I was born and raised in the Church, but I have the lifelong habit of sucking at praying. I forget to do it before I eat. My mind wanders when I pray in the morning, and I fall asleep while praying at night. I forget to pray for friends and family that need to be prayed for, and when I do say a prayer, it's often more out of a guilty feeling that I should be praying rather than a sincere desire to do so.
Overall, my experiences with prayer have been like trying to Skype with someone over a spotty Wi-Fi connection. Sometimes the words are clear and we can communicate just fine, but other times I'm wondering if what I said went through while awkwardly waiting for the person on the other end to reply to something he or she may or may not have heard me say.
Then last month I decided that I would focus for as long as necessary on improving the quality of my prayers. I have had occasional good experiences with prayer in the past, and I wanted to have those kinds of experiences on a more regular basis. I read a bunch of conference talks about prayer. I left notes around my apartment that reminded me to pray. When I did pray, I made the point of staying on my knees until I felt like I had delivered a good, heartfelt, meaningful prayer, and not to rise up prematurely due to frustration or fatigue.
Doing those things helped, but I knew there was more that I could and should do. As I analyzed my praying habits, I realized that the root problem was that I was too comfortable. I'm not talking about physically comfortable, but lexically comfortable. The language of my prayers had become too routine.
As I said earlier, I'm a lifelong member of the Church, and I've heard and given thousands of prayers in my life. The language I have traditionally used while praying is robotic and goes something like this:
"Dear Heavenly Father, I thank thee for all of my many blessings. I'm grateful for thy son, Jesus Christ, and for the atonement. Help me to have thy Spirit with me. I say these things in the name of thy son, Jesus Christ, amen."
I said more or less those same words in every single prayer, and no thought went into them. They were just a reflex caused by the stimulus of closing my eyes, bowing my head, and going into prayer mode. They were vain repetition, not offered up hypocritically or maliciously, but offered up all the same. I decided that I needed to start changing up the words I used so that I would have to actually think about what I was saying.
Thee, thy, and thine have always felt foreign and impersonal to me, so I decided to just use you. Instead of saying Dear Heavenly Father, I just said Father. I tried to make my prayers as informal and personal as possible. We always say that prayer is a conversation with God, so I started talking more as I would with a friend. I made conscious efforts to avoid using pre-packaged prayer phrases like "Bless this food that it will nourish and strengthen my body" and any other word or phrase that could be too effortlessly copied from my internal prayer clipboard and pasted into my conversations with deity.
On top of that, I found that the traditional posture of kneeling down put my mind into traditional (i.e., robotic) prayer mode. Instead, I opted to pace around my apartment while praying. This keeps me alert and focused.
The results of these changes were instantaneous. I was able to pray longer and about more things. I felt the Spirit more while I prayed and, consequently, more in my life as a whole. I immediately felt closer to my Heavenly Father.
Is there still room for improvement? Certainly. Should I be using thee and thy and other forms of address that we have been told indicate respect and reverence? Yeah, probably. But for the first time in a long time, I feel that my prayers actually mean something. And as Elder Oaks has said, "If [Heavenly Father] is offended in connection with prayers, it is likely to be by their absence, not their phraseology."
PGH is a late twenty-something who grew up in the Church and served a mission in Eastern Europe. He blogs about Mormon stuff at Mormono. He can't stand seafood.
Image credit: Leland Francisco (used with permission).