How to Pray: A Catholic Guide to the Interior Life
It’s no secret: you can learn how to pray!
Even if you’ve got a houseful of screaming kids, or too much schoolwork, or a job that consumes way too much of your time.
In fact, that just means that you need prayer more! Because prayer gives true freedom, “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). And that’s exactly what you need right about now, isn’t it? Yeah, I know…
…it’s what we all need!
This brief guide to Catholic prayer is the fruit of my own struggle to develop a good prayer life.
I found it difficult to just find solid guidance in learning how to pray. But good information helped immensely, in developing both an interior life and my faith as a whole. This article covers the best things I’ve learned from true experts, the keys that unlocked the riches of prayer.
So let’s get started, shall we?
Overcoming common myths
Too many people think they have good reasons why they cannot have a better prayer life.
Don’t believe them!
I’ve used these excuses myself too many times in my life. And they still creep back in when I’m not looking! Some common myths are:
- “I don’t need to pray in any ‘formal’ sense. God knows I love him.”
- “I just can’t find the time to pray.”
- “My faith isn’t deep enough to get anything out of prayer.”
- “I’ve tried learning how to pray, but I just don’t ‘get it’. It’s too hard.”
Please know that the truth about prayer is Good News!
Truth: A prayer life is essential to the Christian life.
Prayer is “a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God.” (Catechism, 2558)
Prayer the lifeblood of your faith. Without prayer, your faith will die. (Catechism, 2744)
Truth: Prayer is compatible with everyday life.
You do need a small amount of quiet time each day to learn how to pray. But it’s not difficult — just 5 or 10 minutes to start is fine.
And you’ll also make prayer a part of the fabric of everyday life. You can find God in all the normal tasks of daily life. Seek him there!
Truth: Even the smallest faith will blossom through prayer.
Here’s a secret: as with faith itself, God does all of prayer’s hard work! We get the easy part. And our part is learning how to pray, and then praying every day.
St. Paul tells us, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26)
And the Catechism says: “The Holy Spirit, the artisan of God’s works, is the master of prayer.” (#741)
With a Master like that, how can you go wrong?
Truth: Learning how to pray is simple.
The basics of prayer are simple.
Throughout the ages, all kinds of people have learned how to pray.
Why not you, too?
If you recognize your own thinking in any of those myths about prayer, examine the problem directly. You owe it to yourself to come to terms with it!
I’ve found Amy Welborn’s book Prove It! Prayer to be a great help in addressing these questions. It’s a great help for learning how to pray and developing a solid, mature prayer life. Don’t be put off by the fact that the book is marketed for teens & young adults: the writing is breezy and casual, but the material is outstanding. It’s very approachable. Easily one of the best guides to beginning a prayer life that I’ve seen.
The foundation: conversion
If you’re serious about developing a prayer life, you have to make a fundamental commitment to convert to Christ.
That means you have:
- Love for God
- Desire to do his will
- Openness to change in your life
Prayer relies on this foundation. So what if you’re not quite there yet?
Welcome to the club!
None of us is fully “there yet.” Conversion is an ongoing challenge. It doesn’t end when you’re baptized or confirmed. You’ll have to return to it frequently & renew your commitment.
But you do need a basic commitment to love & follow the Lord. Faith comes from God, not from our own work. But we have to consciously receive and nurture his gift of faith. A good step is learning how to pray.
It’s always good to return to the basics of conversion. Review them, make sure that you understand them. I find it’s helpful to pretend I’m just starting out again, and take it step by step. The article about the RCIA inquiry stage talks a lot about building a strong foundation of love for Christ.
Everything in the spiritual life rests on this foundation.
First step: pray for help
Turn to God as you learn how to pray.
With even the smallest initial faith, you’ll find it easy to turn to God and ask him for help. A wonderful prayer here is to use the words of the sick child’s father in the Gospel of Mark:
Now you say it! Go ahead; I’ll wait. And really mean it — let it come from your heart.
Wasn’t that easy?
Hey! You’re praying!
- You’re aware of a desire for God.
- You wanted what he wants for you.
- You reached out to ask him to help you get there.
Those are basically the three points we listed in the previous section!
In fact, this short prayer is an outstanding model of some basic attitudes we need for effective prayer.
Which leads us to…
This is important: Prayer depends on this attitude of neediness before God, expressed beautifully in the prayer from Scripture, above.
This attitude is one of humility and basic faith. It looks with confidence to God as the only source that can fulfill our needs and desires.
