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.

Related Podcast

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

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