Private practices: The real prayer lives of Catholics
Pray tell, when was the last time you actually talked to anyone about your prayer life? Six Catholics open up about how they talk—and listen—to God each day.
Prayer can be mysterious—in particular, other people’s prayer can be mysterious. After all, it’s typically a silent and solitary experience, and it’s not unusual for the closest of friends to skirt the subject. Even when Catholics gather for Mass, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on with one’s fellow worshippers. The serene look on the face of the woman sitting one pew over suggests a deep and fruitful prayer life—but what would she say if someone asked?
We went ahead and did. Six brave souls agreed to reveal specifics of their prayer lives—the when, where, and how, as well as the struggles they experience and the benefits they reap. Read on as they shed some light on this secretive subject.
35; Dallas, Texas
Parish: St. Rita
Occupation: Stay-at-home mom
When did you last feel like your prayer life was in a rut? What helped you move past that?
Every day I feel like my prayer life is in a rut. I have a hard time getting a vibrant prayer life going with the demands of young children. I’ll try a new way of praying or pick up a different meditation book. Sometimes that helps. Sometimes I’ll find a saint I can say a novena to. Sticking to something for nine days and having an intentional focus for my prayer time really helps me to give over my troubles to God.
I try to be dedicated to my prayer time. I really try not to check e-mail or Facebook until I have done my morning prayer.
Do you find that to be a regular challenge?
Yes, I find it to be a challenge all the time. Although technology sometimes helps me to pray, e-mail and social media can definitely be a distraction.
When do you pray?
My son is 8 months old and my daughter is almost 3, so I don’t have much of a typical day. I set my alarm for 30 minutes before I expect the kids to be awake, and I try to use that time to pray.
Sometimes, though, if the baby is up too often during the night or one of them wakes up early, that idea goes out the window. I get my cup of coffee and go back to sit in bed, where I’ll either read the daily Mass readings or the morning prayer. I’ve been using Give Us This Day from Liturgical Press. I like reading the daily saint and the scripture reflection. I actually took a break from Give Us This Day only to find that I really missed it. Sometimes it takes changing something to realize it was working. I also like Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Moms by Patricia Robertson (ACTA).
Once the day gets underway, I’m usually saying little prayers to God anywhere and everywhere. My husband and I take turns putting our daughter to bed, and whoever does says prayers with her as well.
On the weekends, prayer time in the morning doesn’t normally happen. We go to Sunday Mass, but that sometimes feels more like a wrestling match with two kids rather than prayer time.
What and whom do you pray for?
I mostly pray for my kids. I thank God for them and ask God to help them grow into the people he wants them to be. I thank God for my husband and the time I get to spend with my family.
Also, after my son was born, we had a hard time with breastfeeding, and I started praying when I would nurse him. Around this time, I had several friends who were struggling with infertility or miscarriages. So I started saying a Hail Mary and praying for each of them every time I fed my baby.
What other practices do you have?
We pray before each meal, and at bedtime we say something we call the family prayer: “Father in heaven, hear my prayer. Keep me in thy loving care. Be my guide in all I do. Bless all those who love me too. Bless Mommy and Daddy… .” Then we pray for all our family members and anyone else who needs our prayers. We finish up with the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and Guardian Angel prayers.
Where did you learn the “family prayer”?
My parents used to say it with us when we were little, but I had forgotten it. One night after my parents had watched the kids, my daughter asked for “the family song.” I told her I didn’t know it, and she said, “Yes, you do, Granddad sings it.” So I called my parents, and as soon as they started singing it, I remembered. Now the tradition continues.
Father Michael J. Alello
33; Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Parish: St. Philomena
Occupation: Diocesan priest
For the past 15 years I’ve been attempting to figure out how to pray. I’ve searched for every “Praying for Dummies” book published, but I’ve come to learn they aren’t much help. Everyone has suggestions on how to pray, from the great spiritual writers to my grandmother. Ultimately it’s up to each of us to determine what prayer style works best.
