Introductory Note:

Winn Collier organizes Fénelon’s letters by theme in his paraphrase, Let God: Spiritual Conversations with François Fénelon. One such theme in the letters is the fundamental human question: How do I pray? In the excerpt below, Winn introduces the quest to find our way “in” to prayer, and then shares his modernized version of one of Fénelon’s letters “to a friend wondering how to pray.” The contemporary language helps us remember that these antique letters were not intended to be formal, but to be words of “warm, plainspoken friendship.” 

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

Few questions have bothered humanity more than this one: does God speak to us? Some of us answer no and conclude there is no God. Some of us answer yes (or maybe), leading us to probe further: if God does talk to us, why don’t we hear the voice more clearly?

These are a few of the questions we are seeking God’s voice on: Who am supposed to marry? What am I supposed to do with my life? Should we have more kids? Any kids? Does God really even care who I marry or what I do with my life? How do I know? Why won’t God tell me?

If our sons are afraid or have a question, my wife Miska and I encourage them to talk to God. One night, Wyatt, our four year old, followed our advice; but he was irritated because he couldn’t hear any voice answering. Apparently God wasn’t talking. Miska told him to wait, to be quiet, and to listen with his heart more than with his ears. Wyatt waited impatiently for a few minutes and then lodged a complaint, God, I still can’t hear you…”

Aren’t we in that place often? Waiting. Trying to listen. But we just can’t hear anything? Thankfully, Wyatt has his mother as a guide. She knows a bit about ways of listening, ways that have less to do with our ears and more to do with our heart. Wyatt needs a guide to help him learn the language God speaks.

I don’t think we are entirely strangers to this language of God. I just think it is a language rarely nurtured in humans. And if this way of speaking and listening lies dormant too long, we forget the unique syntax and the mysterious idiom. Most of us have forgotten how to hear God. In this high-octane world where we demand immediate cause and effect, questions and answers, there is little space for a subtler conversation, one rich in imagination and relationship. There is little space for prayer.

No wonder it is so hard to hear. We have grown accustomed to conversations that are brittle, useful, requiring nothing of us other than an exchange of vowels and consonants and functional signals. Our conversations aim to get the job done.

God’s conversation, on the other hand, aims to bring us into friendship and to begin the long work of changing us to our core. We have to re-learn the art of conversing with God. We need friends, like Fénelon, who have practiced it long, over many years, to teach us what they know. 


Letter to a Friend Wondering How to Pray 

François Fénelon

Dear friend,

Whenever we talk about prayer, an obvious question always arises. How? We want the particulars: exactly how are we to pray? The answer can be elusive. There is no one way. Each of us has our own way. We need to pay attention to the uniqueness of who we are and how we connect to God. What has worked for us before? If you are disciplined and like structure and regimen, then keep it up. If you find joy in schedules and lists, then have at it. The more boundaries, the better. On the other hand, if you are a free spirit and just the thought of a list makes you cringe, then pray in whatever manner fits you, whatever works.

For you free-birds, make sure you don’t scoff at the way others find connection to God. What boxes you in might set another person loose. Also, only the arrogant forget that disciplined ways of prayer have been followed by many wise Christians for many years. Respect this way of prayer, even if you don’t find it helpful. The bottom line is that any method or plan for prayer only has one purpose — to help us pray. If it doesn’t help, you can’t get rid of it fast enough.

This is the easiest, most natural way I have found to start learning to pray. Grab a book and pay attention as you are reading. When something in the book grabs you, stop reading. Sit there. Listen to it. Let it feed you. Whenever it seems like you’ve heard all you are supposed to hear there, then start reading again.

Here’s a spiritual rule of thumb: when something connects with us deeply, lighting a little fire in us or giving us joy, then God is speaking. Whenever something offers a real-world connection to something we are struggling with or some path we are to follow, then God is probably speaking. This isn’t hard. Trust what God is saying, and obey it. Don’t hesitate. You’ll know soon enough if it is God. The Scripture says that when the Spirit is at work, the result is wide-open freedom.

Soon enough, you won’t have to second-guess whether or not it is God you hear. You won’t always be asking, Is it God? Is it God?” You’ll know (at least more often). It is something you will feel, something your heart will know. The more you listen to God’s voice, the more this creative voice will transform the way you see and live in the world. Your heart will become full, joyful, enlivened. As life seeps in, you won’t even have a desperation to hear God all the time. The pleasure you take from hearing God just once will fuel you for long stretches.

There is a straightforward way to know if you are growing in conversing with God. If your prayers are becoming more simple and if your conversation requires less (less words, less worries), then you are moving into deeper ways of prayer. 

Conversation with God is a friendship. Like any friendship, when it first starts out, there are a thousand things to talk about as you get to know one another. However, after a while and as the friendship deepens, there are fewer facts to discover about the other. The words are fewer, but the pleasure in being together is as rich as ever. There is little to say, but there is still deep joy. 

You know a sign of good friendship, don’t you? — when you can be silent together and it isn’t awkward. You just sit in the quiet, nothing to say. And it is good.

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Excerpt from Let God: Spiritual Conversations with François Fénelon by Winn Collier, 2007. Used with the author’s permission.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Text First Published November 2007 · Last Featured on January 2023