Sweet Hour of Prayer! Or Not? How do You Experience Prayer?

111914How do you think of prayer? Is it another thing you “have to do” among many other things on your list? Or is prayer a time when you refrain from doing? Is prayer a requirement you regret or a rest you relish? What is prayer for you?

The danger in answering questions like these is that we may answer them the way we think they “should” be answered rather than in an honest way. Many struggle with prayer and experience it with a lot of negativity: boredom, distraction, drudgery, and so forth.

The fact is, prayer is tough. We are very sensory by nature and used to seeing and hearing the one to whom we speak. To encounter God in silence and without sight is unfamiliar, jarring, and challenging. Some use icons or pictures, some a prayer book; some pray before the Blessed Sacrament. But in the end, the eyes of the flesh cannot see, only the eyes of the heart, the eyes of faith can. This is not only difficult, it is obnoxious to our flesh (i.e., sinful nature), which demands to see and hear on its own terms. And the flesh wages war on our spirit (cf Gal 5:17) and like a fidgeting child protests all throughout prayer.

Of course the best way to address this problem is with honesty. Without honesty we don’t really have a spiritual life. A true journey to God requires that all the masks come off, that all the little lies we like to tell ourselves and all the deceptions be set aside. Start with honesty.

Praying out of what is – When people tell me they have a hard time praying I say, “Then THAT is your prayer.  Tell God how absolutely bored you are when you pray. Tell Him that you would rather do just about anything than pray to Him. Tell Him that when it occurs to you that you should pray, or when some crazy priest reminds you to pray, your heart sinks and you put it off and put it off. Tell God you hate praying … And do you know what you are doing as you tell Him all this? You are praying!”

Yes, this is prayer.

“But Father, but Father, I can’t talk to God like that!” “Why not?” I say. God already knows that this is how you feel. It’s a pretty silly thing to sit in front of God wearing a mask that He can see right through: but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13). Five minutes of a prayer of honesty is better than two hours of a prayer of rhetoric and “stained glass” themes that we don’t really mean. Pray honestly; talk to God about what is really going on.

The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible and it has God for its author. And notice how plain-spoken the psalms are.

Every emotion, every experience is grist for the prayer mill: joy, serenity, victory, thanksgiving, petition, anger (even anger at God!), rage, vengefulness, disappointment, loss, grief, fear, and despair. It’s all there and more. There are even psalms that ask God to harm or kill our enemy (69, 109, 137). Even the beautiful Psalm 139 ends with the request that God slay the wicked. But these are feelings we have from time to time and God wants us to talk to Him about them. If the Book of Psalms is a directive for prayer (and it is), then God wants us to speak to Him about everything, even the darkest and most sinful of things. Prayer is conversation with God. But it has to be honest.

And something starts to happen when we become really honest in prayer. Little by little, it becomes more relevant to us and we even start to like it a bit. Now don’t tell your flesh that! But your soul starts to breathe; it starts to exhale. When all the little self-imposed, unbiblical rules about prayer and all the things we’re “not supposed to say to God”  get set aside, the soul enjoys freedom, and the honesty is refreshing.

And little by little, prayer becomes not so much another thing to do as it is a rest from all our doing. It is a time to rest, to exhale, to sigh, and to be refreshed by the simple act of being honest with someone who loves us and whom we are growing to love. Someone who, before ever a word is on our lips, knows it through and through (Psalm 139:4). Prayer is the freedom to be honest, to rest from the labor of wearing masks, and to be relieved of the restless anxiety about what others think or expect of us. Prayer is a sigh of truth, a rest from the contradictory demands of an often phony world.

Consider this description of prayer from St. Anselm:

Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him. And when you have shut the door, look for him, speak to God … (Proslogion, Chapter 1).

Yes, speak to God. Be honest. Tell Him what is really happening. If you need a manual to assist you, get a good Bible or copy of the psalms—one that gives a title or a brief sentence describing its content. Find one that suits you on this particular day and then read it, slowly. Before long, as the weeks and years tick by, you’ll find you are speaking on your own, in psalm-like honesty. Some of us even grow silent over the years, as words no longer seem necessary or even possible: cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart).

And when words seem difficult to come by, just sigh. St. Augustine says, This task [of prayer] is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech (Letter 130, to Proba).  It may seem a strange thing, but sighing is very relaxing, and much is released from the soul by it.  I have often thought of Gregorian Chant as a musical sigh to God, and it brings me great peace. I am blessed to have a cavernous Church and to be able to read and sing Chant there.

So pray. Pray honestly. If words are hard, just sigh or sit quietly. But pray. Watch and wait for the Lord. It’s not work, it’s rest.

