I was listening to Fr. Tom Hopko the other day, and he offered this advice:
Have a keep-able rule of prayer that you do by discipline. You can’t just pray when you feel like it. You have to pray by discipline, the times of day where you would remember God and say your prayers.
It reminds me of a maxim among the desert fathers: To pray always you must pray often.
Sine intermissione orat
St. Paul commands us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.” How can a real human being with real commitments do such a thing?
This question has received innumerable interpretations throughout the ages, from the unceasing repetition of the Jesus Prayer epitomized in the eastern spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, to St. Augustine’s deft assertion that the restless and ceaseless desire for God in the heart is in itself a sleepless and ever-yearning prayer.
But even Augustine, who offers a very sensible solution to the quandary of how sleeping, working, A.D.D. humanity might dare claim it has done justice to St. Paul’s command to pray always, asserted that stoking such a sleepless fire within requires a serious discipline and commitment to daily, marked-out prayer times. I guess it seems an obvious conclusion that if I fail to dedicate regular time to commune with the One I love, that love will soon cool, grow erratic and eventually wither away in an apathetic death.
Too often, people — myself included — use sorry excuses to whisk away the dutiful need to actually stop and pray: I’m too busy to pray; my work is my prayer; I’m too A.D.D.; or some such.
How one chooses to “pray often” in order to “pray always” varies, but there are some constants in our Catholic tradition. The resources for prayer, the forms of prayer – sacramental liturgical and private — are vast and rich. Here are some very simple insights into only four of those “constants” of private prayer. Though they are simple, if you are someone who does not pray with any discipline, if you try them out for even a month I guarantee you will notice something very different about your outlook.
1. Lauds. Morning should always begin with prayer. When your eyes open, instead of saying, “Good God, it’s morning,” say, “Good morning, God.” Begin with praise of God and with petitions for what is needful. Before you read/listen to secular things spend a certain amount of time prayerfully reflecting on some sacred text (e.g. the daily mass readings, a spiritual book or devotional) that will nourish your mind and heart and fortify you to face the challenges of the day. Review your upcoming day with the Holy Spirit and see if He gives you any new insights into your day’s plans. Be sure to allow some listening silence for Him to speak. It’s truly amazing what rich perspicacity (love that word) He brings into our daily plans if we simply invite His input.
2. Feasting. Every meal gives us a chance to pray in thanks, to offer public witness to our grateful faith and to remember in our prayer those who go hungry.
3. Compline. Night should always end with prayer. It’s an especially useful time for family prayer. Night is especially characterized by prayers of thanksgiving for graces received and contrition for graces squandered.
4. Arrow prayers. The desert monastic tradition gave birth to a lovely tradition of prayers — short, sweet, scriptural and shot-through with love for God — that arise spontaneously in our hearts throughout the day in response to whatever people or events come our way. “Lord, make haste to help me!” “I love you Lord, my strength.” “You are my God, for you I long.” “Have mercy on me, O God.” “Your will be done.” These aspirations of the heart arise to God from the midst of joy, weariness, anger, sorrow, love, pain, i.e. from every circumstance, inner state and place. As we “practice” God’s presence, we become ever more aware that He is, as promised, with us. And by responding to that presence frequently and simply, we make space for God to freely act in and through us in the world that He made for Himself.
To pray thus consistently and often is to cultivate within the spirit of unceasing prayer. Keep it simple and doable.
Two final warnings: (1) When you dedicate yourself consistently to such prayer, God will begin to act not just in your life-circumstances but, more importantly, in your mind and heart. You will notice His surgical action deep within if you remain faithful in your dedication, regardless of hardship; and (2) When you dedicate yourself consistently to such prayer, the evil spirits will, as one of the desert fathers put it, come from all four corners of the earth to put a stop to your prayer. So expect every imaginable circumstance, distraction and good-rationale for quitting to arise. Why? Because when you pray, their Enemy is granted full and luminous access into the dark corners of creation where evil still seeks its shelter from the coming judgment of God’s fearsome mercy.
Last note: if you want a good primer to prayer that will help you acquire a Catholic mind in a very down-to-earth format, read Peter Kreeft’s fantastic Prayer for Beginners (which is all of us, always).