Why there is no perfect way to pray

By Moira Billinge

Listening to the prayers of children is a joy and a privilege; they don't usually have a problem with praying in their own words and having a real sense of the presence of whoever it is to whom they are praying.

During her night prayers, as she listened anxiously to the relentless rain which had caused havoc across the country, the little eight-year-old said to her guardian angel: "Please ask Jesus to stop all the rain we are having. We don't need it but other countries – like Africa – do, so let them have some of it for a change." Stupidly, I interjected and suggested she might ask Jesus Himself for that intention, to which she, with good reason, responded: "Shhhhhh! I'm talking to my guardian angel!"

Another time she asked Jesus to "look after all the old people". When her daddy praised her considerate request, she replied, "Well, I had to think of something to say to Him!" Clearly there are times, even for a child, when prayer doesn't seem to flow as easily.

Praying with children opens up the opportunity for discussion, but the questions can be very challenging. Last year she asked her daddy who was the greater, Jesus or Mary. He told her that Jesus, being God made man, was the greater. "No, Daddy, I don't think so," she replied. "Mary had Jesus, so Mary is greater." The same little girl mixed up the words of the Hail Mary as she prayed: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with me." Even when children get the traditional prayers wrong, they are beautifully right.

Life can be hectic and sometimes we find it more testing to relax than to carry on working. There is a temptation to keep 'clearing the decks' and get one more job out of the way. Rather than modern technology working for us, we are actually letting it work us. With so many distractions it is easy to sideline God and just keep him as a reserve – like a football player on the bench – for when there's a problem. Jesus Himself knew that praying could be difficult, which was why He responded to the request of one apostle to "teach us how to pray" by giving us the Our Father. In doing so, He simplified things by removing our unnecessary anxieties about the words we think we should be using when praying.

All prayer is powerful, no matter how brief. Our late parish priest used to visit a housebound doctor whose favourite way of praying was simply to choose a hymn and reflect on it during the day. One in particular meant a great deal to him, O Bread of Heaven – and in particular the opening lines: "O Bread of Heaven, beneath this veil/Thou dost my very God conceal." He would always recite it before Holy Communion and would say, "I cannot pray such words and at the same time fear death." His trust meant that, in the meantime, though so sick, he truly lived.

We don't need to go through spiritual acrobatics to pray. It is a truth that Cardinal Hume highlighted so perfectly in his book To Be A Pilgrim when he wrote: "When we want to pray but find we can't – we feel too ill or we are bereaved or just too exhausted – the desire alone is perfect prayer."