I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy creating the perfect prayer space: comfortable chair, low lamplight, sacred images, live plants, water feature, and plenty of prayer aids including my journal, Bible, and prayer cards with favorite quotes of saints. In the end, I’ve learned that all I need is a quiet place without any technology.
Typically prayer begins my day, before I have time to be distracted by the busyness of life. Once the coffee has dripped, I’ll grab a cup, find a comfortable place to sit, and be present to the God of Wonders that surrounds us. I’ve found when I’m able to ease into the day with prayer, I’m much more likely to be attentive to God. If it’s a comfortable morning I find myself on the back porch, listening to the birds greet the day, with the fountain trickling in the background. I like to begin with a few minutes of meditation, a simple breathing activity to enter into my prayer time. I close my eyes, concentrate on the pace and depth of my breath, and say silently: “Breathe in God’s peace and love, breathe out any frustration or worry.”
Recently I’ve begun to use the examen that St. Ignatius Loyola taught his followers. Reviewing the previous day allows me to see where I may have missed God throughout the hustle, and it offers me an opportunity to see where I could have been more Christ-centered or joyful. In the evening, I’m typically pretty exhausted and simply want to relax, so I use the mornings to refocus and review. I often conclude my time by calling to mind all those who have asked me to pray for them.
When asked about prayer, Pope John Paul II once said, “Pray any way you like, so long as you do pray.” That’s comforting for someone like me who has gone through many prayer phases.
While attending college and searching for direction in my life, I spent a great deal of time in the adoration chapel at a nearby parish, journaling and begging God to show me the way. Then there was a praise and worship period where I’d listen to music that offered a message of hope or encouragement. Music truly lifted my prayer to a new level and still does today. In the seminary I’d huddle in the chapel with fellow seminarians, praying the liturgy of the hours. Community prayer was never very fruitful for this extrovert; I need the quiet of my room to truly focus.
For years I’d set a kitchen timer for at least 30 minutes of prayer time, but I’ve learned to trust my heart. Prayer is a discipline that requires my time for it to be fruitful, but each day is different, and God can work wonders. Some days 10 minutes can feel like an hour, and other days I can sit for an hour and feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.
After six years of priesthood, I’ve learned that parishioners expect me to love their devotions and prayer forms, to pray as they do. But the beauty of our church is our diversity. While their prayer may not be my own, I’m uplifted by their commitment to prayer and, in particular, their commitment to pray for me.
23; Atlanta, Georgia
Parish: Cathedral of Christ the King
Occupation: Financial services representative
Where do you like to pray?
One of my favorite things to do is to go to a chapel when it’s empty and just sit in the presence of Jesus by the tabernacle. I haven’t gotten to do that much after college, but the times I’ve had by the tabernacle were definitely the most fruitful and intimate prayer times I’ve experienced. Other than that, I pray wherever I am.
What and whom do you pray for?
I pray for guidance a lot. I overanalyze all the time, so I’m constantly asking for guidance.
When I take the time to pray at night, I always pray for my friends and family; my girlfriend, Caitlin, and our relationship; the unification of Christianity; and the conversion of us all. I pray for people I know who are fading away from the Catholic Church, and also for people I know who aren’t religious but are searching honestly to find happiness and just looking in the wrong places.
I feel like I can pray for anything and everything, so I try to keep the habit of releasing everything on my mind when praying.
What prayer practices do you use?
I pray before meals. I offer up to God things that happen to me. I pray my Ignatius House prayer card prayers: The morning has the Our Father and a morning offering. The evening has an examination of conscience, a prayer for the departed, a prayer to Mary, and then personal prayer. My praying seems to go better when I kneel or when I focus on a religious object.
Anything in particular?
I have a crucifix that was hanging in my room when I was growing up. It’s a simple wooden cross with a metal Jesus nailed onto it. The author of In Conversation with God is from Opus Dei and he quotes Josemaría Escrivá a lot. Escrivá constantly talked about praying to a crucifix, so one day I just took it off the wall and starting praying with it. It jump-started my prayer life, and it really helped bring Jesus’ presence into the room.
