How I learned to pray

The price of prayer by Bob Usher [Flickr]
I can’t remember when I learned to pray. It seems like I’ve always known the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Bless Us O Lord prayer before meals. Other Catholics know more prayers by heart, but those are the ones I know. When I was in grade school, the nuns taught me to write JMJ at the top of my papers as a prayer to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. When I was in fourth grade, we had a laywoman for a teacher—Mrs. O’Toole. Mrs. O’Toole had an Irish accent and a passion for teaching. When she was feeling exasperated, she’d shake her head and say, “Saints preserve us.” Which roughly translates to, “Would you kids please settle down and pay attention?” Almost every day, Mrs. O’Toole would ask all us kids to pray for her because, she told us, God listens to the prayers of children.

I remember that sometimes after Mass, my mom would take us up to the racks of votive candles and we would light one of them. We would then kneel at the communion rail and she told us to “say a prayer for your father.” I didn’t know a “prayer for my father,” so I just made one up.

How my prayer life evolved

The first time I remember hoping my prayer really made a difference was when I was 11. My mother was pregnant with my little sister. I was old enough to know that babies were not always born perfect. So I prayed. I remember feeling very worried something could be wrong with the baby, and I prayed that it would be okay. I prayed the Hail Mary, mostly, because someone told me that Jesus could never say no to his mother. I figured if I prayed to her, my prayer had a better chance of being answered.

I sometimes prayed that I would do well on tests, especially if I hadn’t prepared. I figured supernatural intervention might make up for lazy study habits.

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy. —St. Therese of Lisieux

In high school, I started hanging out with some evangelical classmates. They taught me that prayer was always effective. They would pray for stuff and then they would believe whatever they prayed for would happen. And usually it did. I remember once I was at my after-school job as a cashier in the garden department at K-Mart. I was watering the plants and somehow lost the cash register key in amongst the plants. I didn’t even know I’d dropped it. I discovered it wasn’t in my shirt pocket after I’d finished watering. There were rows and rows and aisles and aisles of plants. There was no way I was going to find that key. I knew a manager would show up at any minute and I’d probably be fired. I prayed. I prayed like crazy. I prayed almost believing that my prayer would work. And it did! I found the key in a pot, deep in the foliage, where Jesus “told” me look. After that, I prayed for everything. Parking spaces. Good weather. That I wouldn’t run out of gas before I found a gas station.

An adult prayer conversation

In college, I found a book by Matt and Dennis Linn. It talked about prayer. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I remember sitting on the floor of the Newman Center chapel reading it. I remember that it opened my eyes about what prayer is. Since then, I’ve thought of prayer as a conversation. That is, I have thought of prayer as a way of being in relationship with God. Sitting in that chapel, I felt like I was having my first-ever adult conversation with God.

I’d like to say more about what that conversation is like in future posts. But first, I’d like to get your thoughts.

  • Is prayer important to you?
  • Has anyone ever taught you how to pray? Who was that?
  • How often do you pray?
  • How would you describe your prayer?

P.S. The book by the Linn brothers that I read in college is long out of print. However, if you would like to read a good introductory book about Catholic prayer, check out The Catholic Way to Pray: An Essential Guide for Adults by Sr. Kathleen Glavich, SND.

See also these related articles:



1 to “How I learned to pray”

  1. Prayer is communicating with God. He is a real person. Do we talk to our friends and family with memorized words? If we do we do not mean the words. Only through sincere prayer can we get answers from God.

Leave a Reply