I’ve been struggling to pray recently. South Africa is in an intense third-wave of Covid, with my province at its epicentre. Daily, the list of people who are Covid-positive grows. There is a constant stream of desperate  requests to pray for people struggling to breathe who can’t find a hospital bed. My mother phones to tell me that her cousin’s adult daughter has just died of Covid, and the next morning she phones to tell me that her best friend’s son has succumbed to it too.

Never has there been a greater need for prayer. Yet, I find myself grappling with grief and feel overwhelmed by the crushing needs of those around me. That—on top of my festering fear that illness and death will stalk into my own close family—keeps my mind roiling around enough to make prayer a struggle. Over time, a sense of numbness has begun to creep in.

On Tuesday, when I finally stilled my heart and mind enough to sit in God’s presence, a simple three-word prayer emerged.

Lord, draw near

I wrote in my journal, “Draw near to the grieving, the fearful, the sick, the confused. Draw near to the doctors, the ministers, the counsellors. Draw near to the government officials and leaders.”

A second, slightly more personal prayer followed from deep in my soul:

Awaken me

This time I wrote, “Awaken me to sense you, and to the sacred, beautiful moments in every day. Awaken me from this creeping numbness so that I will see and engage the pain of those around me.”

In this tumultuous season, these two simple prayers have become the soft refrain of my days. I whisper them into the dark of night. I send them up to God, unspoken, as I sit in a queue. I meditate on them in my garden. They free me from the strain of thinking of eloquent phrases or crafting ‘the perfect prayer’ for each situation—something difficult to do in stressful times.

Lord, draw near.

Awaken me.

The words are simple and child-like but they come from a place of honest longing. And I sense that God hears and knows my heart.

It seems I’m not the first to discover the power of simple, repetitive prayers. In an ancient prayer practice called Breath Prayers, practitioners would repeat a phrase to the rhythm of their breath. One of the earliest of these, known as the Jesus Prayer, was based on the words Blind Bartimaeus spoke in Mark 10:47: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” In time, the prayer was shortened to, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy,” or simply, “Jesus, mercy.”

I invite you to try this contemplative prayer practice for yourself. You can use the Jesus Prayer (how we all need his mercy right now!) or my own prayer phrases. Or sit quietly with God and sense what deep desire rises up in you. One way of doing this is closing your eyes and imagining Jesus standing before you. He speaks your name and asks you the question he asked Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?

Then, simply breathe out your deepest longing to God.