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Mar 24, 2022 706 Heidi Hess Saxton, USA

How to Pray (When You Don’t Know How to Pray)

Struggling to pray when you don’t know how to pray? Read on and you will surely find the key to God’s heart!

Saint Therese of Lisieux once explained that prayer is a “surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward Heaven, it is a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.”

Nestled in My Heart

It wasn’t until my husband and I became foster parents that I experienced that “heart surge” in a whole new way, feeling helpless at the prospect of meeting the needs of three frightened, traumatized, and helpless human beings, and feeling woefully under-qualified. They were cute children—a girl, age 4, her brother, age 2-1/2, and their infant sister, just 6 months old.

As we made it through those first few sleepless weeks, we established a pattern that gradually made it possible for me to resume my theology studies, and a couple of times a week, I would slip into the chapel and revel in the quiet. And yet, my mind was in a whirl. By that time it was clear to me that I was in over my head with these three children, each of whom was struggling to adjust to life with us after being taken from their first parents and older brother. And yet I also knew that if I was unable to care for all three of them, it was unlikely that I’d be able to keep any of them—including that beautiful, little, brown-eyed baby girl who had nestled her way into my heart.

Late at night, I would sit in the rocker, snuggle with one of the children and ask God what He wanted from me. By the time we’d had them nearly a year, it was still unclear whether we would be able to adopt them, or they would return to their birth parents. (While reunification is the primary goal of foster care, a significant number of these children never return home.) And so, I looked for the key to God’s heart—on how to pray. It came in the form of a prayer one of my seminary professors had given me by Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Called the “Prayer of Abandonment,” I was sure God had given me a lifeline in that particular prayer which contained the following lines which I repeated over and over.

Whatever You may do, I thank You;

I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only Your will be done in me,

And in all Your creatures,

I wish no more than this, O Lord.

I found that this posture of abandonment can be a powerful intercessory tool on how to pray when you don’t know how to pray—essentially the key to God’s heart. When we profess our desire to do what God wants—and acknowledge our difficulties in discerning what that will might be—God will guide us each step of the way. This is not a passive “digging in” or spiritual stalemate, but a childlike trust in Jesus who, in the words of one great old hymn, “doeth all things well.”

I have found this to be especially true when it comes to Mary, the spiritual mother of all believers. As a new Catholic, I was reluctant to cultivate my own relationship with Mary because I had always prayed directly to God. But when I was still single, shortly after being confirmed Catholic, a friend gave me a Miraculous Medal and encouraged me to “tell Mary about it” whenever I felt lonely. I had recently relocated and soon found my prayers for companionship answered in an unexpected way. Three weeks in a row, I asked Mary to send someone to sit with me at Mass and three weeks in a row a different stranger stopped by my pew. From that time on, I came to regard Mary as someone who understands my human needs and weaknesses, and who prays for me when I do not have the words to offer God on my own.

Three Prayers when you don’t know how to pray

As my children have grown (we were able to adopt the younger two, while their older sister was adopted by another family) and launched themselves into young adulthood, the kinds of prayers I pray for them have changed… but at times I still feel stumped about how to pray for a particular situation. When that happens, there are three prayers that can turn the key to God’s heart. They help me clear my mind, and invite the Holy Spirit into my heart in a fresh new way:

Lord, thank you

Even on the worst days, God is so generous with us. Acknowledging His generosity and protection—for ourselves and our families—helps us rise above the mundane and the petty and helps us listen to what He wants to tell us. Opening the Psalms and praying along with the Psalmist helps me name the things that are pressing on my heart.

Lord, forgive me

Even on the best days, there are moments when I do not conduct myself with as much grace as a situation requires. Acknowledging our shortcomings makes it easier to forgive others who annoy or hurt us. A friend wisely prays a “Nine Annoying Things Novena” to turn her daily annoyances into opportunities for greater faith.

Lord, help me

It is said that “God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called.” When God asks us to stretch our faith (or our parenting skills) in new ways, He always grants the wisdom we need to do the job well–if we ask for it. We might be tempted to run ahead and handle it on our own, but if we entrust each task to God, He will show us how to handle them with love.


Heidi Hess Saxton

Heidi Hess Saxton is author of several books including "The Ave Prayer Book for Catholic Mothers" (available October 2021 through Ave Maria Press). A free downloadable called “A 40 Day Marriage Adventure,” a prayer exercise based on the Prayer of Abandonment, is available on her website “A Life on the Road Less Traveled” (

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