Building a Prayer Life (How to Pray – Series Summary)

Building a Prayer Life

We have spent several weeks looking at the life of prayer. We have covered a lot of material, so in this final reflection I thought it might be helpful to highlight what I believe are the four most important points in the life of prayer.

1. Above all else, a prayer life is an intimate relationship with God.

From one perspective, a life of prayer can be complicated. As we have seen, there are many different approaches to prayer and all kinds of techniques for praying deeply. There are lots of different tools, books and apps that one can use. Before we get caught up with all of that, it is essential to remember that above all else, prayer is an intimate relationship with God. At its heart, prayer is utterly simple: God wants to be in relationship with you. And prayer is our side of that relationship. All of the techniques and tools are only supposed to help with that simple goal. If they help, by all means use them! But if they don’t, then don’t use them. It is that simple.

2. Lifting up your heart is the foundation of prayer

Prayer is based on a simple, essential movement. In the Eucharist, we call this ‘lifting up your heart.’ This is a way of putting aside the thoughts and activities of the world and giving your attention to God. The beauty of prayer as lifting up your heart is that you can do this anywhere: at home, at church, in the grocery store, at work… you get the idea. Every method and aid to prayer is only meant to facilitate and enhance this simple truth.

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

3. Have a routine and a place for prayer

Consider having a special time and place where you pray every day. In the modern world, we sometimes forget the importance of ritual to structure our days and weeks. Without it, life can often seem chaotic and busy. Daily rituals of prayer help us to recenter and recapture what it is that we are all about. It is also helpful to have a prayer space, even if it is just a favourite chair. Over time, you come to look forward to praying in your space. Obviously, you do not need all of this to pray.

People often point to the Oswald Chambers quotation: “There is no need to get to a place to pray; pray wherever you are.” And I strongly agree with that. But Chambers was speaking to a different question. He was trying to encourage people that you don’t need to go to a church to pray with professional clergy. Prayer is available to anyone at any time. Of course, we can pray anywhere. But if we are going to create a habit, it is essential to have structures in place that will help us to do so.

4. Commit to a prayer life

This is the hardest part. I believe that if we wait until we have time to develop a prayer life, then we probably won’t do it. It is hard to find time to add something new to our lives. What we need to do is to understand how important prayer is, and we always find time for things that we believe are important.

It is not hard to see that prayer is important. I would suggest that this is the single most important activity that we do every day. Think about it… if we really believe that there is a God, and that this God wants to be in relationship with us, and that we were created specifically for this purpose, then spending time in prayer (daily communion with God) is the most important thing we can do. This is merely the law of relationships. For relationships to thrive, we need to put in the time. There is no other way.

Prayer is a special activity. It is clearly an ancient and universal impulse:

From primitive cave paintings to the whitewashed walls of the Royal Academy, the universal impulse to pray permeates and pulsates through human anthropology and archaeology, sociology and psychology. It is no exaggeration to say that to be human is to pray. The question, therefore, is not so much why we pray, but rather how and to whom. For billions of people today, the answer to such questions is to be found in the revolutionary life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Pete Greig

I pray that your prayer life will grow and be a blessing to you. Though it will have its ups and downs, you will find the rhythm that works for you. Just remember:

Keep it simple,

Keep it real,

Keep it up.

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How to Pray: Confession and Sanctification

Confession & Sanctification

Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O Lord.

St. Augustine of Hippo

As part of our worship every Sunday, we take a few moments to lay our sins before the cross, admit them to God, and receive forgiveness. Confession is a central aspect of Christian prayer. As the first letter of John tells us, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Why is confession important? There are sometimes misunderstandings about what we are confessing. We are of course confessing where we have fallen short and not been obedient to God’s commands. But we often fail to appreciate that God’s commandments are a form of shorthand for a much bigger project.

Working for a Bigger Project

A helpful analogy would be to see it like trying to get in shape. Once you make the decision to start, you need to decide how you are going to go about it. Usually, this is a combination of eating well and being physically active.

Let’s say you decide to walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and ride your bicycle on Tuesday and Thursday. The activities are important because they are the daily activities that get you closer to your goal. But they are only a part of the bigger project: getting in shape. They are the means to get there.