There is another old hymn that speaks of the delights of true and honest prayer. It is the old classic, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Note its lyrics and then answer these questions: “Is this how you think of prayer? If not, why not?” What if your prayer were less “rule-bound” and more just time you spent apart from this dreary world and with God? Pray these words and ask for their reality:

  1. Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
    That calls me from a world of care,
    And bids me at my Father’s throne
    Make all my wants and wishes known.
    In seasons of distress and grief,
    My soul has often found relief,
    And oft escaped the tempter’s snare,
    By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!
  2. Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
    Thy wings shall my petition bear
    To Him whose truth and faithfulness
    Engage the waiting soul to bless.
    And since He bids me seek His face,
    Believe His Word and trust His grace,
    I’ll cast on Him my every care,
    And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!
  3. Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
    May I thy consolation share,
    Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
    I view my home and take my flight.
    This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
    To seize the everlasting prize,
    And shout, while passing through the air,
    “Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”


9 Replies to “Sweet Hour of Prayer! Or Not? How do You Experience Prayer?”

  1. God bless your loving heart! i rarely, save for the Rosary, use rote prayer. Instead all day long-literally, i am in relationship with our beloved God. i tell Him everything, offer up everything i do each day. i make up songs and sing to Him. He is joy joy joy!!! i love Him so much. i’ve wept for it and Him with longing. This truly is prayer. And it has deepened and brought Him straight into the center of my life. i confess my sins immediately and often followed by tears of remorse because i’ve hurt His loving heart. God is, God is real and i am witness to this.

  2. Thank you for another wonderful teaching, Father. When I first returned to the Church (after a 22 year absence) I had no idea how to pray–however, mercifully, God led me to the rosary, to Eucharistic adoration, and to the Divine Mercy chaplet very quickly. The rosary, with or even without meditation, and the Divine Mercy chaplet, help immensely to give some form & structure to prayer. At least some verbal prayer seems to be required of every Christian, every day, so as to keep heading in the right direction. This leads to other kinds of prayer.
    You are entirely correct–we should tell God in our own words what we are experiencing at that moment, no matter how difficult it can be to put into words. I found that when I could tell Jesus in E.A. that I was completely baffled by something which was going on, and asked for light, for the assistance of the Holy Spirit, that invariably I would get it. Not necessarily right away, and not necessarily what I was expecting (one should expect tohave one’s preconceptions shattered, to have one’s idols or favorite mental crutches toppled regularly).
    Also, and this has been very important to me in these last few years, when it seems that so much of what goes on in the world can provoke an extremely angry, shocked, judgmental or contemptuously dismissive response: Jesus has led me to see that it is precisely those horrifying or dismaying or upsetting things that are going on in the world, that constitute a call to prayer. Especially for those involved: for the victims, even more so for the perpetrators, for peace and/or a peaceful resolution to the situation.
    I read somewhere, a long time ago, that some prayers are so pleasing to God that they are always granted, and one of these is for grace for the conversion of sinners. I believe we are being called in these days to pray more than ever for the graces of conversion of heart, or in the alternative, to final penitence or final repentance, for everyone whatsoever.
    The news is still rather horrifying many days, but at least, by praying for those persons & situations, some good can come out of it. And we will not be drawn into fruitless railing or nonstop worrying.

  3. I believe St. Teresa of Avila said that prayer is important, and it is worth doing badly.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  4. I wonder if some don’t pray because they think “what’s the use? I already prayed for … And didn’t get it.” So they assume the answer is “no”. We’ve all been told that sometimes it is.

    But, I suspect more often the answer isn’t “no” but rather “not yet”. We are so used to our microwave lifestyles, where our wants and needs are met instantly (or soon thereafter) that we have no patience. We are like little children who expect to receive what we want immediately, and throw a tantrum when we don’t get it on our schedule.

    If we could only lose the tantrum and trust in God, a little time and patience would pay off in the consolations we seek. After all, in that scenario we got the “children” part right.

  5. I wonder how many of us think prayer is something the big, great, really good saints know how to do – how could we small souls ever “compete”, how could we ever know how to do it? We are not “one of them”… Prayer becomes intimidating, almost like a test we’re certain, deep inside, we will fail – we have no idea what God wants from us…

    Also, it doesn’t help to see prayer mainly as a way to get something from God, as C Beltz was saying above. Yes, there is a place for petition, of course, and after all Jesus Himself urged us to ask for anything we need (though He warned to seek the Kingdom as the focus of our prayers!)

    I am very thankful for the reminder that prayer really is an ongoing conversation that keeps us close to God: the St. Anselm quote is beautiful!

  6. The “old hymn” at the end of Father’s post is sheer beauty! I love this and will copy and read! Oh how I wish we would weave some of the old in with our “new.” It would bring a refreshing breath of fresh air to the hearts and minds of many, young and not so young.

  7. I have not prayed for a month, perhaps, and am going through a dark time, perhaps as they call it a dark night of the soul. Cannot bring myself to pray, cannot see a light, cannot see a point. If only I could say that God doesn’t answer me.. He answered, many times, i know that, but I forget them, and think only of my prayers He doesn’t seem to have heard, and am very much frustrated.
    But I pray, still, I make the sign of the cross before sleeping, and yes, sigh. May I walk with the Lord yet again and tonight I’ll pray.

    1. Bruno — please keep your faith and your trust of God amidst your frustration. Know that he loves you even in the dark times, and that the communion of saints is watchfully praying for you. You will be in my prayers.

  8. This is truly the BEST article on prayer I have ever read. This was my first intro to your blog back in November, and I can honestly say it has changed my walk with God. To think I can come to him in complete honesty for five minutes and talk to Him about how I don’t even feel like praying, and let that be my prayer….mind-blowing. THANK YOU. I have shared this with my children as well, and am so thrilled that they will start their journey with God as they are, not as they think they should be.

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