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 with discipline. You can’t just pray when you feel like it. You have to pray by discipline, with times of day when you would remember God and say your prayers. There is a maxim among the desert fathers: To pray always, you must pray often.
Sine intermissione orat, “Pray without intermission”
St. Paul commands us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.” Other than contemplative monks and nuns, 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 desire for God in the heart is in itself a ceaseless prayer.
But even Augustine, who offers such a sensible solution for daring to claim we have fulfilled St. Paul’s command, asserted that keeping a desire for God alive requires a commitment to specific daily prayer times. Failing to dedicate regular time to commune with the One I love soon allows my love to grow cool, erratic and eventually drift off into an apathetic slumber.
Too often we use sorry excuses to whisk away the duty to stop our busyness and pray. “I’m too busy to pray.” “My work is my prayer.” “I have A.D.D.” “Maybe when I’m older and less busy.” I know an old salt priest who says, “Give me two minutes to interrogate people about their daily habits, and I will soon eliminate their claim, ‘No time to pray, Father.’ In my 49 years as a priest it’s never once been about having no-time, it’s about being disorganized, having prayer in the low-priority category or thinking of prayer as another chore. And if we take St. Teresa seriously, we also know that if we pray regularly with the heart, we’ll have to change.”
He was referring to St. Teresa’s saying, “The habitual practice of mental prayer opens two ways for us: either give up what is incompatible with God or give up praying. Two contraries can’t remain in us indefinitely.”
How one can arrange to “pray often” varies, but there are some constants in our Catholic tradition that guide the discipline of personal prayer. The resources for prayer, the forms of prayer in the Catholic Church are vast and rich — the Bible, the Rosary, the Angelus, Novenas, Stations of the Cross, Sacred Heart devotion, to name a few. Here are some simple insights that, if you try them out for even a month, you’ll notice serious God-things will start happening.
1. Morning should always begin with, say, 15-30 minutes of dedicated prayer time. The Liturgy of the Hours teaches us to greet the dawn with praise of God and with petitions for his assistance. Before reaching for the newspaper, TV, Smartphone or Internet, set aside dedicated time to prayerfully reflect on some sacred text (like 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. Pray a morning offering that consecrates the whole day to God. End by reviewing your plans for the upcoming day with the Holy Spirit and ask Him to give you insights into your day’s plans. Then listen quietly, even if only for 2 or 3 minutes. His voice is subtle, and mostly is sensed in gentle movements of the heart. The Spirit sheds fresh light on our daily plans if we simply invite His input. I like to use Cardinal Mercier’s prayer:
O Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul, I adore You. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do; give me Your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that You desire of me and to accept all that You permit to happen to me. Let me only know Your Will.
2. Feasting. Every meal gives us a chance to pray in thanks with the sign of the cross, to offer public witness to our grateful faith and to pray for those who go hungry.
Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
3. Evening. The day should always end with prayer, and evening is an especially suitable time for family prayer. End-of-day prayer offers the opportunity to examine one’s day, offer thanksgiving for graces received and ask pardon for sins committed. The ancients saw falling asleep as a rehearsal for death, as we surrender ourselves to the unknown. It’s always good to fall asleep in right relationship with God, at rest in his mercy. Also, if you have children, bless them at bedtime with the sign of the cross and holy water (they love getting wet).
4. Arrow prayers. The desert monastic tradition gave birth to a lovely set of prayers — short, sweet and scriptural — called arrow prayers. Offered with humble faith and trusting love, they shoot straight into the Heart of God (cf. Sirach 35:21). Once committed to heart, they can arise spontaneously in our hearts throughout the day in response to whatever comes 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.” Genuine aspirations of prayer from the heart should rise to God from the midst of joy, weariness, anger, sorrow, love, pain and every other circumstance life finds us in. As we “practice” an awareness of God’s presence throughout the day, spontaneous prayer becomes a more natural posture before Jesus, “God-with-us.” And the more aware we become of God’s presence in each moment, the more we are able to permit God to freely act in us and through us. Is that not the point of life for a person of faith?
Fr. Hopko often warns people who hear his message on prayer that the resolution to dedicate oneself consistently to prayer rouses the demons to come from all four corners of the earth to put a stop to your resolution. He says, “If you don’t believe the Devil exists, just start praying every day and watch the storm that erupts.” So, he says, expect every imaginable circumstance, distraction and good-rationale for quitting to confront you. Why? Because when you pray, the demons’ Enemy, God, is granted access into the dark corners of creation where Evil still seeks its shelter from the coming judgment of God. The best response to your resolve being challenged is to immediately strengthen your resolve and add an extra minute on. St. Francis de Sales, Fr. Tom says, “tells us the devil cares less about our 1000 good works than he does about our one hour of prayer. Why? Because prayer joins our works to God’s works, and the devil only fears God and His associates.”
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 5:8-9).
Last note: if you want a good primer to prayer that will help you understand prayer in a very down-to-earth format, read Peter Kreeft’s fantastic Prayer for Beginners.