Praying often consists of airing a laundry list of requests about health concerns, financial needs, circumstances we hope will work out, and possibly a wayward soul or two. At my own church, our weekly prayer gathering started to feel like a catch-up session in which we spent more time discussing prayer requests than we did praying about them. Our intentions were good, but we were only minimally formed or uplifted by our time together. It began to feel shallow and lacking. Others said they had no idea how to pray at all.
Prayer is simply a conversation that happens in the context of relationship between God and ourselves. It often involves interceding on behalf of others, serving as a conduit by which we see God’s hand at work in the world. It also necessitates listening. Lots of listening.
Admittedly, our twenty-first-century listening muscles are weak, our aptitude for silence and solitude having never been developed. Our imagination for how God might communicate with us is stunted by the demanding noises of our cultures. Our hope for hearing from the still, small voice of God is nearly squelched from existence altogether by shortened attention spans and our own refusal or inability to create space.
But there is hope. Our atrophied listening muscles can be rebuilt. Our appetite for silence and solitude can be nurtured. And, in cultures polluted with noise, we can learn to listen for the voice of God as our Christian fathers and mothers did.
But there is hope. Our atrophied listening muscles can be rebuilt. Our appetite for silence and solitude can be nurtured. And, in cultures polluted with noise, we can learn to listen for the voice of God as our Christian fathers and mothers did. Through prayer practices deeply rooted in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience we can lean in to relationship with God in significant ways. These Christian prayer practices are not new. In fact, they’re very old—ancient, even.
Having stood the test of time and culture and Christian tradition, we put these practices to use in our own mid-week group prayer time. Our group is small but diverse in gender, age, culture, faith background, and Christian experience. Some of us had used some form of these practices for years while they were brand new to others. Yet all of us have found them to be powerful practices for listening to and conversing with God. Through these ancient prayer practices and many others, we’ve been creating space, learning to listen, allowing the Spirit to form us, and gaining tools that have proven critical in times when the challenges roll in like ocean waves.
Each of these practices can be practiced individually or in a group. Individually, one might designate a time and a space where others, the internet, or a buzzing phone won’t interrupt, participating in the practice for as long or as short as time allows. In a group, the leader might introduce the prayer practice, set a time frame, and open with a general prayer. Then each participant might engage in the practice as he or she feels led for the time allotted. After the designated time, the group leader may invite participants to pray aloud as they feel led. The group might close by praying the Lord’s Prayer together, followed by an opportunity to share what they experienced during the prayer practice.
5 Prayer Practices for Leaning in and Listening to the Voice of God
- Lectio Divina
Lectio Divina is a sacred reading of Scripture and is a practice that is often attributed to Saint Benedict. It involves four stages that can ebb and flow as desired. It is less about coming up with a “right” answer and more about listening to what God might be saying to you.
Lectio: Select a passage of Scripture and read it to yourself several times. Let the words sink in, but don’t feel the need to exegete the literal meaning of the passage. Listen for a word or phrase that catches your attention. Focus on that word or phrase and allow the Spirit to begin speaking to you.
Meditatio—Meditate on the word or phrase that caught your attention. Don’t limit your thoughts or reflections to the confines of the original passage. Allow the Holy Spirit to continue to speak to you. What thoughts, memories, emotions, ideas, or images are stirred? Pay attention to those. Listen to what God might be saying.
Oratio— As you feel led, begin conversing with God in response to the meditatio. Listen and respond. Listen and respond.
Contemplatio—As the conversation winds down, enter into contemplative rest with your new understanding, the new insight God has given you, and the perspective that this time has provided.
- The Jesus Prayer
There is power in the name of Jesus. In Luke 18:13 a tax collector “beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” Later in the same chapter, in verse 38, a blind beggar calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The Jesus Prayer is an amalgam of these two cries that can be repeated over and over when other words won’t come. Or it can be used in conversation, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in response to our need for God’s mercy. Simply say, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” or “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Listen for God’s response. Like Jesus in Luke 18:41, is God asking you, “What do you want me to do for you?” How do you respond?
I’ve observed and used many different types of prayer journaling practices. Certainly, journaling can be valuable for a variety of reasons and can serve us well in a variety of formats. In this particular practice, our pen becomes a hearing aid. Divide your paper in half vertically to create two columns. Label the left column “Me.” Label the right column “God.” In the left column, initiate your conversation with God. Write what’s on your heart and mind, pausing to listen as you write. In the right column, write down what you’re sensing the Spirit might be saying to you. Perhaps a song or a scripture come to mind. Write those down. In the left column, write your response to what the Sprit says and continue listening. Continue the conversation back and forth down the paper until the conversation comes to an end.
- The Prayer of Examen
Ignatius established this practice for the priests of the Jesuit order to participate in twice a day, at noon and at night, in order to pay attention to God’s presence in their daily lives. The practice has taken on various formats for different people. It can be practiced as simply as asking God to help you look back over the events of your day and look forward to the next. “When did you sense God’s nearness?” and “When did God seem distant?” can serve as guiding questions. Generally the Prayer of Examen follows five steps similar to these:
Enter in. Ask God to help you become aware of God’s nearness, to reveal insights from the day, and to help you recognize God’s presence throughout the day. Think over the things that happened, significant and insignificant. Ask God to bring clarity to events that may seem jumbled or chaotic. What was most life-giving and what was most life-draining about your day? Were there times that you felt near to God or times that you felt like God was far away?
Give gratitude. Notice the day’s joys and delights. Reflect on the small things as well as the big things. What gifts were evident? Express gratitude to God for God’s presence and for each of the things—big or small—that you’ve become aware of.
Notice emotions. What emotions did you experience throughout the day? Were you sad? Happy? Angry? Hopeful? Discouraged? What is God saying as you pay attention to your emotions? Are there ways that you fell short of who God is calling you to be? Are there areas where you need to ask forgiveness? Is there anything you are called to do or change?
Pray specifically. Choose one thing that comes to mind from your day to pray about specifically. It could stem from something positive or negative, a person you encountered or a situation you experienced. Pray as you feel led, whether it’s to intercede, praise, repent, or give gratitude.
Look ahead. Seek God’s guidance for the day that is to come. Are you hopeful, worried, apprehensive, or anticipating the events of the day to come? Share those feelings with the Lord. Ask God to give you wisdom, hope, and peace.
- Breath Prayer
The simplest of prayers, a breath prayer reminds us that it is God’s breath in our lungs giving us life (see Genesis 2:7). In God we live and move and have our being, so our bodies are an important part of our conversations with God. As we inhale and exhale deeply, we are reminded that God gave us the gift of bodies into which God lovingly breathed when we were formed from dust. As you slow down and take notice, give attention to how you are feeling physically and emotionally. Allow yourself to be filled anew with the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Feel free to add silent words to your breath in the rhythm of your prayer. Some examples might include the following:
Exhale: Have mercy
Exhale: Have mercy
Inhale: My peace
Exhale: I give you
Inhale: I am
Exhale: With you
Inhale: You are
Exhale: My shepherd
By no means is this list of prayer practices all-inclusive. These are simply a few of the practices represented in the legacy of Christian forebears who have walked the paths of faithfulness before us. These practices are not a surefire way to receive a lightning bolt from heaven or a visit from an angel. Instead, when regularly incorporated into our lives, they serve as rhythms that can help us lean in and listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit in a world that often drowns them out.