Up until my senior year of college, the only type of prayer that really existed in my world was memorized prayer.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened that whenever I thought of prayer, my mind would immediately go to the rote, structured prayers. The prayers I already knew how to say. The ones that have been used for centuries by countless people in all walks of life. The Hail Mary. The Our Father. The Rosary. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The Memorare. The Angelus.
To put it bluntly, the prayers that I already knew worked.
With prayers like that in my repertoire, you’d think I’d be fine. But if I’m being honest, before my senior year of college, my prayer life was lackluster at best. And that’s probably being generous. Up until my senior year, my connection with God was almost nonexistent on my end.
This is absolutely not saying that that had anything to do with those prayers. Again, they’re tried and true, and some came directly from the mouth of God. When the disciples asked Christ to teach them how to pray, He gave them the Our Father. The bulk of the Hail Mary comes straight from Elizabeth and the angel Gabriel. These prayers are emphasized (rightly) in the Church because we know they were inspired or given directly from God. Logically, with that background, there cannot possibly be anything in those prayers that would cause such a disconnect between God and me.
But here’s the thing: those rote prayers were the only type of prayer I had. And my prayer time consistently turned, not into praying, but into reciting a series of words from memory. Saying the words without thinking about them. Without actually meaning them. I’d say the Rosary because I’d been told I needed to say it daily (a true statement, but I was doing it out of obligation, not love). I’d daydream through the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and mumble my way through the Angelus because, to me, prayer was just reciting holy words. And that’s not what prayer is.
So what is prayer? That’s a good question (and one I didn’t realize I couldn’t answer until college). Thankfully, St. Therese of Lisieux put it simply:
Prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.
If that sounds like it covers a lot, you’re not wrong. And if it sounds pretty obvious, you’re not wrong there either. Looking at it now, it seems like basic common sense.
But that’s not how I’d ever thought of prayer. Until I met a college missionary, it honestly didn’t occur to me that when people said, “Just talk to God”, they actually meant JUST TALK TO HIM. They actually meant telling Him about my day. Telling Him what I was struggling with. What I was happy about. What I was fearful of. They actually meant telling Him Every. Little. Thing.
As soon as I realized that, it hit me that that might be what I was missing. And it didn’t take months of trying it to realize that’s exactly what it was.
Because we’re not called to just check in with a few mumbled, recited prayers. God wants to be in a daily, personal communication with us, which makes sense. We’re His children. He wants to know about our lives. But to see Him as a Father, we need to treat Him like one. We need those heartfelt, unfiltered conversations with Him. As St. Ignatius of Loyola described,
We must speak to God as a friend speaks to his friend, servant to his master; now asking some favor, now acknowledging our faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, our fears, our projects, our desires, and in all things seeking His counsel.
For those who protest that God already knows everything about us, don’t worry. When Christ told St. Faustina to come to Him with everything, even she gave Him that answer. But Christ was very clear in His request, saying,
Yes I do know; but you should not excuse yourself with the fact that I know, but with childlike simplicity talk to Me about everything, for my ears and heart are inclined towards you, and your words are dear to Me.--St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul
Does that mean we should focus on personal prayer rather than the structured prayers? No. But what I’ve found is that the more I reach out to God in a daily, personal manner, the more I am able to reach up to Him through the rote, structured prayers. When I pray the Our Father, the “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against” part can actually come from the heart when I’ve just told Him everything and everyone I’m struggling with. When I pray the Magnificat, I can join in Mary’s joy because my daily conversation with God has shown me how “The Almighty has done great things for me”.
Because personal prayer and structured prayer are meant to complement each other. And contrary to my former, subconscious ideas, we need both. Because sometimes your own words aren’t enough and sometimes there’s not a rote prayer that speaks what your heart needs to say.
Yes, pray your Morning Offering and your Memorare. Yes, pray that daily Rosary. Yes, pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. But also tell Him when you’re overjoyed because your prayers were answered. Tell Him when you’re struggling to forgive someone. Tell Him when you’re cautiously optimistic about a new job or a new relationship. Tell Him when you’re having a hard time feeling His Love. He wants to hear all of that.
Because He wants to heal us, to mold us into the men and women He has always wanted us to be. Because He wants our hearts. Because He desperately desires the fullness of our love. Because, in short, He wants nothing less than all of us.
And quite honesty, He deserves nothing less.
Noelle M. is a cradle Catholic with a love for adoration and all things football (Roll Tide). She spends her days immersed in stories and air conditioning in an effort to survive the 9 month summer of the Deep South (so far, so good). A romantic at heart, she can occasionally (always) be coaxed into ballroom dancing. For more of Noelle M., visit her blog, https://beingevanescent.wordpress.com/ or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.