For many years I thought of prayer in terms of technique—a technique that could be learned, much like how one learned to play a musical instrument. I thought if I only “practiced” enough, I would become proficient at prayer. When I experienced difficulties with prayer, or when prayer seemed dry or rote, I assumed that I just needed to work on my technique and keep practicing. I also read books on prayer, and kept hoping I would find an expert who could help me with my technique or share a secret that would suddenly help me to be more proficient at prayer.
I don’t think my experience in regard to prayer is unique. Over the years, I have encountered many people who, like me, were looking for a technique or method that would help them feel more comfortable and proficient with prayer. I have also encountered people who thought they were lacking some secret skill or had some defect in their make up that hindered or even prevented them from praying as well as they would like. And in some cases I have also encountered people who have given up on prayer altogether because they found it too frustrating and unsatisfying.
Fortunately for me, my attitude toward prayer changed many years ago when I was on retreat. I asked my retreat director for some “tips” on prayer. Initially he suggested things I already knew, e.g. have a regular time and place for prayer, start with some deep relaxing breaths, etc. As we talked further, though, he told me that perhaps I was taking the wrong approach to prayer. He said that while there are a lot of techniques that can help with prayer. When we approach prayer solely as an activity we want to become proficient at or a skill we want to master, we are missing something important and will probably find prayer frustrating.
My retreat director went on to suggest that I approach prayer more in terms of a relationship. While there are things we can do to enhance our relationships and help them grow, the most important thing is simply being present. If we are not present to someone, if we don’t spend time with them, we shouldn’t be surprised if the relationship feels stilted or stagnant. In order for a relationship to grow and deepen, we need to spend time simply being with another. This presence eventually leads to trust, which eventually leads to deeper and deeper sharing, which eventually leads to love.
Now to be clear, when we think of prayer in terms of a relationship, that doesn’t mean that every time we go to prayer that it is a deep and profound experience. There are ebbs and flows, and peaks and valleys in every relationship. This is certainly true with regard to God. Our prayer, though, helps us to keep our relationship with God open and flowing, even and perhaps especially, at those times when our prayer feels unproductive or even frustrating.
Occasionally, I will find myself falling back into the habit of trying to find a technique or skill that will help me feel more proficient at prayer. At these times, I need to remind myself that prayer is about relationship and not about technique. At root, my relationship with God — like the other relationships that nurture and nourish me in my life — is sustained not by doing something, but simply by being present.