How to Pray When You’re Really Not Feeling It

When I was growing up, nightly prayers were a formal, ritualized affair. I was raised in the grand Catholic tradition of kneeling by the side of my bed, intoning the name of every single person I’d ever met and asking God for their protection/recovery/comfort in sorrow. That was followed by a litany of memorized prayers (Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Act of Contrition, etc.). 

But when the old methods fail me, it can be unsettling at best. You might know the feeling I’m talking about… you’re kneeling by your bed, or driving your car, or sitting in church, and you’re like, “Hello, God? It’s me, [insert your name]. Send me a sign, please? I could use a LITTLE HELP DOWN HERE.” 

If you’re feeling like your direct line to God keeps dropping calls, it might be time to explore alternative prayer methods. It’s not your grandma’s Rosary, but trust me—trying something new can be a refreshing, often illuminating way to deepen your spirituality and reaffirm your connection to God—and yourself. If you’re stuck in a prayer rut, here are a few techniques to try. 

Write it down

Shifting your prayers from your head to the page can have a transformative effect. You may find it easier to articulate your thoughts, and work out answers as you go along. “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert often does this, structuring her written prayer as a conversation and letting both her questions and the answers flow through her pen. It might sound corny, but trust me, it’s worth a try. You don’t need a special notebook—I use my regular old journal, starting the prayer entry with “Dear God/Mother/Father/whatever.” But there’s really no need for a formal introduction—just start writing. 

Read poetry

The world of poetry is basically a pharmacy’s worth of prayers, with a ready-made Rx for every human condition. (No wonder doctors in the UK occasionally prescribe books as treatment.) Feeling anxious? Read “I Worried” by Mary Oliver. Need encouragement? Try “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde. When I’m rejoicing, I read “One Hour to Madness and Joy” by Walt Whiman. And the ancient Persian poet Rumi has a poem for every single one of your feels. I could write an entire article on poetry recommendations, but for now, let me direct you to the website of the Poetry Foundation, where you can browse by topic

Try meditation

Sitting in silence can do wonders for your clarity of mind. Try an app like Headspace or Simple Habit; I use the latter, which has tons of free content. Start with intro sessions that teach you how to focus on your breathing; then, when you’ve gained more experience, you can easily make meditation more prayerful by focusing on a single image, word, or feeling. Lovingkindess meditation—during which you direct loving thoughts to the person of your choosing (and that can be you)—is a wonderfully simple way to “pray” for someone. Here’s a guided version led by renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, whom I love. 

Pick one word 

In Melissa Kirsch’s excellent book The Girl’s Guide,” she shares some extremely effective advice for getting through the day when you’re feeling totally overwhelmed: Smaller, smaller. That means: Don’t think about every single thing you need to do today; just focus on the task in front of you. Get out of bed. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. This same advice also applies to prayer. When you’re feeling so overwhelmed or despondent that you can barely string together a sentence in your head, just focus on one word. You might draw inspiration from Anne Lamott’s aptly-titled book “Help, Thanks, Wow.” That title represents not only the three main types of prayer, boiled down to their most essential forms—it also represents three of the most effective single-word prayers. Try repeating one like a mantra. 

When revitalizing your prayer life, you might be tempted to do something drastic—heading to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route, for example. If that’s your bag, by all means, do it (I did, and I’d return in a heartbeat). But injecting your spiritual life with renewed vigor can be as easy as Googling—or (my preference) reading a book

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