Any time we repeat an activity frequently, we face two possibilities: stagnation or growth. Two students may each study the piano for the same number of years, but while one just “thumps it through,” filling his prescribed practice time with thoughtless repetitions, the other becomes a much better pianist because he carefully and attentively seeks to make each playing of a piece or exercise much better than the last.
In the same way, prayer can be simply the repeated, automatic meeting of an obligation, without thought or concentration, or it can be an experience that becomes richer, more intense, and more meaningful each time a devoted daughter or son offers thoughts and thanks to her or his Father in heaven.
One excellent time to communicate with God is on the Sabbath. The great potential inherent in the Sabbath as a day of prayer is often ignored. The Sabbath comes and is gone before we know it; the day seems to shatter into a thousand fragments as family members go their various ways; distractions arise that interfere with family prayers; and family members old enough to pray from their own minds and hearts take refuge in cliches that often do not reflect sincerity and deep thought. A person or a family may pray regularly, may utter or participate in a dozen or more prayers on the Sabbath, and yet stay for months or years on a “prayer plateau,” where words and expressions remain the same, communication with our Heavenly Father does not seem to become more inspiring or meaningful, and moments that should be sacred are in fact just ordinary and mechanical.
The Sabbath day is the time for each individual and each family to examine their own growth in becoming “mighty in prayer,” to give some fresh thought to the meaning of prayer and the patterns of their own prayers, and, if necessary, to break away from stagnant patterns in order to begin a new growth toward powerful, effective prayer.
I believe there are several ways we can get rid of tired and static prayer habits and replace them with the dynamic kind of prayer through which “all things … are changed and made infinitely more beautiful.” (Stephen and Sandra Covey, Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 65.)
1. Make prayer itself the subject of prayer. As one of my BYU religion teachers expressed it, “One of the best things to pray for is to know what to pray for.” Too often we kneel down and let our prayers be guided by selfish desires, whimsical probabilities, and uncertain hopes. What a contrast this kind of prayer is with the beautiful experience recorded in Third Nephi! During the Savior’s visit to the American continent, the Nephite people began to sense the power and joy of sincere prayer, and they were inspired to pray according to the will of the Lord: “It was given unto them what they should pray.” (3 Ne. 19:24.)
When we ask the Lord in prayer to help us communicate with him, we are seeking his help at the same time that we are practicing this skill ourselves. Our own efforts are proof of our sincerity.
2. Allow sufficient time for personal and family prayers. Often some sort of cut-off point or sense of hurry makes our prayers anxious, rushed, and uncomfortable: a family member is afraid of being late to school or work, the meal is growing cold, a neighborhood ball game has been interrupted, or someone is just too sleepy. Though a brief prayer can be a significant and sincere one, it is important to have a regular “open-ended” prayer time, when no upcoming deadline or pressure needs to terminate the prayer. The Sabbath day, though it has its own schedule of activities, at least releases us from many of our usual commitments and gives us an opportunity to set aside more time for prayer.
Although we read in the scriptures of many who prayed for an extended period of time—Enos, for example, prayed “all the day long” and into the night (Enos 1:4)—many of us seem to be unable to pray for more than a few minutes. One religion teacher suggested to his class that they spend at least fifteen minutes a day in personal prayer. That seemed to many class members unreasonably long! One student came up to him later and said, “I just don’t believe I can think of that much to say.”
The teacher asked, “Don’t you spend at least that much time every day talking to your roommate?”
“Of course,” the young woman replied.
“Then give some thought,” said the teacher, “as to why it is you have more to talk over with your roommate than you do with the Lord.”
3. Avoid cliches and formulas that have no meaning. The Sabbath is a day to think anew, to examine routines that have lost their meaning, and to break away from habits that are letting us just be rather than helping us to become. Not all repeated phrases in prayers are “vain repetitions,” of course; undoubtedly Enos, in his long prayer, asked many times for forgiveness of his sins, and undoubtedly Alma the Elder prayed many times for his son’s heart to be touched by repentance. But sometimes we comply with our “prayer obligations” by reciting phrases that are so trite and repetitious that they do not really represent our feelings and thoughts. These phrases are “prepackaged” for convenience; they do not really reflect the problems or blessings of a particular day or moment, and they certainly do not reflect profound spiritual progress. When we begin to really think and feel in prayer we will begin to really feel the joy that can come through communicating with our Father in heaven.
