Praying Every Day: The Habit of Love
Many Christians, many Catholics, want to pray more—more often, more regularly, more fervently. They sense that there is an experience of prayer that they are missing. But when they pray, the heart is dry, the mind is distracted, the will is weak. If this describes you, give thanks to God and pray that he will intensify this sense of failure! This place of defeat and disappointment is a blessed starting point. The closest disciples of Jesus (who were, after all, devout Jews who had been praying their whole lives), asked Jesus: “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). And St. Paul wrote: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Part of the meaning of those mysterious words is that your desire to pray is itself already a prayer, and God is already listening.
But we must also set out to learn to discipline our lives for prayer, to seek help from the wealth of the Catholic tradition concerning the “practice” of prayer. My thoughts about how to do that reflect my own struggles with prayer.
“Pray Without Ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) . . .
The saints and spiritual teachers have meditated much on this injunction of St. Paul that we should pray unceasingly. The most common interpretation is that our hours and days should be constantly punctuated by brief inner cries or exclamations or thanksgivings to God. In this “practice of the presence of God” (Brother Lawrence), all our thoughts and actions, our joys and sorrows, become moments of communion with God. This is the way of prayer described by St. Therese of Lisieux in her autobiography: “For me, 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.”
Prayer “Hours” – Saying Our Prayers . . .
This constant “surge” toward God is foundational to prayer, but it is also necessary to sanctify our time, establishing a regular discipline of prayer—just as we establish times to eat, times to wake up, to go to work or school. It is important not to be too ambitious; the “hour” of prayer may sometimes be only a twenty minute span. But you will have to be a little hard on yourself, asking the uncomfortable question: what must change in my daily routine in order to make room for prayer? It may mean rising earlier; it may mean skipping that shopping trip; it may require shutting off the t.v. or computer in time to pray before going to bed.
In the ceaseless, moment-by-moment turning to God, prayer is fed by desire and emotion. But “saying my prayers” is first of all an act of obedience. Don't expect “holy feelings” to always attend your prayer. The new obedience is an acknowledgement, inscribed in the new ordering of your life, that you have been called by your baptism to pray, to seek communion with God through your own most personal initiative. And we must be patient, as obedience becomes a holy habit of love—love of God and toward those for whom your pray.
But what do I actually do and say during the designated time of prayer? That will be the question for my next reflection.