Dwight Hilpman prays daily. Over the years, he’s gotten better at it. “I’ve learned a lot of patience,” Hilpman says. “They say if you get 10,000 hours in of anything, you’ve mastered it. I don’t know where I’m at on that, but I must be getting pretty close.”
Prayer is important to Hilpman, a member of Plymouth Congregational Church, so he does it every day. But according to John Hart, author of “Secrets to Meaningful Prayer,” not all religious followers are as devout — and it’s not because they don’t have the desire.
“Most Christians I’ve met know that they should pray. They know, academically, why prayer is important,” Hart says. “But when it comes right down to it, they don’t know what real, intimate prayer looks like, or how to incorporate it into their lives.”
For most Christians, seeking God through prayer is natural. On the other hand, an enriching prayer life that goes beyond traditional worship conducted at meal and bedtimes can be a bit harder to achieve. But not for Hilpman, who was happy to talk about his approach toward one of life’s most personal acts. Looking at prayer from another point of view, Hilpman uses prayer to launch a dialogue between two parts of himself, the reality and the ideal. He tries to fetch guidance from the ideal, what he might imagine God to be like.
“I don’t want my prayer life to express my needs,” Hilpman says. “I want my prayer life to express my potential. By being faithful to my prayer life, I arouse in myself qualities that are more perfect.”
This sort of worship is called contemplative prayer. And it’s different from intercessory prayer, which is basically asking God for things.
“Lot of folks use God like a vending machine,” Hart says. “They wait ‘til they need something, then try to push his buttons.”
Refrain from asking
Hart challenges people who want to enhance their spiritual life to stop asking for stuff for at least a week. From touring and talking to people about prayer, Hart has found that most people asked to stop going to God with a laundry list of things to fix or give run out of things to pray about. The truth is, Hart says, most people use prayer primarily as a venue for requests: Please bless this food; please give us good weather; please watch over the children.
“God is not Santa Claus,” Hart says. “He’s not watching to see if you’ve been naughty or nice, and then rewarding you based on his conclusions."
Embed prayer into your schedule.
One way to get away from intercessory prayer, just asking for things, is to devote a chunk of your day sitting and relaxing, trying to access your spiritual side.
"It’s not a bad idea to have a set pattern, a time every day to pray, so you can establish a habit,” Hart says.
Josh Longbottom, associate pastor to Plymouth Congregational Church, sets aside his mornings for prayer. Longbottom believes giving a piece of the day to prayer is a great way to approach spiritual life. He advises people to infuse prayer into morning rituals.
“If you do it first, you’re more likely to do it, rather than adding it at the end of the day,” Longbottom says.
Create a special prayer place
Another way to enhance intimacy with God is to establish a secret or special location to pray: a bedroom, an office, a chapel, a car.
“The idea is to have a place where you can consistently go and be relatively sure you won’t be interrupted or distracted,” Hart says.
Longbottom has a special spot by the river he likes to pray. He sits down, breathes deeply and invites the spirit to join him. He’ll say aloud the things on his mind, the things that worry him, until his thoughts run clear — as clear as the water rushing around him. Sometimes the act can be enlightening, sometimes mundane. No matter what, though, all of Longbottom’s prayers lead him to the same question: Did you act out of ego or grace?
“For me, prayer is looking inside to see how I can be a better person — not waiting for God to talk,” says Longbottom. “Prayer is looking inside to see what the sacred is, and arranging your life so there’s more sacred in it."