If you fail to do one or two days, you can recover and still keep improving your health. But if you miss more and more, it becomes harder and harder to get in shape. When you stop altogether, it means you have given up the whole project. Saying that you are walking and biking is a shorthand description for your much bigger project: growing in health.

One Step at a Time

The commandments of God function sort of like the actions of walking and biking in this analogy. They are the day to day activities and moral decisions that we make. They are informed by the ten commandments, the promises of the baptismal covenant, and the great commandments of Jesus. We don’t follow them for their own sakes, but because they move us further along a bigger project.

The theological name for this bigger project is Sanctification. It means to be more like Jesus, or to be holy, or to be purified. Another way to think of it is becoming the person God created you to be. God wants your soul to be whole and well: centered, in rich relationship with others and God, loving, courageous, marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. This list from Galatians 5:22-23 describes the fruit of the process of sanctification.

Wrestling with Our Restless Hearts

Just as health is bigger than the individual bike rides that get us there, sin is more than just a list of things we have done wrong. It is better to describe it as self-sabotage. We are made to be in life-giving relationship with ourselves, each other, and God. Sin is the truth that we have a constant and often subtle tendency to ‘miss the mark.’ St. Augustine tells us that this is because ‘our hearts are restless.’ Away from God, our hearts are not often marked by the fruits of the Spirit. More often, our hearts are marked by loneliness, uncertainty, anxiety, stress, anger, feeling rushed, unappreciated, and on and on.

We try to cover the restlessness of our hearts through distraction and diversion. St. Augustine says we are ‘turned in on ourselves.’ This means that our desires are taken out of their God-given context for wholeness and relationship and are distorted to become focused on our own self-fulfillment, something which never fully happens. Out of this dynamic arises gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. These are all attempts to still the ‘restlessness’ and arise from a spiritual battle for your heart. This means that confession is one of our greatest tools for healing and growth.

God Answers Confession with Mercy

I hope you can see now that confession is not just a legalistic exercise. It is the way in which we lay before God all the choices we have made that keep us from deeper life in Christ. The cross is the place where we find the mercy of God. Confession needs to be a regular part of our praying routine. Every time we repent and confess our sins, our souls are growing more and more into wholeness and true life.

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How to Pray: Silence and Contemplation

How to Pray: Silence & Contemplation

And prayer is more
Than an order of words,
the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind,
or the sound of the voice praying.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

One of the great misunderstandings about prayer is that it is mostly about saying the right words. Often people will ask me to pray for them because they feel that they won’t get the words ‘right.’ I hope that I have made it clear that this isn’t the point of prayer. God just wants our heart.

Today, we are reflecting on the fact that some of the deepest forms of prayer have no words at all. Psalm 46:10 reflects that God tells us to “be still and know that I am God.” Prayer comes to a point where we just enjoy the presence of God and don’t feel the need to fill the space with words. This is contemplation and silence, one of the richest forms of prayer. It is similar to two friends who have spent so much time together that they don’t need to speak. They are just comfortable in each other’s presence. Likewise, sometimes God just calls us to rest in his presence. In this reflection, I want to talk about the process of coming into a contemplative space, and then end with a reflection on the gift of silence.

It is ironic that the deepest prayer is also the simplest prayer. But simpler doesn’t always mean easier. It is hard for us to enter a centered contemplative space because people are prone to distractions and may find it uncomfortable to sit in silence. For most of us, we have to ease our way into this form of prayer.

Entering Silence and Contemplation: Me and God

Think of it in three stages. The first is the ‘me and God’ stage. In this stage we find something to fix our thoughts on. This helps us with the issue of distraction. This could be a short piece of Scripture like we talked about in the Lectio Divina series. But it could also be a picture or an object. It could be an image or a concept. We use this ‘something’ to help us focus our attention. As we meditate on it, we explore this object of attention with our mind.

Whenever we get distracted, we come back to our object. During this time of meditation, we find our soul starts to quiet down and the distractions of life fade away.

God and Me

When this happens, we enter the ‘God and me’ stage. As our souls quiet down, the center of gravity changes. It is no longer about me coming to God, but God takes centre stage in my prayer. I find that I am no longer working so hard to stay focused. I am able to release the object that has helped me up to this point. Here I am just sitting in the presence of God.

