Prayer, St. John Damascene says, is the unveiling of the mind before God. When we pray we ask Him for what we need, confess our faults, thank Him for His gifts, and adore His immense majesty. Here are five tips for praying better – with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas.
1. Be humble.
Many people falsely think of humility as a virtue of a low self-esteem. St. Thomas teaches us that humility is a virtue of acknowledging the truth about reality. Since prayer, at its root, is an “asking” directed at God, humility is crucially important. Through humility we recognize our neediness before God. We are totally and entirely dependent on God for everything and at every moment: our existence, life, breath, every thought and action. As we become more humble, we recognize more profoundly our need to pray more.
2. Have faith.
It’s not enough to know that we’re needy. To pray, we also have to ask someone, and not just anyone, but someone who can and will answer our petition. Children intuit this when they ask mom instead of dad (or vice versa!) for permission or a gift. It is with the eyes of faith that we see God is both powerful and willing to help us in prayer. St. Thomas says that “faith is necessary… that is, we need to believe that we can obtain from Him what we seek.” It is faith which teaches us “of God’s omnipotence and mercy,” the basis of our hope. In this, St. Thomas reflects the Scriptures. The Epistle to the Hebrews underlines the necessity of faith, saying, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). Try praying an Act of Faith.
3. Pray before praying.
In old breviaries you can find a small prayer that begins, “Open, O Lord, my mouth to bless your Holy Name. Cleanse, too, my heart from all vain, perverse and extraneous thoughts…” I remember finding this slightly amusing – there were prescribed prayers before prescribed prayers! When I reconsidered it, I realized that although it might seem paradoxical, it gives a lesson. Prayer is utterly supernatural, and so it is far beyond our reach. St. Thomas himself notes that God “wishes to bestow certain things on us at our asking.” The prayer above continues by asking God: “Illumine my mind, inflame my heart, that I may worthily, attentively and devoutly recite this Office and merit to be heard in the sight of Your divine Majesty.” The attentiveness and purity of heart needed to attain to God in prayer is itself received as a gift – and we will only receive if we ask.
4. Be intentional.
Merit in prayer – that is to say, whether it brings us closer to heaven – flows from the virtue of charity. And this flows from our will. So to pray meritoriously, we need to make our prayer an object of choice. St. Thomas explains that our merit rests primarily on our original intention in praying. It isn’t broken by accidental distraction, which no human being can avoid, but only by intentional and willing distraction. This also should give us some relief. We need not worry too much about distractions, as long as we don’t encourage them. We realize something of what the Psalmist says, namely, that God “pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber” (Ps 127:2).
5. Be attentive.
Although, strictly, we need only be intentional and not also perfectly attentive to merit by our prayer, it is nevertheless true that our attention is important. When our minds are filled with actual attention to God, our hearts too are inflamed with desire for Him. St. Thomas explains that spiritual refreshment of the soul comes chiefly from being attentive to God in prayer. The Psalmist cries out, “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek!” (Ps 27:8). In prayer, let us never cease to search for His Face.