Help Students Pray What They Believe and Live What They Pray

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On Moving Beyond Recitation of Prayers


You have a choice: class prayer can be quick and forgettable, or it can be heartfelt and memorable. Sometimes prayer is thrown together at the last minute by religious educators or prayed quickly at the beginning or the end of class. Instead, what if prayer was integrated into class as a vital way of teaching not just the head but also the heart?

We Catholics have a Latin saying about prayer and belief: lex orandi, lex credendi. It means that the law of praying is the law of believing. In other words, when we pray, we live out what we believe. We say what we think.

All too often, though, prayer is something mindless — and therefore heartless as well. Students are not given the opportunity to meditate deeply on the words that they pray.

Here are few ways to shock your students out of mindless recitation and into meditation on the prayers that you pray together. I will use the Lord’s Prayer to illustrate each idea, but these approaches can be applied to any prayers.

Clarify Vocabulary with Context

You might be surprised by how many words your students pray that they don’t actually understand: “Who art” … “hallowed” … “thy will” … “trespasses” … “temptation” … “deliver” — the Lord’s Prayer is filled with words that have layered meanings. How can we expect our students to know what they say when they don’t know the meaning of the words?

Spend a little class time especially early in the year clarifying what each term means. Then constantly remind students to recall the definitions and the context in which each word is being used within the prayer.

Turn Prayers into Questions

Invite the students to reflect on each line of the prayer by turning the lines into questions. Give them some time to journal about one or more of these questions before you pray. For example:

■■ Do I think of God as our Father?

■■ Do I keep God’s name hallowed?

■■ What trespasses do I need God to forgive today?

Share your Story

A good way to make prayer experiences meaningful is hearing how others find meaning in them too. Share your stories about the prayers. Be Christ’s witness and be open about how you are trying to live out what you pray together.

When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, tell your students a story about your realization that God is your Father. Share a moment in your life when you needed to let God’s will be done rather than your own. Or tell them why it is so hard to forgive others for their trespasses and offer something personal about a time when you struggled to forgive.

These stories help students see that prayer is more than just something we say; it is something we live. Do not be afraid to be personal about your prayer life. It will help your students to make prayer personal too. 

Contemplate: Commit to Conversion

Make prayer an experience of shedding our pride and becoming more like Christ. As we contemplate Christ during prayer, we make the commitment to conversion. We see how Christ is calling us to be more like him.

In the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, we are given a penance to carry out after receiving absolution. All too often this penance might be thought of as an isolated act — something we do to make up for the wrong we have done. Yet St. John Paul II defined penance as “a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to the Christian’s whole life” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 4).

Instead of calling it a “penance,” think of ways to give students a “homework assignment” connected to your prayer. What deed or holy action can they do to show how their hearts have been moved by the prayer?

After praying the Lord’s Prayer, challenge the students to forgive someone who did something mean to them. Challenge them to correct someone when they use the Lord’s name in vain, not keeping it hallowed. Challenge them to remove from their lives whatever it is that leads them into temptation.

Start with You

Finally, spend some time meditating on the prayers yourself. The more you can make praying each prayer something meaningful and life-changing, the more it will be that way for the students in your class. Pray with your whole mind, heart, and strength to unite yourself with the Lord.


JARED DEES is the creator of and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator.


This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, February 2018.

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