular people, and it’s not terribly difficult to understand why. The thinking goes that people pray because they want God to manifest something in literal, physical form, usually a situation or a good that will be advantageous to them. And it can’t be denied that there are a lot of people who do indeed think this way.
When people treat prayer like this, as a kind of self-help spell-casting, it turns into a binary proposition: Either prayer works — i.e., gets you the stuff you want — or it doesn’t. This leads to spiritual burnout for these would-be alchemists and to mockery from skeptics who get to reconfirm that prayer is at best useless and at worst an actively harmful superstition. “Thoughts and prayers” has (pretty much rightly) become shorthand mockery for anyone’s worthless, ineffectual response to a tragedy for exactly this reason.
Prayer is about seeing the God in things and summoning the ability to reflect that divine image back.
But if you’re not the kind of person who thinks God offers up miracles a la carte to anyone who asks and wants them badly enough, why pray? What could you possibly get out of it?
Prayer isn’t about trying to accumulate good fortune or good things from a celestial source. It is about thinking with a mind outside your experience, feeling with a nature that doesn’t start and stop with your instincts. It is about seeing the God in things and summoning the ability to reflect that divine image back to them. In short, you pray because you desire a connection to goodness and the discipline to reprogram yourself away from the human and into the divine.
A sense of godliness or divinity and what that constitutes is a question no one can answer for anyone except themselves. The seeking is what’s important—the process by which you move yourself away from a worldly nature. And this does not mean you take a disinterest in the world itself. Christ and the Buddha would have just sat in a cave and looked at rocks all day if things like peace, justice, and prosperity weren’t important to them. They looked beyond their human confines to help people who needed it most, circumventing the systems that would keep those people screwed down to the earth.
You probably aren’t Christ or the Buddha — but if you’ve read this far, you probably believe that a figment of those figures lives somewhere inside of you. That’s why you should pray: to try to become better acquainted with that part of yourself. You should pray for the same reasons you read or the reasons you have long conversations with good friends: to discover, to love, and to grow.