4. Give special thought to the subject of Sabbath-day family prayers. For example, if younger children have a short attention span that allows only a brief family prayer, older members may wish to gather again at the close of the Sabbath day for a longer prayer after the children are in bed.
A friend of mine told me of an idea she learned at a camp as a teenager. A half hour each morning was “meditation time,” when each girl found a private place among the trees to think and pray. The understanding was that no one was to be disturbed. Today, she encourages a similar tradition in her family, and each member cooperates to provide time and opportunity for the others to pray. She said, “I think my little children are learning something very valuable when they hear their father say, ‘Mother isn’t with us in the living room right now because she is praying. In a few minutes she will be here and it will be my turn to go to the bedroom and pray.’ I hope that as my children grow we can continue to make individual prayers a ‘cooperative effort’ and that my children will feel perfectly comfortable about asking for privacy when they wish to pray.”
If the family is fasting, family prayers are an effective way of opening the fast—of dedicating the fast for a particular purpose and asking for the Spirit of the Lord—and of bringing the fast to a close. Young children are sometimes more willing to fast if they understand a particular purpose or focus for the fast, and a family prayer can help them realize and respond to this purpose.
It may also be helpful to have a regular time for prayer. As one sister told me:
“There was a time when I would have looked upon a ‘set-time family prayer’ as a deadening routine, as a form that had no meaning. But now that I am the mother of a large family, I feel otherwise. I believe that one of my family’s most important spiritual weapons is a schedule for prayer; our set times for morning and evening prayers (and it’s actually the chiming of the clock that is our signal to gather) spotlight spiritual moments that we know will occur no matter what distractions or worries the day may hold. We avoid any feel of ritual in our prayers: we simply know the prayers will be held, we know when and where, and those prayers are a bulwark as we pray with the Spirit. My heart soars as I see my family gather to pray.
“Recently we have made Sabbath prayer-time a family devotional time as well. For this purpose we keep old manuals from Church organizations. Our children love to use them to prepare the devotional messages. That devotional time has become a very special time that effectively complements the other activities of the day.”
5. Participate meaningfully in congregational prayers. The Sabbath is a day of many “group” prayers. Parents can let their children know, by their attentiveness and their “amen”—even perhaps by some comment after the meeting showing appreciation for the prayer—that they sincerely listen to and participate in the prayers offered on behalf of the group.
If we are asked to voice the prayer our responsibility is even greater. It is perhaps not uncommon for those so assigned to pray silently beforehand, asking help to be sensitive to the needs of the congregation. One member has said, “I always appreciate it if I can sit in front of the congregation before I give a prayer on their behalf. I look over their faces and try to get a sense of what their needs are and what blessings they are most grateful for. I ask the Lord to help me be in tune with the prayers that are in their hearts.”
6. Establish a Sabbath-day atmosphere that invites prayer. If we are not keeping the Sabbath day holy, if we are attending our meetings and performing our duties with an unwilling spirit, it is often difficult to kneel and establish communication with our Father in heaven. The Sabbath is an ideal time for formal, kneeling prayers; it is also an ideal time to maintain a constant spirit of prayer, no matter what we are doing, so that on this day everything conducive to satisfying and meaningful prayer can come together.
The Sabbath is a day for doing things that bring us deep joy. It is our opportunity to turn from doing our own pleasures and “call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord.” (Isa. 58:13.) Each Sabbath-day activity takes on a new and rich meaning if we make the activity a matter of prayer. Visits to the sick and lonely, for example, are an opportunity for prayers for their health and comfort. As we write letters to absent family members, we can pray for their safety and well-being. As we prepare for meetings, we can pray for the Spirit of the Lord to accompany us, to help both children and adults be reverent and attentive. As we attend to Church callings, we can ask the Spirit of the Lord to help us in our stewardship.
Since the Lord wants us to focus our Sabbath thoughts and actions on him, it is only appropriate that we ask him to guide and bless these activities. In the words of Nephi, “Ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.” (2 Ne. 32:9.) Prayer is an essential part of the refreshment and joy of the Sabbath.