Five second prayer

November 7, 2008 | 27 comments

Getting into a prayer habit after a life of atheism is no easy thing.

Up until my late twenties, I’d never said a single prayer in my life. I tried to follow advice like, “Start by committing to only five minutes of prayer per day!” but I actually managed to fail at that. Maybe it’s that it was a brand new habit or that I have some strong ADD tendencies, but my efforts at five minutes of prayer tended to go something like this:

Is this thing on? No, kidding. Hi, Lord, it’s me. I guess you knew that though. Anyway, I am grateful for all the good things in my life today, and sorry for the things I did wrong. (What can I say, I just don’t know where those f-bombs came from. At least it wasn’t in front of the kids.) Anyway, I ask you to strengthen my faith, and to help me be a better person…

72 seconds later:

…and when they say “dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all” in Sweetest Girl, I wonder if that would be considered sampling WuTang. Let’s think here about what technically constitutes sampling: to use a portion of a recorded song. So since they did not actually play anything originally recorded in C.R.E.A.M., it would probably be more accurate to say that Wyclef Jean was “drawing upon the wisdom” of Wu rather than “sampling” Wu. That reminds me of Busta Rhymes lifting Dangerous from a public service announcement. You cannot tell me that was an accident…

That is about a direct transcript of my first attempts at prayer. Trying to read the Bible for five minutes didn’t go much better. I’d end up getting hung up on some technicality, getting lost in the footnotes and wandering over to the computer after about 45 seconds to Google questions about some verse.

What I found was that going from a lifetime of zero seconds of prayer per day to a full 300 seconds of prayer was just too much. As silly as it sounds, what ended up working for me was to just start with not five minutes of prayer, but five seconds. I committed to do one extremely simple thing each day: I’d just kneel down at the side of my bed before I went to sleep, cross myself, and say hi to God before going to bed. That’s it. My prayers were usually something like:

Lord, thank you for everything, and I’m sorry for all those little sins I committed today. Strengthen my faith, show me how to do better and, most of all, please show me how to pray more. Amen.

Saying these short little prayers is one of the best things I ever did.

As simple as it was, it gave me a surprising sense of accomplishment to actually hit the prayer goal I set for myself, and it gave me at least some time focused completely on God (as opposed to zero time, which was starting to happen when I’d get frustrated and give up on my five minute prayer goals). Also, God answered my prayer in a big way. It didn’t happen immediately, but after a few months prayer began to get easier and easier, and I began to “get” it more. Then I was led to the Liturgy of the Hours and ended up regularly praying three times a day for a total of about 30 minutes, and having it not only not be a chore but be something that actually made my life easier. I think that discovering the riches of the Liturgy of the Hours all started with saying those little five second prayers.

As I’ve mentioned, this spiritual dry spell has made prayer less fun and interesting than it used to be, and I find myself skipping prayer times more often than I’d like to. During those weeks when it feels like everything is spiraling out of control and it’s just impossible to pray as much as I’d planned, I need to remember that there is still value in even five second prayers. On those days when even praying one Office is a goal that I just can’t seem to hit, I can always kneel down next to my bed and just say goodnight to God. As I’ve found, even five seconds out of your day focused solely on the Lord is exponentially better than none at all.


  1. mrsdarwin

    When I was a teenager, Busta Rhymes’ big hit was “Wooha, I got you all in check!” It played on MTV (at my friends’ houses), and though I never spent much time analyzing it, I could have sworn the video had a chess theme. Imagine my disappointment these years later to discover, thanks to the magic of Youtube, that there was nary a chess piece to be seen.

  2. Jennifer F.

    Mrs D. – I just had to watch the video after reading your comment. What? Busta and ODB weren’t chess players?

    Also, why were they driving a Toyota? A Toyota? I’m impressed with his frugality, but you’d really expect a Bentley or something. Maybe he was in a frugal phase.

  3. autumnesf

    Don’t forget that a 5 second conversation with God while your hands are in the dishwater…or while you are folding clothes is still PRAYER.

    You are in the season of raising little ones so your prayer life might not look like someone who is in a different season.

  4. Flexo

    my efforts at five minutes of prayer tended to go something like this . . .

    Hence one reason why various standardized prayers are used more or less often (by Catholics anyway).

    But such an inability to go extemporaneously for five minutes is not all that surprising. Instead of talking to God, try giving a five-minute monologue to your husband or kids. Not so easy. It is one thing to have a back-and-forth discussion, it is another thing when you are the only one speaking (or so it usually seems).