We call this having good dispositions.
The keys to learning how to pray:
- Good dispositions, especially humility and faith
Without good dispositions, we won’t really be praying.
Without perseverance, we won’t keep praying.
Compare the attitudes of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’s parable from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee is one of those who “trusted in themselves… and despised others.” He lacks good dispositions; you could even say he lacks basic conversion.
The Pharisee really talks to himself rather than God. He loves himself, but not God or neighbor. His prayer is not true prayer — hence, Jesus says he is not “justified.”
The Pharisee’s prayer is the opposite of a prayer of humility and faith.
In contrast, the tax collector’s prayer is rooted in the humility of knowing he’s done wrong, and in faith he looks to God’s mercy: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
Our dispositions in prayer are what will make us grow or stagnate in the interior life.
In addition, perseverance is necessary for learning how to pray. It shows our commitment to loving God even if we don’t feel any particular benefit.
Especially when learning how to pray, most people face “temptations which cast doubt on the usefulness or even the possibility of prayer” (Catechism, 2753). The remedy is perseverance and trust in God.
Develop these two basic attitudes. Make them your own. Keep them before you constantly as you begin to pray.
- Using a prayer book as a guide will give you great benefit here. The best ones will help you develop good dispositions while guiding your prayer. The In Conversation With God series are outstanding in this respect. It often focuses on our basic attitudes and virtues, as this is the source of many difficulties in prayer and in faith.
Return to these basic attitudes frequently as you learn how to pray. Work to strengthen them.
Build a strong foundation and prayer will become much easier.
Two simple habits
The next step in learning how to pray is to develop two simple habits of prayer.
- Sprinkle a few quick prayers into key parts of your day
- Develop your awareness of the presence of God
This will work some quick prayers into the fabric of your normal day. You’ll also have a basic structure of prayer to build on.
Most of all, it makes prayer a natural part of daily life. That’s very important as you learn how to pray: if it’s something foreign to your normal day, you’ll be tempted to drop it as soon as you’re pressed for time.
This is very easy.
The article daily Catholic prayer gives you a lot of suggestions for how to add a few quick prayers into your day. It only takes a few seconds here or a minute there, and suddenly your whole day is framed by prayer.
Another article helps make living in the presence of God a habit. This is also an essential part of the spiritual life.
The need to start simply
You may be tempted to skip those habits mentioned above.
Do not skip them!
A very common mistake in learning how to pray is to take on too much and then grow discouraged. I’ve seen people try to start with hour-long prayer sessions, prayer journals, and long prayer workshops — only to give up in frustration.
The best approach is to do the opposite: Start very simply. Only take on a little. Build slowly.
In fact, these habit gets you started so easily that you’ll only notice the joy of suddenly having prayer in your day! And you won’t have to struggle to find the time.
You’ll form a wonderful habit of prayer that runs throughout your day. Everything else will be framed by your deep love for God, and your desire for union with him.
Now you’ll find it easy to spend a few minutes in silence with the Lord…
Talking with God: mental prayer
Daily mental prayer is necessary for the Christian.
Your good habits of brief prayer throughout the day will make this not only easy, but an absolute pleasure!
Mental prayer, or Christian meditation, will be the focus of your growth in how to pray.
Another excellent resource is the Following Christ Through The Gospels eBook. This classic is a step-by-step guide to prayer using the Gospels as source material. Written by acclaimed priest Father Bernard Basset, it’s available through the Catholic Spiritual Treasures program.
A school of prayer: the Rosary
There’s actually an easy way to learn how to pray: the Rosary!
Non-Catholics often just do not understand the Rosary. (Believe me, I’ve been there myself!)
Yes, the Holy Rosary is indeed a loving devotion to Mary. But it’s really much more than that: the Rosary is a beautiful school of prayer. It’s a great way to learn how to pray.
The whole point of the Rosary is to lead you through some of the central Mysteries of Christ’s life. As you go through each Mystery, you spend some time meditating on it.
See the article about how to pray the Rosary for all the details!
New life awaits you!
Prayer is your lifeline to a new life in Christ.
Learn how to pray. Give yourself the gift of knowing how to talk with God.
Prayer “is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man.” (Catechism, 2564)
Did you catch that?
You and God both act together in prayer!
The Lord awaits. “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains a beautiful set of reflections on the Our Father. They are another good guide for how to pray (opens a new browser window). (Be sure to follow the “next” buttons in that window to read through all of the pages!)
See our home page for more articles for the beginning Catholic.