Most of us, at one time or another, send up a prayer and hope against hope for the answer we want. And more often than not, we wait and wonder, as we continually check our spiritual inbox for some sort of sign, if perhaps our prayer fell on deaf ears, or on any ears at all. Hello? Is this thing on?
Unfortunately, prayer is not like a gumball machine. We don't put our prayers in and then wait with cupped hands for the correct response to come pouring out.
Prayer can be a tricky thing, even for those who do it religiously, so to speak. We can get the feeling we're not doing it right or that we have to be holier in order to pray. Not the case. Blessed Pope John Paul II once said: "How to pray? This is a simple matter. I would say: Pray any way you like so long as you pray."
So on that note, let's look at the five most common questions people ask me about prayer:
1. My life is already so jam-packed with responsibilities. How can I add daily prayer to the list?
Prayer is not meant to be a chore and certainly shouldn't become one more stress. In fact, it should help alleviate stress by giving you a peaceful core. So don't look at prayer as one more thing on your to-do list. Look at it as a mini-retreat from all those things that wear you down.
You don't have to go to a church or know certain words. All you have to do is stop and turn your heart toward God. Once you do that, you're already praying. Some would say that even wanting to pray is already a kind of prayer.
Prayer is not restricted to a certain time and place. It's best when it's woven into our days so that our very lives become a prayer. It's not as difficult as it sounds. Start small. Find one regular time each day when you can pray -- when you first wake up, while you're driving to work, as you chop vegetables, before you go to bed -- and then stick with it. You'll soon see big spiritual results blossom from that small seed.
2. How do I know God is listening?
I can't give you any hard and fast proof here, but I can tell you this: Catholics believe that God is longing for a relationship with us. And really, regardless of what religion you practice, it makes sense that our Creator would want a friendship with us. And how else but through prayer? So try to imagine that God is already facing you, waiting for you, yearning for you. All that's required is for you to turn toward God with your whole heart and mind.
And while we're talking about who's listening to whom here, don't forget to sit in silence and listen to what God has to say every once in a while. Sometimes we get so caught up in asking for things, begging for things, saying thank you for things that we forget to pay attention to the still, small voice within us. It's there. Shut out the noise of the world for at least five minutes a day and invite the Spirit to speak to you.
3. "Official" prayers don't do much for me. Can I still pray?
Prayer isn't a magic formula; prayer is a conversation with God. I was frustrated with something one day, when my 5-year-old turned to me and said: "Why don't you talk to God?" At first I couldn't figure out why she was making that connection. Then I realized that she hears me talking to God all the time, the same way I might talk to a friend on the phone. OK, maybe with a little more begging thrown in.
Don't think of prayer as certain words said in exact order at an exact time, although that kind of prayer can be an important part of spiritual life. For Catholics, the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Angelus and novenas are particular forms of prayer, often said at particular times. That kind of formalized prayer might not be for you right now, but keep an open mind. Our prayers lives tend to change from year to year, even from day to day. What feels right today might not suit you tomorrow. Pray from your heart, with whatever words lead you to God, and you'll never go wrong.
4. Why do Catholics bother with Mary and the saints when they can go straight to God?
You can always go straight to God. That's your prerogative as a pray-er. However, think of Mary and the saints as friends in high places. Say you're having an awful day at work, or your car breaks down. Chances are you're going to call a friend for a little sympathy and maybe even a helping hand. And so it is with Mary and the saints. We don't go to them thinking they'll solve our problems on their own. Instead, we turn to them for comfort, friendship, and maybe the chance that they'll go to God on our behalf and get us some much-needed assistance. You can't have too many friends in heaven, right?
5. Why do I still feel so disconnected from God despite my prayers?
That's a tough problem but not an unusual one. Many of the great saints and sages experienced dry spells and dark nights, times when they felt totally alone, even abandoned by God. The "experts" say dry spells are actually meant to strengthen us, forcing us to trust God completely even when we cannot feel God's presence in our lives.
Prayer doesn't guarantee happiness or joy. It paves the way for a deeper relationship with God, one where we learn to accept God's will with peace in our hearts, even when the answer to our prayer isn't quite what we had hoped for.
You won't always get what you want, but if you pray sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
Mary DeTurris Poust, is a Catholic author, blogger and columnist. Her latest book is "The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass" (Alpha, 2011). Contact her through her blog Not Strictly Spiritual.