Prayer: the Simple Thoughts of a Simple Nun

Prayer means different things to different people. Those who have never experienced it and have a secularist agenda will often dismiss it as ‘talking to a sky pixie’ or whatever the popular formula of the moment may be. Others will think of it in terms of talking to God (which sometimes, let’s be frank, amounts to talking at God). Others again will identify prayer with a particular form of liturgy or practice of meditation. I, however, am a simple person and my experience of prayer is very simple, too. Prayer needs no words, no special circumstances, nothing at all except the grace of God and the agreement of the will. That, however, is not what this post is about, although it is necessary to be clear what I mean by prayer. What I want to concentrate on today is another aspect of prayer: its efficacy.

For many people, prayer is a response of last resort. When everything else has failed, try prayer; and if you’re not sure about it, ask someone you think may be. I am sure that some of the requests that come to us via our email prayerline are of this nature. For others again, prayer is all right, inasmuch as it won’t do any harm, but it won’t do any good, either. It won’t actually change anything. Some of the responses to yesterday’s blog post ran along such lines. In fact, one or two made me think I was being virtually patted on the head with a kindly ‘There, there, dear, you run off and pray and we’ll get down to the serious business of dealing with abuse.’ What such an attitude fails to take into account is that prayer allows/invites God into situations that are otherwise closed to him. When we make evil choices, we close ourselves against God; prayer opens us up to him. In the context of abuse and other challenges that the Catholic Church faces, that is very pertinent. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is easy, that simply saying ‘Lord, Lord’ will be enough. The kind of prayer I am talking about is often hard. It requires perseverance, tenacity, sacrifice. It is the kind of prayer that seeks to become one with the prayer of Christ, and there is only one place where that can be done: on the Cross.

It may be that the language of prayer and sacrifice means nothing to those who are unfamiliar with it, but the fact that something is unfamiliar does not mean that it is not valid or efficacious. There are many things in life I do not understand and will never be able to explain, but they do not cease to be just because my brain or imagination cannot cope with them. God is infinite, so is it any wonder that our finite minds cannot grasp his infinitude?


22 thoughts on “Prayer: the Simple Thoughts of a Simple Nun”

  1. Thank you Dame Catherine. Your comment about Prayer sometimes being “talking at God” rings a bell with me.

    Recently a Priest who I knew and respected died suddenly. After the initial shock of his death hit me, I was so angry that God could have let this happen πŸ™ I know that it’s foolish to think and act that way, but emotion and grief can have that effect on most of us, and I just let rip in prayer and writing – raging at God for his will to be exhibited in this way that was so hard to bear.

    Of course, now with time, space and reflection I can see that my response was confused and an instinctive response, but also one of love, because I love God and loved the work that Geof (the deceased) was doing in his name – I just found it difficult to reconcile both sides of that card so to speak. I was thinking that this might even be a failure of hope? Perhaps you could comment on that?

    But prayer time is so important – the Daily Office is that space for just sharing with God and allowing his peace, grace and blessings into our lives and hopefully to others as well. Non-theists can say what they want, but I actually know the power and efficacy of prayer. I’ve seen it work in my own and others lives and just know that it opens us up to God’s grace and sharing with him and others.

    My most precious time for prayer is in that brief period before sleep when I will say some Hail Mary’s, the Gloria and Confiteor before I allow myself to sleep. Prayers from my Catholic upbringing that come readily to mind and heart as they were learned by heart when very small.

    • No, I don’t think your reaction after the death of your priest-friend was a failure of hope. I think the anger with God was a prayer. I was once so angry with God about something I went into church and shook my fist at the tabernacle. Almost immediately the anger left me. I had taken God seriously, and he took me seriously. The point was, God was in the midst of my anger and confusion and I needed to register that fact. I think it’s the same with your feelings about Geoff. God is there, but we need to accept our humanness. You would probably have preferred to be able to say ‘fiat, fiat’, but it wouldn’t have been truthful, and no relationship that isn’t fundamentally honest can flourish.

  2. “Prayer allows/invites God into situations that are otherwise closed to him.” I struggle with this. Several years ago, my brother was very ill in hospital. One afternoon, as I was driving home, I was aware of all the people on the road and wondered about them. Did they ever think of the God who loves them? Does anyone pray for them? If not, what does this mean? I felt very strongly that God doesn’t stop caring for someone because that person is not being held in prayer. God looks after everybody. Since that time I continue to pray for others but seldom for a particular outcome. I am aware that I never know what is best for myself, never mind anyone else, so I simply hold others before God and leave it to God. I still can’t accept that if I don’t pray for someone that God won’t act on her/his behalf. It’s a mystery.

    • Yes, there is no need for any of us to tell God what to do! But as to no one praying for some people, that is never true. We pray for everyone as do so many other religious communities; and in the Eucharistic Prayer of every Mass, there is a remembrance of all the living and the dead.

      • My praseology was poor because I find intercessory prayer so difficult to understand in some ways. I think it’s tied up with the way we try to find as many people as possible to pray for someone or something. It feels as if it reduces prayer to a sort of spiritual petition in which we gather as many signatures as possible. I am concerned that we can behave as if God’s compassion and mercy is dependent on us. I do believe in praying for people and I use intercessory prayer because Jesus asked us to do so. However, I do find it very mysterious.