But don’t think that nothing is happening. You are fully open to the grace and love of God at this point with no agenda. The effects do not emerge within the time of prayer. But you will find if you do practice this form of prayer regularly, you will be surprised that you are calmer, more observant and more patient. Silence and contemplation are part of the slow transformation process of being a disciple.

God Alone

On a rare occasion, there is a third stage. It is the ‘God alone’ stage. This is where you are so absorbed in God that God is everything in the prayer. But this is rare, and is always a gift from God. Be content with the experience of ‘God and me.’

Feeding Our Souls with Silence and Contemplation

Silence is food for the soul. There is so much noise and busyness in the world. This is good; there is a time and a place to be active. But we can’t forget that there is also a time and a place to be still.

Sometimes I will leave my phone and work on my desk and go for a walk. This isn’t just to get exercise. I also try to still my thoughts. It’s so easy to bring everything with me! I just open my ears and eyes to what is around me. Then I find that silence is not the absence of noise. It is the absence of being distracted and stressed; it is being present. This is good food for the soul.


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How to Pray: Why Didn’t God Answer My Prayer?

Why didn't God answer my prayer?

The hardest part about prayer is probably when prayer goes unanswered. Sometimes when God doesn’t answer my prayer, I can brush it off, like when I fail to get a good parking spot at the mall. But most often, it involves something deep and painful. For our family, it was the loss of Stephanie’s mother in 2010. She was a faithful Christian. She was active and otherwise healthy. We were shocked when she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. It did not seem real at first. Honestly, it doesn’t seem real even a decade later.

She belonged to a strong church with lots of people committed to prayer. They came out in force. They prayed for her healing. We prayed for her healing. There was laying on of hands and special communion services weekly in her home. In the end, she died just nine months after her diagnosis. Her funeral service was the hardest one I have ever been to. She had been so welcoming of me in her family, and she and Stephanie were so close. We still miss her. Why didn’t God answer our prayers? I honestly don’t know, and I am still a little frustrated at God for this one. I also confess I take no comfort in Garth Brooks’ line that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. This was no gift. This was a great sadness.

So, what do we do with unanswered prayers? I want to offer a few thoughts that have helped me over the years.

1) We don’t know why God doesn’t always answer our prayer

To say that I don’t know why God didn’t answer my prayer is not a cop-out or surrender; it is an important and honest admission. The fact is, there is so much about the universe that we don’t even begin to comprehend. There are mysteries about God and life and death that are beyond our understanding.

What I mean by all of this is that we have no idea why or why not my mother-in-law wasn’t healed of cancer. There is a bigger picture and much more going on that I am completely unaware of. I am reluctant to try to find the ‘reason’ or ‘meaning’ to it. I don’t think there is the kind of ‘reason’ that will make it all better, even if I understood it. It is not about God needing another angel, or that it was her time, or that it was God’s greatest gift. We say it is a mystery for a reason. I think we need to leave it there.

2) Hold onto God’s love

The great difficulty with pain and grief is that it is easy to believe that it means that God is not loving. After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis wrote that he wasn’t in danger of ceasing to believe in God, but he was in danger of losing his belief in the goodness of God.

This is why we need to turn to the cross of Christ. There, we see more than anywhere else the love of God meeting the pain and suffering of the world. God himself knew that pain. The cross is the unlikely fount of the healing of our world. In Jesus, we see that even if we don’t understand these mysteries of why and why not, we can trust that through it all God is nothing but love and mercy. In Jesus we see that God is not in the business of hurting people and standing back to see what happens. God is genuinely working for healing and wholeness, even when all the evidence in our lives seems to be pointing in the other direction.

We don’t know all the reasons why, but the cross shows us that the path of healing the world passes through suffering. Part of our faith is knowing that in the end, in eternity, God is going to make this right. He is going to overthrow sin and death. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” God will make this right for Pat. By faith, we have to hold so tightly to the truth of God’s love. We cannot let this go. God is love.

3) Be honest

The biblical word for being really honest with God is Lament. We lament when we tell God how angry we are, how sad we are, and how frustrated we are. When God doesn’t seem to answer our prayer, we need to get it out; it can’t stay in our hearts. If you are surprised that we should come to God in this way, consider that almost two thirds of the Psalms are laments. Lament holds a central place in the story of the Bible. Like many of our ancestors in faith, we can be honest with God.