Do you regularly pray with others?
Yes, I regularly pray with my good friend Kevin, and my girlfriend. When I get together with my Catholic friends, we sometimes pray together.
Are there forms of prayer you’ve recovered from your past?
I recently rediscovered the importance of starting the day by asking, “What does God want to say to me today?” and sitting with that. But otherwise, not really—I’ve only in the past five years or so started to have a blossoming interior prayer life, so it might be a little too soon to have many blasts from the past.
40; Honolulu, Hawaii
Parish: Sacred Heart
Occupation: Web content manager
I remember my parents, and in particular my grandma, regularly reminding me to “always say your prayers.” So prayers and Catholic rituals are nostalgic, things I did when I was a kid.
My rosary, with its dainty, mother-of-pearl-like plastic beads and a pewter crucifix, was a first communion gift from my godmother. My grandma had a beautiful silver rosary with her name engraved on the back of the crucifix. I thought it was the most amazing thing. The pea-sized silver rosary beads and ornate cross seemed much more sacred than mine, probably because my grandma said the rosary a lot. When she lived with us, I remember sitting in her bed many evenings and saying the rosary together. Afterward, she would carefully place it in its special pouch, making sure I put mine away just as carefully. (For me that meant keeping it in my special plastic blue box with the rainbow on it.)
Today, the rosary and other rituals of Catholic prayer life are rare for me. In my mid-20s, I began to feel deeply conflicted about some of the church’s political and social positions. When I attended Mass, instead of feeling connected to God, I just felt very sad. I tried attending other Christian churches but felt a similar disconnect. So I looked elsewhere.
Living in Hawaii the past 16 years, I’ve observed how animism and ancestral veneration are woven into life here. Initially foreign to me, prayers that directly address spirits of our natural surroundings or ancestors are now a part of my own spiritual practice.
Most of the time, my prayer consists of me having a conversation with God. I do this daily, typically when I’m doing something quiet—driving, washing dishes, sitting in a café. Other times, when I see something about myself or in life that gets me angry or upset, my prayer is more of a meditation, seeking insight. Over the last six years, I’ve found guidance from Buddhist teachers. Meditation is now a frequent practice for me that has deepened my conversation with God.
Other times, though, the conversation doesn’t have words at all. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment: “God is here with me right now.” Since I began meditating regularly, I’ve noticed this happening more often. Nature and moving my body inspire a lot of it—especially while swimming or paddling in the ocean.
But when I’m going through something really tough, I feel like I’m talking to God almost all the time. I ask for support, help, strength, and—especially when I’m not doing so well—I give thanks and count my blessings.
As life appears to cycle more rapidly with age, as I go to more baptisms and more funerals, I find myself coming back to church and the Catholic prayer practices from my childhood. I find comfort in them, and they provide a feeling that hasn’t been replicated for me elsewhere. So from time to time, I take out my late grandma’s silver rosary beads. Then I sit on my bed and pray with her, just like when I was a kid.
47; Athens, Georgia
Parish: The Catholic Center at the University of Georgia
Occupation: Campus minister/Director of religious education
Do you talk openly with others about your prayer life?
I do, especially with my family and the young college men I encounter in my role at the Catholic Center. I used to dismiss others when they would share their prayer lives with me, but I’ve come to believe the development of my prayer life has deepened my faith in ways I never imagined.
This started 13 years ago, when our 10-year-old daughter died while swimming in a river. At the time I would attend church occasionally and believed in God, but I was caught up in making money and, honestly, in myself. I was not a very caring person, especially to my wife and kids.
After Brittani died we were cleaning her room and came across a yellow piece of legal paper on which she had written the words of the St. Jude prayer. Attached to the paper was a cross she made out of sticks from the backyard. It was then that God started taking over my life. I found myself talking to Brittani as my angel, and to God. I didn’t understand that I was becoming a contemplative. At the time I didn’t even know what that meant.
