So you’re assuming this is the post where I tell you how prayer has been my great lifeline to God, and how I spent eight solid hours praying before receiving some very significant answers about my condition. But I didn’t. Prayer is certainly a lifeline, but I do not feel like it’s something I’m really, really good at. I pray frequently and sincerely, but I’m not to the point where I feel like my prayers are super powerful. Many of my prayers are informal communications in a private moment rather than great, exemplary incantations at the beginning and end of every day. I want very much to be better at it, because I think if I was, it would be a great help to me.
So how can I get better at praying? As with most things, the answer lies in a high school art class I accidentally took for a couple of weeks my senior year (okay, I’m actually just in a goofy mood, but this is a true story). Due to a scheduling error, I found myself in an art elective at the beginning of my senior year. I had two important reasons to consider this an imprudent elective: First, I have no skill in art; Second, I have no interest in acquiring skill in art (note that this still leaves me eminently qualified to practice “Modern Art,” but I have no interest in that either). So you can see that this class was a poor fit for me. I got out as quickly as I could and into a theater class where my obnoxiously-loud voice was actually an asset. But before I could ditch the class, I inevitably, quite by accident, learned something very interesting and profound.
Apparently, the great art schools don’t just grab talented four-year-olds and let them run amok with the water colors. Before aspiring artists are allowed to really “bud” and develop their own styles, they have to learn the boring, tedious technical skills like drawing things that look like what they’re supposed to represent (note that “Modern Art” schools skip this step and go straight for random “creative” splashes of paint on a page). And the best way to acquire those technical skills is to “imitate the masters.” So I spent my short time in art class attempting, with embarrassing results, to re-create a portrait some talented artist had drawn of Tchaikovsky.
I don’t remember anything else from that art class, but that lesson has stuck with me ever since. And this really does relate to prayer. Because if we want to pray better, we can start with patterning our prayers after the masters. The scriptures are rife with examples of faithful prophets and priests offering up beautiful, sincere, heartfelt prayers. Want to see the vision of the tree of life? Look at Nephi’s study and prayer in the first part of 1 Ne. 11. Want to be forgiven of your sins and have a mighty change of heart? Look at Enos’s tremendous, day-long prayer. Want to be a great missionary? Look at the many prayers offered by Alma and the son of Mosiah. You don’t get to dedicate a temple (unless Pres. Monson happens to be reading this, in which case I need to take a moment to go back and make sure I haven’t said anything overtly apostate; also, like Pres. Monson needs me to teach him how to pray) but there is much to learn from Joseph Smith’s dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple in D&C 109. There are tons of prayers all throughout the Old Testament we can check out.
But let’s cut to the chase. If you want to REALLY pray, learn to imitate the Master. Nobody knows better how to address God the Father than does His own Son. We have several prayers offered by Christ, but there are two that I want to talk about.
First, there is the prayer commonly called the Lord’s Prayer in Christendom. This prayer is surprisingly short and simple. It is found in Matthew Ch. 6. I’m going to quote verses 5 to 15:
5 ¶ And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the ahypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.11 Give us this day our daily abread.14 For if ye aforgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:15 But if ye aforgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
The actual prayer is found in verses 9 through 13. I include verses 5 through 8 as a reminder that the Lord was not giving us a rote prayer to recite mindlessly. That’s not how we imitate the Master. He never mindlessly recited rote prayers. He was giving us a template. It’s a very basic template. If Prayer were a college curriculum, this would be the textbook for freshman Prayer 101 (the one that would also fulfill a GE requirement for all other majors).
First (and significantly), we address our Father in Heaven reverently and personally. We are not praying to some cosmic, unknown force. We are praying to God our Father, He who loves us and knows us individually, and we hallow His name. Second, there is a supplication for His Kingdom to come on the Earth (this supplication is notably absent when the Lord teaches the Nephites this same prayer, for then the Atonement had been completed, His Kingdom had come, and at least among the Nephites, it would be established in righteousness for generations yet to come). There is an acknowledgment that our requests are contingent upon His own divine will. We acknowledge His hand in the provision of our daily wants and needs, and in the same breath entreat Him for the same. There is a plea for forgiveness of our sins, and acknowledgment of our need to forgive others. Finally, there is a plea to be delivered from temptation, and we close with a reverent acknowledgment of His supremacy and the well-known “Amen” or “May it be so.”
That’s it. You could recite the whole prayer in under a minute without rushing (and if you do, it’s pretty much worthless). The value in this great sermon is that if we used this as a template for our own prayers, and truly let it enter into our hearts, I think they would be more effective.
Now, I’d like to mention another prayer. If the Lord’s Prayer is Prayer 101, this one is a Doctoral Thesis. In my opinion, it is the greatest prayer we have in all of recorded scripture. I do not say that it is the greatest prayer ever uttered. We know that amongst the Nephites, Jesus prayed things so glorious they could not be written, and I think the prayer in Gethsemane was perhaps the most profound ever to leave a heart, but we have only a very short excerpt therefrom, which is a testament of the Savior’s deep commitment to doing His Father’s will over all else.
But of those prayers for which we have a reasonably complete record, I think the one in John 17, sometimes called the Great Intercessory Prayer, or the Great Apostolic Prayer, is the magnum opus. I will not attempt a comprehensive analysis of that prayer here. First, I’m not competent to give it. I feel as though my own understanding of this Masterwork of communication is still quite immature. But what power would I have in my life if I could pray like that! What enemy could daunt me if, beside pleading for forgiveness, I could report to the Father all those things I have been faithful in? How differently would I plead if I had the faith to receive inspiration for those I am called to lead, to see with inspired foresight the challenges they are to face, and to plead with the Lord to give them unity that they may conquer all the evils that will assail them. Indeed, if there is one overriding theme to that greatest of recorded prayers, it is unity. It is the unity of the Father and the Son, and the prayer that the Apostles may so be one.
Prayer is the great act of worship by which the child joins himself in union with the Father. It is the personally sanctifying experience of stepping, sometimes tenuously, into the Lord’s presence, and pleading with Him to make you worthy to be there. In the very name we invoke in our prayers—that of Jesus Christ, the Son of God—we at once acknowledge our unworthiness to enter God’s presence and beg that through the Grace of the Only Begotten we may be suffered to enter nevertheless.
I have been employed in a capacity where I have dealt with devices that harness the most powerful source of energy known to man—that of the split atom. I have seen sterile calculations of the astounding quantities of energy that are released when those bonds are broken. But I testify that it pales in comparison to the power that is poured out when a true bond is forged between Father and child; when we bind ourselves to God and receive the promise that He will operate for our good.