4) Give it to God

The theological name for this is the Prayer of Relinquishment. It is the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked God to take away the suffering, then prayed, ‘but not my will, but yours be done.’ We don’t know what God’s will means here exactly, but the prayer gives it over to him. It says, I don’t know everything, but I know I trust you and that you are love. Please get me through this.

My mother-in-law taught me this more than anyone else. Before she died, she wrote a beautiful reflection, which was read at her church on Good Friday that year. I have included an excerpt below.

“Lord, not my will but thine be done.” Yes, I’m dying, but I’m not afraid any more. If anything in this time of weakness gives glory to God, then I’ve served the biggest purpose for which I was created. I’m looking forward to the end of pain and sorrow and to seeing the face of the One who gave me life. The beautiful images of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation become brighter and more vivid as time goes on:

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 17:13-17)

– P. Crane


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How to Pray: Petition and Intercession

How to Pray: Petition and Intercession

In this reflection, I want to turn to the subject that comes to mind when most people think of prayer: petition and intercession. Petitions are the things that we pray for ourselves, and intercessions are what we pray for others and the larger world. In both cases, we are bringing the requests of our heart to God.

Why Ask if God Already Knows?

Some people wonder if we should even be doing this. Isn’t God pretty busy doing big God things such as running the universe? Does God even have time for our little prayers? Others think that, since God already knows everything, prayer must be redundant. If God knows what I am going to pray billions of years before I say the prayer, what’s the point? Still others look at a long laundry list of unanswered prayers and come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work anyway.

All of these are important considerations, but they miss the central point of coming to God with the concerns of our heart. If you look at the Lord’s Prayer, you will notice that it begins and ends with praise, but in the middle is a small laundry list of petitions: “Give us this day our daily bread… forgive us our sins… save us from the time of trial… deliver us from evil.” Jesus’ intention was to show us that we should be praying these on a regular basis.

Of course, it is not limited to these four. Jesus was giving us a template for prayer, and teaching his disciples regularly to come to God in prayer: “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” So why should we bring these things to God even if God already knows what we need?

The Central Point

The central point is that God wants to be in relationship with us. This is what we have to grasp to understand Christianity. Jesus referred to God as Father because the ‘being’ at the heart of the universe is not an impersonal force or principle, but a God who cares and loves. It doesn’t matter how much smaller we are than God; God has the ability to be fully present to every atom in the universe. He wants us to come to him, to bring our hearts, our needs, our fears and joys to him. It doesn’t matter that God already knows.

I think of this relationship as being sort of like the one I have with my own children. They will start to tell me a story, and I recognize it immediately and know everything that is going to happen in the story. But there is something more important than the information in the story. I am delighted to have my children telling me stories and coming to me. They trust me and know that I love them. I am not just listening to a story; I am listening to THEM telling me a story. This is how God is to us.

Tips for Petition and Intercession

How do we practice this kind of prayer? There are no rules. You just talk to God and tell God your petitions and intercessions. Here are some tips that I have found helpful:

  • Make an actual prayer list. I keep my prayer lists organized on my phone. There are some prayers I pray everyday, and others I pray once a week. My lists help me to organize them. I personally have four lists that I work through: a personal one for my own prayers, a list for my family, a list for people I am praying for, and a list for the world.
  • When you pray, don’t rush. If you find you are reading through your petition and intercession lists as a laundry list, slow down. Usually I try to spend a moment on each name, imaging the person and holding before God their needs.
  • When you tell someone you are going to pray for them, make sure you put it on your prayer list for at least a short time.
  • Be a prayer warrior. What this means is that you should consider making this a part of your identity. See your calling as pray-er for the world, standing before God and holding the pain of those around you. People will know they can come to you for prayer and know that you will take their needs seriously.
  • Some people find it helpful to imagine putting these prayers somewhere. You might imagine placing your concerns at the foot of the cross.
  • Keep praying. Sometimes you can pray for years with no answer. In prayer we are stepping out in faith. There is a great virtue in perseverance. We underestimate its importance. Keep coming back to God. He does hear us and loves us.