    But just like we don’t spend all our time blabbing to our spouses or kids, it is not necessary for prayer with God to always consist of vocal or mental use of words. Often times with a spouse — indeed, most times — you do a great deal of communicating simply being there in the same room and not talking or even doing anything together.

    The mere simple act of being together communicates a great deal on a transcendent, spiritual level. Same thing with God. Prayer does not have to be, “Well Lord, blah, blah, blah, blah . . .” Some of the best prayer is simply adopting the attitude of having God with you whatever else you might be doing, even if you are not directly thinking of Him. Simply hold hands with Him, as you might your sweety, while you go about your daily routine. Simply carry Him within you, as you might carry the child in your womb, as you do this or that. All of this is prayer because it is maintaining a presence and communication with Him, albeit without explicit words or thoughts. It is prayer as a matter of being.

  5. I. Childers

    I really needed to read this today. I have been going through a dry spell and I notice that I just go to sleep without kneeling or making any mental notes to God. I will try that 5 second tip and see how it goes. Thanks 🙂

  6. Isle Dance

    So important, indeed. I tend to repeat my childhood prayer and then add to that. It always does the trick. I just have to do it…

  7. Anonymous

    I have to comment on this! Once when I couldn’t pray I put a baby Jesus in my pocket (like from a Nativity set) and would just hold it in my hand for a moment at times during the day. Also, when I’m really upset with some person and know I should pray but can’t, I try to remember them at the Consecration at Mass. Just for a moment, because I can’t get mad then. After a while I won’t be so mad and I will be able to remember that Jesus loves them really passionately, even when I don’t.

    Jane M

  8. Maggie

    Great post, Jen. I linked to you in my blog, since you got me thinking…..
    so thanks!

  9. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Great post, again!

  10. Kingdom Mama

    Oh man, I wish this was just a problem for recent converts.

    I often struggle with prayer…and the Bible, and I’ve been a Christian for 25 years. I love the five seconds thing. It’s a great way to show God your heart.

    I actually posted about this, in regards to the Bible, awhile back. If I at least commit to opening my Bible and reading one verse, that’s something I can do every day. But if I say, “I’m going to read a chapter a day.” I will oftentimes fail. Of course, sometimes God will lead me to read and read, but it’s more in His hands that way. I say, “I’m tired, but I’m committed.” Then I trust Him to take over.

    Anyway…all that to say, GREAT post!;)

  11. patjrsmom

    Better is one day in His course than thousands elsewhere.

    God Bless,

  12. Jon

    Even your short prayer is long by the standards of some of the saints. That doesn’t mean its bad or wrong or anything, but if one is having trouble praying for longer periods of time I think it might be helpful to note that it is enough to pray “Lord have mercy”, and even that prayer is longer than needed according to the author of the “Cloud of Unknowing.” He felt that it was best to keep prayers to one syllable.


  13. Michelle

    I love the five second prayer thing. The other day I had a migraine and my son was crabby (and clingy). Somehow I got to the end of the day and realized I hadn’t done the Liturgy of the Hours all day. I was pretty disappointed in myself. Five seconds is better then none. I’ll have to remember that next time.

  14. Whimsy

    You may be interested in what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about this issue.

    A reminder when reading St. Thomas:

    You aren’t getting St. Thomas’ answer to a question until you get to “I answer that. . . ” Everything up until then is an answer that St. T disagrees with.

  15. Whimsy

    I might add that I consider this St. Thomas’ money quote:

    “And so it is becoming that prayer should last long enough to arouse the fervor of the interior desire: and when it exceeds this measure, so that it cannot be continued any longer without causing weariness, it should be discontinued.”

    This is also good to remember when praying with children!

  16. Christine

    I love simple prayers. I also like to pray all day long. With the things I do…I try to talk to God. It really is a peaceful way to live.

  17. Luke

    Such a good reminder: Spiritual disciplines, no matter how long practiced, are still spiritual disciplines.

    I have let myself get hung up on trying to do “enough” so many times. You are absolutely right: Start where you can, and build up. It’s just like working out.

    Right on!


  18. Aimee

    This is great, Jennifer. And it shows that God is leading you in His ways – because what you discovered is actually a part of the long prayer tradition of the Church, to offer the briefest of prayers when one is busy or unable to pray (they’re formally called “ejaculatory” prayers, no kidding), even a single exclamation like “I love you, Jesus!” It is the love expressed, not the time spent, that matters most to God.

