Prayer Primer

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God….” Step 11

What is prayer? Prayer is conversation with an inner voice, a higher power, a felt presence. Many call this conversation partner God. Some use other names: YHWH (Jehovah), Allah, Gaia, Spirit. Whatever the name we give it, we seek contact through prayer and meditation.

I learned the basics of prayer as a child. Since then I’ve learned to read beyond Dick and Jane and solve problems beyond arithmetic. Too often our prayer skills stop at a third grade level. As I age, my conversations with friends and partners grow more complex, nuanced and intimate. Now I need prayer practices that meet the needs, yearnings and complexities of my adult life.

I used to approach prayer as though I had to convince God, to plead, to bargain. Those are my “please, please, please” prayers. Please keep the plane in the air. Please let me win the lottery. Please keep my secret––I promise to quit. My prayer meshed with magical thinking. While I know prayer can be powerful and miracles happen, I find that I am the one changed through prayer. I accept what I could not. I see a new way. I recognize the Holy already present in my life.

step 11 from AA

How we pray reflects who we are. Some talk, others listen. Some pray with their whole body as in yoga; others challenge their body such as through fasting. Some pray in sacred temples; others find a cathedral in the natural world. Some kneel, others dance.

Prayer can be communal or solitary. I need both. Most Sunday mornings I spend an hour praying with a church community. I sing prayer as I join other voices in blended harmony. I resonate with sacred readings and ancient stories that speak of God’s love and human failings. I listen as a pastor opens those stories to explore universal truths from the container of myth, parable and metaphor.

At other times I need to pray alone. Most days I sit cross-legged on my couch or cushion to spend 20 minutes in silence, practicing presence. Each time my mind wanders, I bring it back with a sacred word: Love, peace, hope. Both my solitary and communal prayer times feed me.

What kinds of prayer are there? One of the first and easiest is a prayer of thanksgiving. I walk into a gorgeous day and say, “Thank you!” I gather around a holiday meal with family or friends and say, “Thank you!” I end my day recalling its blessings and say, “Thank you!” Another type is supplication, aka HELP!! Help me get through this. Keep my loved one safe. Heal my friend struggling with addiction. There are prayers of contrition: I may have hurt someone, not lived by my values, let my ego dominate. I acknowledge my wrong and seek wisdom in making amends.

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Finally there are prayers of praise, celebrating the astonishment of being alive. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all being, the divine margin in all attainment; prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

Prayer opens us up to what is important. What is it I really want? A bigger house? A different job? More toys? What is it I really want? As I linger with that question, my desire becomes clearer. I really want to be present in my life. I really want to be healthy and whole. I surely want to love and be loved. I can go into prayer with one want only to move into another. A friend describes the turning point in his prayer, when he stopped praying for his 101-year-old mother to get well and started praying for her to have a good death. In prayer we are transformed.

How can prayer help when choices arise out of our dualistic view of the world: Good/bad; true/false; always/never? Little in life is black and white. In prayer I hold my either/or choice open and wait for a third one to make itself known. I picture one choice in each hand. Then I wait. Inevitably a third one appears. It arises from patiently holding the tension, not forcing a decision. The third one is not a compromise, it’s a new choice that supersedes the dualistic one.

Years ago, I worked in business and considered getting a master’s degree. I debated between a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree or something more technical. Neither seemed worth the hard work required of my overflowing life. When I retired years later I knew I would begin a master’s degree in theology. The third way opened. My decision was easy.

Prayers I memorized as a child don’t go away. When I awaken in night’s dark hours those familiar prayers comfort me. My father, in the depth of his dementia, could not name his children or construct a full sentence, but he was fluent in the Our Father as we recited it together.

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Must I always speak nicely to God? Never raise my voice? Suffocate my anger? God is not a delicate flower easily damaged, nor does God need to be appeased. Our higher power is big enough to hear our cries of outrage and despair. Prayer is a safe place to bring my anger, hurt and sorrow. Eventually I move into acceptance, resolution and even peace. God is present through it all.

Tangible objects aid me in prayer: Scripture, poetry, art, icons, journals, paints, beads, candles, shawls, photos. We can create personal altars. A photo of my young self reminds me of the hurt child who still keeps residence. A cairn of rounded Lake Superior rocks symbolize strength. A simple collage sparks new insight. We all have artifacts that remind us of our own sacred stories.

I move part of step 10’s daily inventory into step 11’s prayer, journal handy. I look at both the gifts of the day and its challenges. Questions I ask myself include: Where was my higher power present? What enlivened me? What opened me to love? Where was God absent? What drained me of life? What blocked my love? I record these answers. Later I read what I’ve written to recognize repeating patterns: Where I struggle and with whom, where I find life and love, where I am growing and where I am resisting. From here I learn what I must accept, what I need to change and seek the wisdom to move through.

Good conversations ebb and flow between talking and listening. Is it time to change up the conversation? What do you want to say? What do you need to hear?

Mary Lou Logsdon is a spiritual director who companions people on their spiritual journey. She can be reached at

Last Updated on November 5, 2019

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