I don’t want to minimize the anguish and stress that can come from the fact of unanswered petitions and intercessions. I also don’t want to give a simplistic answer to why people pray and sometimes nothing happens. In our next reflection, we will look at the question of unanswered prayers, but for today, I want to emphasize that prayer is the heart of our relationship with our loving Father.

How to Pray: Bless the Lord

How to Pray: Bless the Lord

Adoration and praise are some of the central acts of being a Christian. In the last reflection, I used the writings of C.S. Lewis to show us that we praise God not because God is egotistic, but rather as an act that draws us out of ourselves and connects us to the source of all that is true, good and beautiful. Today, we’re continuing that conversation with what it means to bless the Lord.

To praise God truly is to be awake to what is. The world around us is shot through with miracle. There is a reason that children can spend a long time just looking at ants! In the right light, everything is interesting and beautiful. G.K. Chesterton points out that the problem is not that the world is dull, but rather that our eyes have stopped seeing:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)

God is even bigger than the creation in which we wonder. The Scriptures invite us to go beyond creation and contemplate the fact that there is a ‘being’ who radiant, sovereign, omniscient, the source of everything that is true, good and beautiful.

Beyond the Creation to the Creator

Then, move even beyond that to consider that this God knows you. God has loved you since before time existed. God knows all your joys and delights and all of your struggles. If we are willing to listen, God guides us and gives us grace. These are amazing truths! What do we do with them? How do we express them? The Bible gives an odd answer that at first doesn’t make sense. It tells us to bless the Lord. Here are a few examples:

And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.

Deuteronomy 8:10

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!

Psalm 100:4

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.

Psalm 145:1-2

Does Blessing God Even Make Sense?

This seems odd because of course God is the primal blesser. God is the giver of all good things. When God gives blessing to us, we are somehow strengthened or helped. But we can neither strengthen nor help God in any way. God is perfect. So how can we bless God? Scripture answers that we bless God whenever show our gratitude, whenever we praise him, whenever we give glory.

Blessing God is simple. We give thanks and name before God everything we love and find amazing about creation, life and God. We might talk about how wonderful the mountains are, or thank God for the gift of loved one. Recognizing who God is is part of it as well: thank God for his attributes: his love, sovereign power, grace, goodness. We say them out loud, not because God doesn’t know these things, but because the act of saying them connects us to God in a simple and primal way.

Sharing God’s Life

Each act of praise is one of the ways in which God shares his life and self with us. So why is this a blessing for God? Because it is giving him the one thing he can’t do without our cooperation: we are giving him our heart. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, ultimately God does not want anything from us, he just wants us: our love.


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How to Pray: Adoration and Praise

How to Pray: Adoration and Praise

In the last reflection, we looked at the central action of lifting our heart to God. As I mentioned earlier, finding a time and place is the first step to prayer. After that, we place ourselves before God by lifting up our hearts. The question that often follows is what is the content of our prayer? What is it that we are ‘supposed’ to say?

As we explore the content of prayer, I will be following Pete Greig’s nine paths of prayer: Stillness, Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Perseverance, Contemplation, Listening, Confession, and Spiritual Warfare. (Always note that different teachers have slightly different lists.) Today I want to start with Adoration and Praise.

Adoration and Praise Is Natural

In some ways, Adoration is the simplest and most natural of prayers. If you have ever been in the mountains, and the sheer beauty and vastness of the landscape hits you, and you exclaim “Wow! This is amazing!” then you know adoration.

As Christians, we believe that everything good and beautiful in creation and in the lives of women and men ultimately comes from God. God is the absolute source of all that is true, good and beautiful. This is important because the true, the good and beautiful are qualities of the world that move and inspire our souls. They provoke emotional responses that are meaningful in our lives.

If good and beautiful things move us because of their power, just imagine how incredible must be the being from whom they come. God is the ultimate artist. Therefore, we praise God. The Westminster Catechism calls this the purpose of our lives: “What is the chief end [purpose] for humans? It is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” To glorify God means to praise him for who he is: to be in love with God. God commands our adoration and praise, and this is the reason for our creation.

Does this Mean that God Is Egotistical?

Here, we quickly need to clear up a confusion. C.S. Lewis asked these same questions, and he found this a hard teaching because it made God seem very egotistical. He wrote, “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand… Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and of His worshippers threatened to appear in my mind.” I think this is a common question for people when we talk about the need to praise and adore God. Is God petty and insecure?

