This could be subtitled, or, what’s wrong with a lot of prayers out there, but I’ll be nice and just leave the title as it is.
I’ve come up with about six(ish) things that I believe are essential for writing prayers. Knowing me, I could come up with a lot more if given more time and attention to the matter, but I think it’s good to start somewhere.
So let’s start here.
First, and foremost, determine who it is you are praying to.
If talking directly to God, the Father, feels intimidating to you, then go for an intermediary. Roman Catholics do it all the time. The range of lifestyles of those considered saints is vast. They go from tender flowers of sweetness, like Bernadette Soubirous, to warrior hearts like Bernard of Clairvaux, who passionately supported the crusades.
If you’re looking for a saint to use for your prayer, you can always go online and type into your search engine, prayer for (fill in the blank), and see who comes up. Keep your eyes peeled and read closely, because in all the gibberish there might be just the person you are praying to find in there.
It’s very important to have someone to pray to. Imagine writing a letter to no one in particular and posting it without an address and just assuming that it will get to where you want it to go. And it’s just as important to name who it is you want to address at the get go. (You’ll find out why in a moment.)
If shame is one of your burdens, and you are having trouble even admitting to what it is you want to pray for, then it is the Sacred Heart of Jesus that you seek. Amazingly, Jesus (and Mary, actually) as intermediaries (although Jesus stands on his own most of the time as one to whom we can petition directly) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes for the purpose of prayer. A Jesus (or Mary) for almost any occasion (or impending disaster, or what have you).
But for deep, private conversations and petitions, where understanding of the pain you are in is key and your vulnerability is on the line, then go directly to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There are already a bunch of prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus out there, so adding your own to the list may be just the relief you are looking for.
Second half of the first part, elaborate why you are praying to whom you are praying.
It’s important that before you get going that you clarify both to the one you are petitioning and to yourself the qualities of the petitionee (as it were) that attracts you to him. Or her. Or to God, the Father. It could be their strength. Or their weakness. The demonstration of their faith. Or their blinding doubt. (For instance, Mother Teresa writes to her spiritual director about how hated by God she feels. Hated! Can you imagine?)
Second (real second this time), begin your prayer with praise.
Acknowledge whomever it is that you are petitioning. Sing, literally, their praises. This is the time for elaboration. Go on and on as much as you like.
But don’t make things up. Base your praise on what you know about him. Or her. Or God, the Father, about whom, let’s face it, you can say anything good you want to.
Third, define your intention or petition as narrowly as possible.
Do not ask for the world. Do not ask that peace come to the world as a condition for your prayer to be answered. (I’ve actually seen that in a prayer.) Do not concern yourself with anything outside your own little, narrow want or need.
Fourth, state your request or intention as clearly and succinctly as possible.
Find the strongest words that you can to describe your petition. Tell the most brutal truth that you can. It’s your prayer. No one else ever has to see it, let alone know about it, unless this is something that you bring up in confession or discuss with your spiritual director.
The more concise your request, the more powerful your prayer. Imagine yourself standing in a complaints line at a major department store. Think of how annoying it would be to the clerk trying to serve you, and everyone else in line, if you were to go into minute detail about the problem you are having.
The tire’s broke, I need a new one.
There. Doesn’t that feel good?
Fifth, (almost) end with thanksgiving.
Never, ever, ever forget to say, thank you. This, again, is a time for elaboration. Thank your heart out.
And even if it hurts to even make this prayer, a simple thank you will do very nicely.
Sixth, say Amen.
And put some punctuation into it. A period at the very least. Amen is a very meaningful — meaning-full — word. So go for it. If it strikes you as right, then use an exclamation mark!
Because Amen means, so be it! Let’s go for it! Let’s get this thing done.