    Mother Teresa asked her nuns, who were very busy caring for the poor and the sick, to do brief, spontaneous prayers throughout the day, and many saints recommend it as well, as a way of developing the ability to “pray without ceasing.”

    But to “pray without ceasing” is not just to babble words all day long. When we pray, God draws near us, and soon enters into us in response to our love. Then prayer becomes communion, God’s presence in us in a constant communion of love, and, on occasion, when needed or desired, words of love, thanksgiving, petition, or supplication.

    Great post. Thanks!

  19. Roz

    You authenticity is refreshing and powerful. Thanks.

    Something I’ve found helpful in dealing with distraction — a huge problem for me — has been to immediately (when I notice it) tell God that I see I’m distracted but I’d rather be with him, so would he please help draw me toward himself?

    Even to focus on God takes grace, so I just ask for more.

  20. aimee

    Oh, and I should ask, regarding your spiritual dry spell, have you ever read St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul? If not, it might be helpful. What you describe in the development of your prayer life is actually the normal, classic progress of prayer: from effort, to ease and honeymoon with God – and then to dryness and darkness.

    The reason why is God is entering more deeply into your soul, to work more deeply in forming, and purifying, your soul in ways you cannot even tell. It’s a very important stage of prayer, but most people don’t know it and so give up trying to pray when it happens. And then they cease to grow.

    It’s important not to give up, but to just keep your eyes on Christ and make your prayers anyway, even if they feel completely dry and empty. They’re not. As St. John of the Cross explains it, that is the best prayer of all – because then we are not relying on feelings or sweetness, but on God alone, in the darkness of pure faith. And that, in time, will lead to other wonderful things . . .

    But you need to read St. John of the Cross, if you haven’t already. You can pick up the two smaller works I mentioned individually, or just get The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, in a single volume published by ICS. That’s my favorite. God bless you!

  21. Becky

    When Christ taught his disciples to pray the format covers everything — addressing God and acknowledging His place in heaven, glorifying His name, desiring the Kingdom and for His work to be done here to the degree that the angels do it in heaven, request for needs, forgiveness for our shortcomings and our forgiveness of slights by others, guidance, help in trouble, eternal praise, glory and honor — succinctly, and quite quickly. It only took me about 15 seconds to read thoughtfully, and personalizing it, rather than rattling it off by memory, doesn’t take any longer. We can pray longer, and often when our hearts or minds are burdened for something or someone, the words spill forth, but it’s not necessary to drag everything out that can be presented in moments. Better to be offering up heartfelt breaths of prayer throughout the day than burdening yourself with guilt over a wandering attention span. To “pray constantly” is to have a running conversation with God, whenever the thought occurs to you.

  22. Bender

    Then there are the kind of prayers that can be sung or chanted over and over. The benefit here is that many of the Psalms have already been set to a particular chant, and the musical aspect can help you to repeat the refrain/response over and over throughout the day. There are also some hymns/songs from the Taize community which are usually fairly short, to be repeated over and over.

    While other aspects of Eastern religions are obviously troublesome, the concept of a mantra can be well appropriated and applied to Christian prayer. Of course, some of these short songs/chants/mantra-prayers are more memorable than others.

    But some others are like those catchy little tunes and jingles that get stuck in your head and you find yourself humming and repeating all day long.

    Besides, when you sing/chant, you are praying twice.

  23. Bender

    Another fairly easy way is simply to buy some CDs of hymns or gregorian chant, and play those throughout the day. Just like you might find yourself singing along with regular music on the radio or a CD, you’ll slip into singing with the hymns or chants, and thus praying, if your heart is so disposed.

    We are coming up to Christmas-time, and everytime you sing along with a Christmas music CD, it can be an occasion for prayer.

  24. Shakespeare's Cobbler

    This is a wonderful idea also for all of us cradle Catholics who spent too much time for eighteen years busying about their own things and never learned that whole intimacy with God thing they kept hearing about. 8^) Thanks!

  25. Cathy

    Love this honest post! Thanks.

  26. Jet Three

    Ay, Shakespeare’s Cobbler, I agree. Thanks ever so much, Jennifer! You’re truly inspiring, and may God bless you always! Pray for me. 🙂

  27. Anonymous

    hehe, exactly. Sometimes those “5 second prayers” are the best ones too. God knows we can get busy in our lives and just simply looking up from our work to say “thank you” has to make Him smile ^_^

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