How to Pray, By Donna Schaper

Posted on February 23rd, 2009 | Filed under In Print: New Books

"How we Pray," ©Donna Schaper, is from the forthcoming book, Prayers for People Who Might Believe 

First of all, don’t turn prayer into another contest.  Don’t try to excel at prayer.  Simply pause, reflect, give thanks, offer praise, curse, groan, grumble, prepare: be as clumsy as you want at prayer.  Action is the life of the report card.  Prayer is not.

Having said that grace is the foundation of prayer, not talent but grace, let me hasten to add that praying can be done well.  It can be done better or worse. Swimming can be done by people who know how to do a good breaststroke or by people who just doggy paddle along.  When grace touches our hearts, we often want to excel.  We are no longer satisfied with just getting along.  I am reminded of the great comment of St. Paul, “What then shall we sin boldly so that grace may abound?”  When grace turns up in our prayerful pauses and reflections, we are often motivated to find better words, deeper practice, and more fruitful reflections.

Episcopalians excel at prayer writing.  Think of the Book of Common Prayer.  The collects for the liturgical seasons, day by day, have the economy of a good prayer.  They give us what we don’t have: a chance to choose the focus of our reflections.  They do so in one sentence.  Sometimes it is a long sentence – but a good long sentence is like a good big room.  It is bordered, has an inside and an outside.  Outside the sentence is tomorrow’s prayer: inside the sentence of a good collect is a prayer enough for the day.

Consider one collect for Labor Day:

Almighty God, who hast so linked our lives one with another
that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide
us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but
for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for
our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of
other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out
of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and
reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and


That prayer is a mouthful and comes straight from the heart of well-organized religion.  It has a Trinitarian theology, a plea for justice, a plea for mercy, and a declaration of the oneness of humanity.  It is dense.  Our prayers may come from outside of Trinitarian theology or inside it.  We don’t have to pray to the “three in one” and “one in three” every time. We don’t have to act like we know God in ancient formulas.  We can just use the word God or the word Spirit or the word Breath.  We can instead be simply aware of how long religious institutions have had to get their prayers “right.”  We can be grateful for the great writers of prayers – even while retaining a certain skepticism.

Ordinary people can also write common prayers.  Ordinary people can have a daily prayer practice that collects as well.  Ordinary people can have a proactive prayer practice if they want it.  It is not that hard.

 We can pray in the morning or the evening or at noon.  We pick a time that is right for us.  Then we pay attention to our ordinary experience, choosing what of it matters most to us, writing it down, editing ourselves, and ritualizing the saying of what we have written.  It sounds complicated at first glance but it is not.  We pay attention to our ordinary experience.  We are mini-novelists, taking the ordinary steps of each long day and resolving their direction and destination.  If we pray at noon, we go back 24 hours. If at night, we go back through the day.  If in the morning, we go forward into the day.  We choose what of the thousand things that happened or will happen is most important.  We pay attention and we choose. 

Then we journal or write down what happened.  Then we reflect and edit the language we use to describe what we have chosen to attend.  Finally we say our prayer.  This method is proactive and is a way to have a prayerful practice day by day.  We may find ourselves needing to pray at different times during the day.  Prayerful moments may come upon as well as our choosing them.  At these times that choose us, rather than our choosing them, we don’t fuss around with words.  We sigh or laugh into our prayers.

To summarize a daily prayer practice, at a time that is set to the custom of our own lives and days,

(1)  We choose an experience of joy or sorrow from the many we have.
(2)  We write it down.
(3)  We reflect on it.
(4)  We edit our prayer.
(5)  We say our prayer out loud or in the silence of our hearts.


This five-point method is one way of praying.  It is one that I find especially useful and simple.  It is not for everyone.  Again, I repeat: pray not as you ought but as you are able.

Even one of these five points may be helpful.  I am encouraging a practical 21st century method of praying. It is open and it is clumsy. It is from a Christian tradition but beyond it.  Think post-Christian if you want.  Or if you find the Christian tradition useful, pray from within it.  This simple practice will take you five minutes a day.  You can keep your prayers in a notebook or on the margins of your bible or in a computer file.  You choose a practice and a time and place to practice.  You may have the luxury of having more than five minutes a day for reflection. You may not even have that. The point is to develop a ritual and do it.  Like the singing or humming of a great song, the more you sing, the more meaning comes from it.

The first step in writing a prayer is paying attention to our ordinary experience.  Today the experience may be haste and rushed, packed and filled; there may be no margin to our day.  Tomorrow may be clear and uncluttered, open and spacious.  These words that describe the day and its differences should end up in a one-sentence prayer.