Praise Completes Enjoyment

As he pondered this question, Lewis had two insights. The first had to do with the nature of praising itself. He had been thinking of adoration and praise as complimenting God. But then he noticed that “every enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.”

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

He realized that the praise actually completes the enjoyment of an activity. It is like when you read a great book and you need to find someone to tell. To praise God is to complete the enjoyment of the things that God has made. More than that, in praising we come to enjoy God as the source.

God Communicates Presence in Adoration and Praise

This was Lewis’ second insight. When we say true things about God such as how great and awesome God is, we find that we actually experience God through our praise. Lewis writes, “It is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to (us.)” The adoration and praise is not so that God can receive something from us, but that the worship is intimately bound up with God giving himself to us.

In other words, in praising God, we find that we are simultaneously uniting with God. We become part of something that is far greater than we are, and our souls are expanded in the praise. This is the great paradox of worship: it is all for God, and yet we find that we simultaneously grow richer in emotion and deeper in faith.

So how do we Adore God? In the next reflection, we will look at what it means to “Bless the Lord.”


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How to Pray: Lift Up Your Hearts

Lift up your hearts

You are sitting in your chair, and you are getting ready to pray. How do you start? One basic move in prayer is the foundation for everything else. It is so simple, and yet so essential. It is easy to do, and it opens us up to the presence of God. In the Christian faith we call this most basic of all spiritual moves ‘lift up your heart.’

‘Lift up your hearts’ in the Eucharist

The words should sound familiar to you. It is at the center of the dialogue we pray at the beginning of the celebration of the Eucharist. After we pray for the Lord to be with us, the priest calls out to the congregation: “Lift up your hearts!” The congregation replies enthusiastically, “We lift them to the Lord!” This action of all of us ‘lifting our hearts’ sets the stage for everything that follows. As we hear the prayers and take communion, our whole self—body and soul—is united with God.

The Bible on bringing our truest selves to God

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. (Psalm 25:1)

This idea of ascending to God in the Spirit is all through the Scriptures. In Psalm 25, David begins his prayer: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” In Colossians 3, Paul encourages us to “set our hearts on the things above.” In Psalm 141, we have the beautiful image of our prayers rising up to heaven like incense and we pray “may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” The biblical imagery speaks to the longing of our hearts and souls to be united with God. Often the terms heart, mind and soul are used interchangeably. All of them mean that we are bringing our truest selves to God.

‘Lift up your hearts’ in the Christian tradition

The Orans of Kiev, an 11th Century icon of the Virgin Mary at prayer

The Christian tradition has deeply meditated on this action of ‘lifting up our hearts’. In the third century, Cyprian wrote, “When we stand for prayer, most beloved brethren, we should be alert and intent on our petitions with a whole heart. Let every carnal and worldly thought depart, and let the mind dwell on nothing other than that alone for which it prays. Therefore, the priest also before his prayer prepares the minds of the brethren by first uttering a preface, saying: “Lift up your hearts,” so that when the people respond: “We lift them up to the Lord,” they may be admonished that they should ponder on nothing other than the Lord.”

Later, Augustine wrote, “What is peace? Listen to the apostle, he was talking about Christ: “He is our peace, who made both into one.” So peace is Christ. Where did it go? “He was crucified and buried, he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven.” There you have where peace went. How am I to follow it? Lift up your heart. Listen how you should follow; every day you hear it briefly when you are told Lift up your heart. Think about it more deeply and there you are, following.”

‘Lift up your hearts’ in your own prayer

What does this mean for us as we are sitting in our chairs? As the primal move in prayer, lifting up our hearts is just setting aside the things of our lives temporarily and turning our attention to God. But it is more than our attention; we are also giving God our hearts. It is not just our words, but our emotions and desires, our hopes and our fears, our strivings and failures. In other words, lifting up our hearts is giving ourselves in a way that is deeper than words. We can lift our hearts to God with sorrow and lament or with praise and adoration. In both cases, the ‘real’ us connects to the ‘real’ God.

Choose a time and place. Sink into your comfortable chair. Take a slow deep breath and let it out slowly. Then pray quietly: “God, I lift my heart to you…”