In prayer, you can practice remembering God in one of two ways. You can practice by remembering what you were saying or you can practice by remembering to listen. The first way is important, the second way is imperative.
In the first case, you might try asking God for help with specific problems you have. This is good. Or, better, you might try asking God to help you help someone else with a specific problem. Or, also excellent, you might try expressing gratitude. For the most part, the more specific you can be and the less your prayers are about you, the better they’ll be. Prayer deepens as it moves from self-concern to service to gratitude.
But talking is just half a prayer. As a rule of thumb, take however much time you spend talking and then devote at least as much to listening. Listening, though, is harder. Without the thread of a particular concern to guide you, you’ll be especially prone to forget. To keep your attention steady, you might go for a walk and, to calm your mind, pay attention to the feel of each footstep. Or you might stay still and pay attention to your breath. In this case, be still and breathe naturally. Feel your lungs slowly expand and contract. Notice how the air is cold when you draw it in through your nose but warm when your body presses it back out. Let everything settle. Then, against the backdrop of this stillness, note what feelings you have and what impressions come. Don’t get carried away by these thoughts or feelings, but sit with them. When you’re done, try to act directly on your impressions and try to carry your prayerful stillness into the rest of your day.
In all of this, try to pray like Jesus. In his final hours, Jesus modeled two kinds of prayer. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus withdrew from his disciples. Alone, he “fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). In all our prayers we must, in the end, do as Jesus does here. We may express our will to God but then, in silence, we must submit that will to his. Our willingness to wait on the Lord in silence and listen for his voice is what proves the truth of our continual confession: not as I will, but as thou wilt. Not my story but thine. On Luke’s account, after Jesus offered this prayer, “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43). You will find strength in prayer as you submit your will to God’s and as your willingness to listen makes God’s voice audible.
This first prayer, though difficult, is encouraging. The second is more harrowing. The next day, nailed to the cross and mocked by scribes and thieves, darkness shrouded the earth. In this darkness, “about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This, too, is a prayer. It is a prayer that arises from an unbroken willingness to wait on the Lord in silence. Sometimes when you pray and wait in silence, a messenger will come, you’ll hear the voice of the Lord, and you’ll be empowered to do as God directs. But sometimes when you pray and wait in silence, there will only be silence and you will wonder where God has gone. When this happens, you’ll have to make a choice. You’ll have to decide whether to get up and leave the room or whether to continue in silence. If you choose the first, then you’ll return to the bustle of the world. But if you persist in the second, you may discover something more powerful and primal than the voice of the Lord. You may discover that God’s silence is not itself a rebuke but an invitation. The heavens aren’t empty, they’re quiet. And God, rather than turning you away, may be inviting you to share this silence with him. This is part of what atonement looks like: sitting in shared silence with God.
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Letters to a Young Mormon is composed as a series of letters. The letters are meant for a young Mormon who is familiar with Mormon life but green in his or her faith. The author and philosophy professor Adam S. Miller imagined himself writing these letters to his own children. In doing so, he struggled to say his own piece about what it means to be—as a Mormon—free, ambitious, repentant, faithful, informed, prayerful, selfless, hungry, chaste, and sealed.