“From haste and its waste, rescue me, O God.


“For open space and a sense of being clear, hear my thanks, O God.”

The first step in writing a prayer is to pay attention.  We are beginning a dialogue with God.  Why not let God know where we are and what we are experiencing?

The second step, after paying attention and enjoying the luxury of giving our own lived experience a proper look, is to choose what matters in and of it.  What matters on a cluttered day?  What matters on a clear day?  Are we to “see forever” on the clear day and just survive on the cluttered one?  If we were having a good conversation with a good friend, what form would that conversation takes?  Thanksgiving?  Rescue?  Change?  Transformation?  Salvation?

From haste and its waste, RESCUE me, O God.”

For open space and a sense of being clear, hear my THANKS, O God.”

Note the verbs.  They activate the conversation.  They open up the conversation.  They are the WHAT WE WANT part of the prayer.  I can imagine a good prayer just noting that we are in a chaotic way on a chaotic day.  I can imagine just experiencing the chaos.  What I can’t imagine is wanting that experience to continue.  Nor can I imagine having a wonderful experience and not wanting to send a thank you note.

When I suggest the third step of writing down the chosen focus and experience, I do so as a way to prepare to edit.  Writing something down makes it real, like the signature on a check.  Of course we can pray the kinds of prayers that are too deep for words or even sighs.  Often the most praying we do is contained in the phrase, “Oh, my God.”  We say that when we hear that a train has left the track and killed a baby.  “Oh, my God.”  That is an inarticulate prayer.  It is a good prayer.  But better prayers, more disciplined praying require a little more reflection.  We get to ask the question, “What does this mean?”

Why am I in chaos again today?  Have I stopped to enjoy this clear day? 

Paying attention, choosing the transformation that matters, writing down what we have understood as our experience, leads directly to the poetry of the prayer.  When we write it down, we can edit it.

“From haste and its waste, rescue me, O God.”  Why the word rescue?  Why not the word save?  Why not a less common prayerful concept, like “let me escape.”  Or “give me a detective’s brain so I can find my way out of this ordinary mess.”  Why not start with the verb?  Save us from haste and its waste.  Or why not reverse field?  Let me engage the haste of this day so that it not be waste but instead muscle training for the next multi-tasking moment I face.  Why not go IN rather than OUT?  Go towards the vortex of the tension, the way a canoeist rides the waves.  Take something bad and give thanks for it.

Editing a prayer is not just editing language. It is also editing the concept.  What is it we really want?  Good friends don’t just give us what we think we want; they help us to see what we need.  “Oh, God, show me why I hurry.  What am I trying to prove?”  Is the point of our life just to be still standing when the music stops? 

I asked a man who seemed very happy to explain himself to me.  He said,  “I am Open to people, open to God.  I’m not really much at all.”  It sounded like a prayer to me.  I prayed later that day, “let me be open to people and open to God, let me stop trying so hard to be anything more.”  Editing our desires after we have written them down can be a profoundly spiritual experience.

After we have written a short prayer and edited it, we are ready to “pray” it.  We are ready to say it.  Some prayers need constant repetition, like the “Our Father” or the 23rd Psalm.  Others are sui generis; they are from today’s focus and for today.

From attend to choose to write to edit to repeat: that is the process of common people writing common prayers for themselves as a spiritual exercise. It is also the process the great writers of prayers use.  Think of it as the five point guide to writing common prayers for common people.

Some people will say they can’t write.  If so, these people may want to use a book like this one or use other famous prayers.  Consider


This famous prayer, first printed in the 1934 monthly bulletin of the Federal Council of Churches, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, is a profoundly personal prayer. It comes from the heart of a man who has paid attention to his own anxiety and wants serenity, which has faced defeat in trying to change things but still wants to try.  It is used all over the world today by Alcoholics Anonymous and deserves all the use it gets.

Howard Thurman, 1900 - 1981, is deep in a well-deserved revival.  His Christmas prayer has the poetic touch that good editing to genuine experience can allow.


“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins

            To Find the Lost
            To Heal the Broken
            TO feed the Hungry
            To release the prisoner
            To rebuild the nations
            To bring peace among brothers
            TO make music in the heart.

Thurman does not start with paying attention to his experience so much as paying attention to biblical experience.  That is another direction the would be common writer of common prayers could use.  We can take almost any biblical story and write ourselves into it.  I think of the good advice of doing biblical study by being every character in every story.  We are the widows, we are the mites, and we are the Pharisee criticizing the widow.  Locating complementary experience in ordinary life, seeded by biblical stories, would allow us to write a prayer. 