A few years later I wanted more from my prayer life and participated in the JustFaith program. There I was exposed to material I never knew existed—Daniel Berrigan, John Dear, Richard Rohr, and Ilia Delio all became household names to me. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to talk to everyone I encountered about God’s love and compassion. All this helped me become a better husband, father, friend, and human being.
How does a disciplined prayer life influence you in your work?
I think it helps me handle stressful situations with less anxiety. In addition to my work at the Catholic Center, I have been working as a legal assistant/social worker for a disability law firm, where I have encountered many poor and homeless members of our community. Through prayer I see people differently and am better able to listen to their stories with love and compassion.
I know for me to help our students at the Catholic Center grow in their faith, I have to live my faith openly and honestly. My disciplined prayer life allows me to do that.
What and whom do you pray for?
I always pray for an openness in myself to receive all those I encounter during my day. I generally remember my family and friends. I also include those who have requested prayers. I find myself praying for poor and downtrodden individuals whom I have heard or read about in the news. I also pray for our leaders both in government and in the church.
When do you pray?
Early in the morning, before anyone wakes up, I’ll sit quietly in the living room to read the Catholic Book of Hours, or I’ll go to the back porch to watch the sunrise and listen to God’s wonderful gift of nature. Often I find myself in conversation with God when I’m driving, working in the yard, walking, or early in the morning before my wife of 25 years, Persia, or my college-age kids, Mykhael, 24, and Nikki, 21, are out of bed.
Around lunchtime I have an alarm that reminds me to take a moment to stop and offer thanks to God for the people that I have encountered or the work that I am doing.
While traveling to Israel and Palestine a few years ago I was fascinated by the call to prayer and how devout Muslims would stop whatever they were doing and praise God. When I returned I decided to use that same concept. My iPhone has a nice Call to Prayer app. When I hear it, I stop what I am doing and take a few deep breaths. Then I say the rosary or the Lord’s Prayer, or just offer a prayer of thanksgiving.
Luz Elena Ramos
53; El Paso, Texas
Parish: Queen of Peace
Occupation: High school Spanish teacher
The moment I wake up, I put myself and my loved ones in God’s hands.
Lately I have been praying especially for my son Daniel, 24, who’s currently deployed in Afghanistan, and all soldiers of the U.S. Army and their families. I pray for the soldiers to come home soon, safe and sound.
I pray while I am on my way to work. I include my students in my prayers; one day I forgot to pray for them and I had a terrible day! I tell them that I do not do anything without asking God for wisdom and illumination.
Usually as I drive, I pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and a prayer to the Holy Spirit. I have conversations with God about people I know and people I don’t, especially those who have been victims of natural disasters. I pray for peace on earth and people whom I’ve been asked to pray for. I’m always telling God what I’m doing. I constantly repeat, “What would Jesus do?” in order to help me make the right decisions. I pray in Spanish.
At night I pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; sometimes I fall asleep before I finish it. I started praying this prayer about nine years ago after one of my cousins was kidnapped in Mexico City. She prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and the kidnappers let her go after a few days. She gave the prayer to every family member.
Almost a decade ago I was going through a very difficult time in my marriage. Things did not change despite my prayers and effort. Finally I realized I was not able to save my marriage, and, exhausted, I stopped praying. Then, one day when I was very sad and didn’t know what to do, I began to pray again. I realized that I needed to be close to God because I could not do anything without him. So I continued praying.
I use the paschal candle when I am praying for something very special. Sometimes I pray in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe; other times I pray in front of the image of the Divine Mercy. The prayer to St. Jude is one of the prayers I use when I have a very special need.
Daniel called me early on the morning of his birthday, July 26. He asked me for the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. I used to pray it a long time ago; after he asked me for the prayer, I started praying it again. He is going through a difficult time and will be away from his base for different missions. He feels protected with this prayer:
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness
and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the divine power of God,
cast into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 11, pages 12-17).
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