We’re all busy. We have responsibilities and duties that fill our days and crowd our minds and hearts. They stretch us and keep us on the go. In the midst of this reality, how are we to preserve and nurture a spiritual life? How are we to prevent our souls from being casualties to our life’s activities? In summary, how are we to stay close to the Lord in our everyday lives? How are we to pray?
Some might respond that we need a quiet life, solitude, and set times for prayer in order to grow spiritually. While this is good counsel for a monk, it is not wise counsel for one called to a life in the world. St. Francis de Sales, one of the Church’s esteemed spiritual masters, taught in his Introduction to the Devout Life: “There is a different practice of devotion for the gentleman and the mechanic; for the prince and the servant; for the wife, the maiden, and the widow; and still further, the practice of devotion must be adapted to the capabilities, the engagements, and the duties of each individual.”
So, instead of a strict quiet life, we should seek to quiet some of the things we do; instead of complete solitude, we need to look for solitude within our hearts and where we might be able to find a few minutes to be alone; instead of set times for prayer, we should look for zones of prayer that acknowledge our legitimate duties and gives the flexibility we need to find time to pray.
How do we start? I would like to propose five simple steps that can help. Each step will be given in the context of answering a popular question about prayer.
Five Simple Steps:
“I really want to pray. How do I start?” The first step in praying is to acknowledge that we are not the ones who initiated our desire to pray. God is the one who summons us to himself. In Part Four of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we’re given a beautiful and extensive teaching on prayer and the interior life. It begins with the story of the Woman at the Well (contained in John 4:1-42).
The Church summarizes the encounter by showing that the Lord Jesus called the Samaritan woman to himself, he expressed his thirst for her trust, and led her to seek him (CCC #2560-2561). When we desire to pray, God is already working within us. This should be a great consolation and encouragement to us. It is an opportunity to calm our concern and deflate our anxieties on how to pray or whether we’re praying right. God is already working in us and he will guide our efforts to pray.
St. Paul expressed these sentiments in Romans 8:26, when he writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
“What’s the best way to start praying?” After recognizing that God is calling us to pray, our next step is to build a habit of prayer. This is a humble but very necessary step. We need to create a habit. The two best ways to create a habit: A) Make it practically achievable; and B) Attach it to an existing habit.
The first point is important. A person cannot start running and then think they’re ready for a marathon. Progress in the spiritual life is slow and the maxim is true: “As fast as you pick it up is as fast as you will put it down.” For the habit to stick, it must be slow and practically achievable. For example, maybe the goal of praying five minutes a day could be a great start. The second point is as important. Sometimes new habits are lost just by plain forgetfulness, or from willful laziness or distraction. By attaching our daily five minutes of prayer to an existing habit, we assure that it will be remembered and we will fight to get it done. For example, we can attach our five minutes of prayer to taking a shower or brushing our teeth in the morning. This is a zone of prayer instead of a set time because maybe our morning shower or brushing our teeth occurs at different times. This gives flexibility to our prayer.
In my vocations ministry, when I suggest this step to inquirers, sometimes I’m told, “Oh, Father, five minutes?! That’s too easy!” My response is always, “Too easy? Good! Then do it!” Oftentimes, it’s not as easy as we think, but the forming of a habit is essential because our prayer life cannot grow and mature without it.
“What am I suppose to say when I pray?” When we pray, we can say whatever we want. There is no such thing as a bad prayer. When we begin to pray, the most important thing is just that we are praying.
To help us when we begin to pray , we can do what we do best in our fallen nature; namely, we can just complain! We can open our hearts and just let God know about our struggles and disappointments. As our habit strengthens, we can change our complaining into thanksgiving. We can thank God for all his blessings. Eventually, our five minutes can become ten minutes. We can also begin to pause and let God speak to us. In forming our habit of prayer, we begin to deepen our understanding that prayer is about relationship and covenant, and not about a “to do” list for God. We begin to see that prayer is about asking God what he wants from us, and not asserting what we want from him.
In time, our ten minutes can become fifteen or twenty minutes and then we can begin to use different prayer forms from the Church’s spiritual treasury to help us deepen our prayer and more clearly hear the Lord speak to us.
“What can I do when prayer gets really difficult?” When our prayer life becomes dry, it’s important that we understand what is happening. Some might think that when prayer becomes difficult or dry, that they are doing something wrong, that they have offended God in some way, or something in that arena. This is especially true if we have experienced spiritual consolations and the joy of prayer. The hardship of prayer can come as a swift and firm lesson. What is happening in these moments? What is God doing?
This part of the spiritual life is known as the purgative way. The expression reflects the reality: we are being purged in these dark times of prayer. God is removing the consolation and teaching us to love him for himself and not for the blessings we receive from him. As St. Theresa of Avila, the great Doctor of Mystical Prayer, teaches us, “We worship the God of consolations, not the consolations of God.” In the purgative way, God has moved from “soul triage” to “soul surgery.” In this process, he is teaching us dependency and trust.
We should not be afraid of these moments. Even as we wrestle, the spiritual masters teach us that God is closer to us in our purgation than in our times of consolation. God is doing more in our souls than we could ever imagine. Our task is to persevere and let God work.
The purgative way usually concludes with an illumination of some form. The Lord imprints a knowledge within us in a profound way. This could include a mystical awareness of love, mercy, hope, healing, or other areas that we need in our discipleship. After this illumination, the purgative way begins again and the process continues within us leading us from “glory unto glory” (John 1:16).
“Am I praying all by myself?” No Christian ever prayers alone. As someone who is baptized, we always pray in Christ. The Lord makes constant intercession for us and everything we do, we do “in him, with him, and through him.” In Christ, we are also surrounded by the saints, who are the friends of God and our older brothers and sisters, as a “cloud of witnesses” helping us (Hebrews 12:1). They encourage and pray for us. They inspire us and model the Christian way of life for us.
We never pray alone. In our life of prayer, it is very good to find a prayer partner or join a prayer group. For those in Holy Matrimony, their God-given prayer partner is their spouse. It is utterly essential that married people pray together, and that Christian families pray together. Parents are the first and graced spiritual directors of their children, the royal priests of the domestic church, and as such they must teach their children to pray. The Christian family is called to be an oasis of prayer, showing our fallen world the face and compassion of God.
Each of these five simple steps is meant to help us in our busy lives. They are meant to guide us in our life of prayer. Each step is intended as counsel along the way of life and from the trenches of the Church to assist each of us in developing or deepening our interior lives.
As we draw closer to the Lord, we open the way for him to draw closer to us. And with the Spirit, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
[Editor’s note: Fr. Kirby wrote an outstanding book on prayer published by St. Benedict Press if you would like to read more. Here is the link: Lord Teach Us To Pray: A Guide to the Spiritual Life and Christian Discipleship]
Photo CC: Bert Kaufmann
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