I found seminary to be a pretty difficult transition, at least at first. I had previously studied English, journalism, and business in college, and I did pretty well academically in my undergraduate and MBA programs. I expected seminary to be more or less of a cake walk. And I was truly surprised when I received feedback from my first seminary paper, a paper about Christian history, and I received a score of 75 out of 100. I got a C. Not an A or a B like I was expecting, and not even a C+, but a flat-out C. What a bummer! Being away from home, not earning an income, and learning completely new subject material was more challenging than I had expected it to be. Sadly, during my first year of seminary, my grades were simply not what I had hoped for or expected. Some seminarians, in an effort to prevent focusing on grades from getting in the way of their learning, take their classes on a pass/fail scale instead of an A-through-F scale. This doesn’t impact a grade-point average (either positively or negatively), and it simply means the course was completed satisfactorily. When it came time to take an Ignatian prayer class, I thought it would be a good opportunity to boost my GPA. Although the professor recommended everyone take that particular class pass/fail, I decided to take it for a letter grade because I just knew I would get an easy A in prayer. That A would boost my GPA and make me a better candidate for further studies, I thought. Imagine my surprise at the end of the semester when grades came out and I looked at my report card only to find a B instead of the highly anticipated A. I guess I wasn’t as good at prayer as I thought I was.
When I was a young boy, my only experience of prayer was at the dinner table. My family prayed the traditional Roman Catholic prayer before meals: Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen. In fact, I thought this prayer was the only prayer there was. I remember hearing about the importance of saying prayers before bedtime. Knowing only one prayer, the prayer before meals, I prayed that prayer as a child before falling asleep every night. I felt a little embarrassed when I learned that there are other, more appropriate prayers for that situation. Although I now believe God was perfectly happy to share that moment with that young boy, I felt shame that I had been ”praying wrong.” Eventually I discovered the rosary and the Eucharistic liturgy. I discovered the Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, the Act of Contrition, and many, many other prayers. There are so many prayers! Who knew there were so many? There was a prayer for every occasion at every time in every place. My mind (and my heart) was expanded!
Still, I never seemed to be able to achieve a “state of prayer” like I was told I was supposed to. I remember Sister Esther, my third grade teacher, telling us we needed to plant both feet on the floor with our hands folded on our desks. We needed to close our eyes and bow our heads. We needed to clear our thoughts and visualize a conversation with God. I frequently found myself distracted, opening my eyes, and gazing around the room. I looked out the window and daydreamed as I watched the clouds float by. That one kinda looks like a rhinoceros! I scanned for other pairs of open eyes. I can’t be the only one who can’t pray, I thought. After years and years of trying, I thought I was simply bad at prayer. I had succumbed to my fate. I simply was not a good pray-er. Hopefully God still loves me anyway, I thought. I hoped. Maybe I even prayed, but I couldn’t be sure.
Eventually, I learned that my inability to focus is not due to a lack of desire. Even though Sister Esther scolded me for being a “bad boy” and “not praying correctly”, it simply wasn’t true. I was praying correctly. But praying correctly for me isn’t necessarily the same as praying correctly for someone else. Each of us is different and each of us has a different idea of what it means to pray. Sometimes we pray for petitions and intentions. Sometimes we pray that God will help us get that higher-paying job, or that he’ll cure our friend of illness, or that he’ll give us clarity on what decision we’re going to make. Sometimes we pray out of frustration or hurt. “God, why did you let this happen!?!” Sometimes we pray for the welfare of others and ourselves and sometimes we pray for the welfare of the world. Those are all wonderful ways to pray! But they’re not the only ways to pray. And just because those methods might work for some people, it doesn’t mean they work for everyone.
Why do we pray? Does God not already know what we want? Doesn’t he already know what we need? Doesn’t he know what’s best for us, far better than we do? Why should we bother praying if God’s gonna do what he wants to do anyway? These are some, though not all, of the questions people ask when they profess their opposition to prayer. And I can acknowledge that there is some validity to these concerns. But at the same time, it’s a little more complicated than that. When we do active theology, we have to go deeper than just the surface level. On the surface, yes, God already knows what is going to happen and he probably isn’t going to change his mind simply because we tell him to. But prayer isn’t just a lifeline that we ought to use when we need or want something. Prayer is our active participation in a two-way relationship. Prayer is communication with a God who wants to be known by us.
If we think of prayer as open communication, it makes a little more sense. Think of spending time with a spouse. Do you only talk to your spouse when you want to communicate things that are bothering you? Sure, those are perfectly appropriate topics to bring to a spouse. But there are probably lots of other things to talk about as well. How was their day? What did they do today? What should we, as a couple, do for our vacation in a few months? How was work? How is Mom? What did you have for lunch today? How was it? Communication with a spouse is a dialogue. It’s not talking at, it’s talking with. And that’s a big distinction. Effective prayer is not talking at God. It’s talking with God. And there really isn’t a wrong way to do it! (Except maybe the way that gets you a B in a seminary prayer class).
Why did I get a B in my prayer class? I suspect it was because my prayer life isn’t perfect. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be! God doesn’t care about our grades. He cares about our hearts. And our hearts can’t be judged on a scale of A through F. But he does care about us and he cares about how we’re doing and he wants to be present in our lives. Not because it’s good for God. But because it’s good for us! God simply does not need our prayers. Prayer is not something we do for God. It’s something we do so that we can grow in faith and in love.
Have you ever had an experience where you offer something up to God and then you feel a tug in a certain direction? Have you been given clarity? Have you learned to see something from a different angle than you otherwise would have? This is the beauty of prayer. It isn’t a magic trick. But it is transformative. And the really cool thing is, God made us the way we are. So God understands if we’re not able to sit still with both feet on the ground or if we find ourselves daydreaming, looking at the clouds passing by (that one looks like a turtle!). God understands if we fall asleep while we’re praying the rosary, and he understands if we forget the words to a prayer or we don’t even know where to start. He appreciates the effort, and we still get spiritual enrichment from our prayers, failed or otherwise.
Prayer is a reminder to ourselves of the love of God which passes all understanding. It is a reminder that God loves us with all our bumps and sharp edges. He loves us when we have ADHD, and he loves us when we are neurotypical. He loves us when we’re happy, sad, angry, or anywhere in between. He loves us in the imperfection of our prayers, and he loves us when we give our best efforts or no effort at all. We don’t pray to win “points.” We pray because God wants us to know him and because he wants us to share ourselves with him. Just like we share the most intimate details and pieces of our lives with our spouse, we can share the same intimate details of our lives with God. He isn’t going to be surprised. He isn’t shaming. He isn’t neglectful. He just listens. Take it from a priest who got a B in a seminary prayer class. God loves you, and he doesn’t expect you to be perfect. He is happy when you are the best thing you could ever hope to be: yourself.