  3. Thank you for the thought provoking article. We are working on the theme of prayer just now, both at home, in church and last Sunday, in our Cathedral in Glasgow.

  4. It was such a relief when I realised that there wasn’t a “right” way to pray. I can remember talking to a leader on a retreat and when I said I had been doing ….. in a prayer time but, “Was it prayer?”. He replied with , “Were you praying?”

  5. I wonder if there are times, mostly in communal, led prayer, when the speaker, if open to the Holy Spirit, might be God talking to us.

    Re. talking at God, rather than to or with him, it is at least acknowledging and not ignoring Him.

    Are prayers answered? No, not always.I believe that God answers our needs but not necessarily the prayers for what we humans think we need.

    Are prayers always heard? Yes. Heard and LISTENED TO. How many of us really listen to and hear one-another?

  6. For me prayer is like washing dishes. When I’m with others I help them to wash theirs and when I’m on my own I wash my own. When things are clean they are ready for use.
    When all the dishes have been washed I listen but rarely do I hear anything. It’s only when I’m busy doing other things that the knowledge of what I am to do comes, the solutions arrive and plans formulate in my mind.
    Often a long time later when I have forgotten what I have been praying for events unfold and God has answers my prayers and then I remember what I was asking for. God is my quiet friend.
    Sr Catherine I think you will know what I’m talking about. πŸ™‚ These are secret things.

  7. To me prayer has always been like listening to God, listening to that deep stillness that is at the other side of my thoughts and feelings, the words help to focus my attention on this deep still centre


  8. Your last line sums it up so well. We will never “get” God but we must try to be one with Him. When we truly open up ourselves to the reality of God we are praying – it is hard to grasp and even harder to cling on to sometimes but it is real. I can see why people are put off and regard it as something to be mocked. It is a shame that many who believe in God do not see any form of prayer as worthwhile. Even if 99% of prayer ends up as selfish, half-hearted almost superstitious mutterings, it leaves us with 1% which is a glorious communication with the creator of all things! Worth the effort I think.

  9. Good to be in touch again sister.
    Richard Rhor said if you don’t allow your pain to be transformed you will project it onto other people. Whereas silent ‘listening prayer’ brings healing and wholeness if persevered with, then we can transmit and wholeness to others.

  10. Your post reminds me of something I read many years ago in Encountering the Depths by Mother Mary Clare SLG to the effect that intercessory prayer is not reminding God in our own words of the needs of others, but rather taking as step towards the heart of the world. I don’t have the book anymore and can’t quite remember more exactly, but I know that it made a deep impression on me and might be worth getting hold of again!

  11. Thank you for your post. It is a good reminder that whatever we are doing it should be as a prayer to God. Our whole lives can be a prayer if we live it for God as a sacrifice in obedience to His will. I especially like your mention of your anger toward God and how you ‘took Him seriously’. I think many times we forget that He is there and listening so we should approach Him as we would our neighbor. He did say that we should love our neighbor and isn’t that what we are commanded to do for God as well, love Him with all that we are. So taking Him seriously really struck me…the kind of love we are instructed to have for God is serious so we should take it that way and present in to Him in prayer constantly.

  12. Someone once told me that prayer is spending time with and talking directly to God. It is important for the development of our relationship with God. If we rarely communicated with a human friend, even if they had access to information about our life (ie FaceBook), how would our relationship develop?
    I have also learned that prayer is important for listening to God. Sometimes His answers lie in what we ourselves say. Voicing our petitions, fears, gratitude, desires, apologies, etc, directly to Him I believe help us clarify what it is we want or need. Even though He knows what is in our hearts, giving it voice, even in the silence of our hearts, gives a “reality” to what we need to communicate.
    So much comes to me in prayer, discernment, obedience, faith. Prayer is where I pay attention and listen carefully without so much distraction from my life as wife, mother, and employee.
    When tragedy strikes, I have heard many people question the value of prayer – I think perhaps its value is in the relationship with my God.

  13. It’s interesting. My post was about the efficacy of prayer, yet most people have chosen to discuss the nature of prayer itself. Is it because my sketch of contemplative prayer was too brief, too allusive, or because we are happier talking about what prayer is rather than what it does or does not do?

  14. I don’t think so. I think the comments, in some way or another all mentioned ways prayer is effective. It is effective because we are taking direct action to speak with God about our needs and desires rather than getting angry or frustrated and letting it stew. The efficacy of prayer doesn’t always come in obvious miracles, it most often comes in the discernment of God’s will, the comfort of His presence, and the reminder that His will is sometimes beyond our knowing or understanding. But Jesus said over and over again to ask his Father in heaven and to be persistent.

  15. I think many of the responses (at least mine) were confirming what you said from their own experience.
    “The kind of prayer I am talking about is often hard. It requires perseverance, tenacity, sacrifice. It is the kind of prayer that seeks to become one with the prayer of Christ, and there is only one place where that can be done: on the Cross.
    It may be that the language of prayer and sacrifice means nothing to those who are unfamiliar with it, but the fact that something is unfamiliar does not mean that it is not valid or efficacious.”
    For those who understand the true nature of our relationship with God and life, prayer is the connection between us and the Cross. For those who think that God should be a kindly grandfather who hands out treats and solves problems, prayer seems fruitless because they don’t get the immediate answers they seek. In my humble opinion, their lack of understanding is a result of an immature (not fully developed) relationship or understanding of the nature of the relationship.

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