A couple of years ago, a space movie titled Gravity was released. In one of the more dramatic scenes of the movie, when it seemed that their hope for survival in space had been lost, George Clooney’s character encouraged Sandra Bullock’s character to pray for help. She then said to him, “I’ve never said a prayer in my life. Nobody ever taught me how.”
Her response indicates a basic truth about prayer: we need to be taught how to pray. The interior desire to want to learn how to pray is expressed by one of Jesus’ disciples in the Bible, before Jesus reveals His famous “Our Father” prayer. We read in Scripture that “He [Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples’” (Lk 11:1). Teach us to pray. Prayer oftentimes does not come so naturally to us, and we thus need to be taught exactly how to pray.
When I think about how I first learned to pray, I remember as a child going to Church on Sunday mornings with my family and the first thing we would do once we entered into our pew was to kneel down and pray. It would be for just a couple of minutes before Mass began, and that’s what we would always do. I don’t remember my parents ever instructing me or my brothers to pray at that particular moment in Church, but I just understood that’s what I was supposed to do because my parents would both be kneeling there with their hands folded and their eyes closed. Their very posture and example were enough to encourage me at a young age to offer up some prayers to God while I knelt there. I would mentally recite an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” or maybe ask God for something special.
As a child, my way of praying was basically saying formal prayers and asking God for things. Once I entered the seminary to prepare for the priesthood, I was assigned a spiritual director and my prayer life then developed quite significantly. Through the spiritual formation program in seminary, I learned that prayer is all about relationship with God. I learned that prayer involves listening to God in order to understand and appreciate more deeply the reality of God’s presence in my life and in the world.
Being with God in the silence is what allows me to open my heart and soul to the voice of God in prayer. In seminary, I also learned about a traditional way of praying called Lectio Divina, whereby I read a passage of Scripture and then focus intentionally on how God may be speaking to me through a specific passage of the Bible. Now as a Catholic priest, prayer is of course essential to my life and my vocation. While how I pray has developed and matured as I have gotten older and grown in my relationship with the Lord, why I pray has remained consistent: desiring to grow in my knowledge of God and to allow Jesus to transform my heart to follow His will more fully.
St. John Damascene once wrote that, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” This is a simple definition that can help us see more clearly what exactly prayer is. Every time I intentionally raise my heart and mind to God, whether that be at Mass, in silent adoration of the Lord, reading the Psalms, listening to a beautiful piece of sacred music, or being in awe and wonder at the beauty of God’s creation, I am entering into prayer. I am very grateful to have been taught how to pray, both from the quiet example of my parents and also through the words and teachings of spiritual directors who have helped to guide me into deeper relationship with God over the years. Discerning how we pray and how we first learned how to pray can be very helpful as we think about how God may be calling us to teach others to pray.
There’s something very sad about that character in the movie Gravity saying that she had never prayed before because she was never taught how to pray. What a blessing it would be if, through our words and example, we could introduce Jesus to people and people to Jesus by teaching them how to pray, to pass on what we know and, more importantly, Who we know.
Fr. Mark Murphy is the Undergraduate Chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Center.