Following our worries around is often a good way to start a prayer.  I, for example, worry about money enough that I need a lot of prayer to surround it. 

“God, release the tight grip I have on the mite of my mortgage.

Teach me to humbly give away both my money and my anxiety.

Let debt be my teacher.  And never let me be proud of all I have gained.”


This prayer chooses “mortgage” as the experience and then lets the verbs of the biblical story animate it.  The widow, the Pharisee and the mite are all present.  They came when I was able to edit the raw anxiety about not being able to pay the mortgage – and in that failure to be thrust back into the poverty of my childhood and the ring of the bill collector’s on the doorbell.

Good prayers scream for “attention” the way the Willie Lohman’s of the world do. In Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller, Willie becomes a modern hero by insisting that the world pay attention. His is a quiet scream that attention be paid to God and to the people at the wall, simultaneously, to see the wall people the way God sees them.  Lohman is actually screaming a prayer.  When we write and journal a prayer, we are giving articulation to the common screams of common people.

Another great writer of prayers is John Vannorsdall, former chaplain of Yale University, now retired.


“Our old persons see few visions; our young people dream few dreams.  The lenders pipe and the borrowers dance to their tune.


O Lord, revive your people.  In this time of grace and learning, create in us a new song, and teach us to walk in new ways.  Let hope be alight in our yes, and justice discipline our wills; let our peace be the work of your hands.  Then shall the time be good and the labor not in vain.  To this end, lead us, and grant us joy along the way.”

It contains the hallmarks of the Vannorsdall prayer, a quiet simplicity, letting small details carry large concepts; a deep thanksgiving, and an even deeper need for and assurance of forgiveness.   Issues of social justice will be framed within the grace filled thanksgiving.  They will not show up as finger waggers so much as yearnings, made capable by grace and forgiveness.   Humility creates the quiet simplicity, aesthetic wisdom and reverence helps the small carry the large, and the relationship between forgiveness, grace, and thanksgiving gives the form to most of the prayers.  The social justice is neither absent nor dominant. Instead it peeks through as possibility once forgiveness receives grace and turns to thanksgiving.   Vannorsdall loves and honors words the way he loves and honors God.  Such respect for the written language shows up in the prayers the way a rainbow shows up in the sky: at first you don’t quite see the shape or the color and when you finally do, awe is yours.

Another famous maker of brief prayers was Malcolm Boyd, whose ARE YOU RUNNING WITH ME JESUS? Is in its fortieth year of publication this year.  He was often read at peace marches in the sixties and appears to have lasted.  “Spare us from ourselves, O God, Speak to us of the evil in our hearts, our good intentions, unbridled and mad.”  His most famous prayer is, “I know it sounds corny, Jesus,  but I’m Lonely.”

Ted Loder is also a much beloved writer of prayers and a master of the short style.

“Holy One, Untamed by the names I give you, in the silence name me, that I may know who I am, hear the truth you have put into me, trust the love you have for me, which you call me to live out with my sisters and brothers in your human family.”  (Guerillas of Grace, Augsburg)

This prayer represents Loder well. It is very intimate and full of a sly praise of God.  It moves from the intimacy to ethical action, a move that is rare in a praise prayer but common to Loder’s very popular work.

Harvey Lord of University Church in Chicago has self-published a full book of prayers. 

One of my favorites is “The Mystery of Entering the Song.” 


“O God, we do not sing well when commanded, we dislike being urged….but, then entering the song, we know both joy and freedom, Singing and empowered by the singing to know our sadness and your suffering, our gladness and your glory, To whom be Praise forever.  Amen."

Lord is a master of irony and confession which leads to praise.  He knew his congregation well and attended to the way they did not like to be commanded and by that attention refocused their attention on what mattered, which is that they could sing.

Not all of us can pray briefly.  But most of us can do better by trying.  The trick is in the editing and in letting go of all that is unnecessary.  Like the great sculptors, our “small” prayers come from taking away all the clay that is of no use.

Editing takes time – and that’s why writing shorter prayers takes a longer time.  Whether on retreat, or just spending a Saturday afternoon filling our spiritual engine with gas, whether a daily discipline of journaling or writing a prayer as we commute or over lunch, writing common prayers is a great thing for common people to do.  It can give us the very conversation with God we so ardently desire.  It can also add the balance of reflection to our frequently hyper-active lives.  By prayer, we become the people we want to be.

The Reverend Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. She is a prolific author and winner of the Hartford Seminary Significant Ministry Award, Garden Golden Globe Writing Award, and Free Speech Award from People for the American Way.

Comments are closed.