Pray always, and a lot

Re-post 2013

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.”

Four Constants

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?

Caution

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).

A Resource

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.

12 comments on “Pray always, and a lot

  1. […] 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 Go to the Source: Neal Obstat Theological Opining   […]

  2. I finished reading a book on the Desert Fathers last month and there was mention of the “praying without ceasing”. Here it is:

    Some monks called Euchites, or ‘men of prayer’, once came to Lucius in the ninth region of Alexandria. He asked them, “What manual work do you do?” They said, “We do not work with out hands. We obey St. Paul’s command and pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).

    He said to them, “Don’t you eat?” They said, “Yes, we do.” He said to them: “When you are eating who prays for you?” Then he asked them, “Don’t you sleep?” They said “Yes, we do.” He said, “Who prays for you while you are asleep?” and they could not answer him.

    Then he said to them, “I may be wrong, brothers, but it seems to me that you don’t do what you say. I will show you how I pray without ceasing although I work with my hands. With God’s help, I sit down with a few palm leaves, and plait them, and say, “Have mercy upon me, O God, after they great mercy: and according to the multitude of they mercies do away with mine iniquity” (Ps 51:1). He asked them, “Is that prayer, or not” They said, “It’s prayer all right.”

    He said, “when I spend all day working and praying in my heart, I make about sixteen pence. Two of these I put outside the door, and with the rest I buy flood. Whoever finds the two pennies outside the door prays for me while I am eating and sleeping: and so by God’s grace I fulfill the text, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17)

  3. n.o.S says:

    I just went out and put a dollar on my door step,I hope it works because I sleep a lot. On a happier note, The church militant grew by one yesterday morning ..my dear friend Jerry has joined the crew in purgatory GOD willing.pray for him and all our loved ones awaiting the splendor of our GOD. thank you all for your beautiful prayers and thoughts.Dearest Thomas thank you,or better yet I thank our GOOD THREE for always giving you insight into what so so many need and might I be also bold and say , want , the tools to hopefully grasp that next rung, love and hugs to you and yours. P.B.W.Y.

    • Jennifer says:

      Rest in peace, Jerry. NOS: My condolences on the loss of such a dear friend.

    • Dismas Dancing says:

      My condolences, N.O.S. on the loss of your friend, Jerry. May his soul rest in the saving arms of the Lord for all eternity. And sincere blessings to you a well, sir. A.W.Y.S., too.

      DD

    • “May the angels lead him into paradise; may the martyrs receive him at his arrival and lead him to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive him and with Lazarus, once poor, may he have eternal rest.” Love from the Nealfam, especially Pope Nick. A.W.Y.S.

  4. Dismas Dancing says:

    Great message, brother Tom. Fr. Hopko was bang-on re the time of greatest assaults from the “enemy” occurring during prayer. The most disturbing times for me often happen during the time from the “Sanctus” to the “Ecce Agnus Dei…” during the Mass, at the height of experiencing the “real” presence of the Lord among us. How many times I have been forced to cry out quietly to Our Lord on the cross to “save me Lord from the power of Satan,” at the very moment of reaching out to receive Him in the palm of my hand. Into my soul comes a withering assault for which total abandonment to the prayer of the Mass MUST save me or I should surely die.

    I especially enjoy the Liturgy of the Hours; but then, too, the devil and his minions are hard at work to deter ANY devotion to these beautiful prayers. Even at the earlier morning hours when all else is quiet, the din Satan creates to drown out the presence of the Lord is sometimes impossible to ignore. Thankfully, I am learning from smarter folks how to handle the distractions, accept them, and subsequently offer them up in addition to the prayer as a more perfect offering. Even in that, however, I am fulfilling a character trait observation one of my nun teachers noted on a grade school report card: “Could be a better student but for his ‘spasmodic’ effort.” Even therein, I can see the work of Satan and his fiendish desire to keep me away from the Lord by whatever means necessary. For me, there is always an exhaustive pressure to return to lazier habits that are so easily accepted when “don’t have enough time”, et.al., become habitual fall-back positions. When we simply don’t wanna pray, even a temporarily idle mind becomes a huge, bold, target.

    As always, great stuff, Brother Tom! In an earlier post I said I would provide your blog site info to my son. That I did. He has enjoyed it thus far. I pray that both my sons will continue to receive your posts and the wonderful responses thereto. Peace and blessings to all.

    BTW, buried M’s brother, Danny, yesterday. M and I are blessed have had all for of our children here to be with their Mom AND their cousin in their hour of need. Wonderful service. Lots of activities containing rich fodder for future stories. Many, many sincere thanks to Jennifer, N.O.S. and all of the others that offered prayer and condolences. We appreciate you and the prayers far more than you can imagine.

    We wish you a great weekend in Our Lord’s glorious creation.

    DD

    • Jennifer says:

      You just described my prayer life, Dismas! I feel empowered at least recognizing the ways in which I am most likely to be tempted to stop or be distracted. Funny(ish) story: about a month ago, my otherwise extremely cheerful and easy-going three year old was screaming a blood curdling cry “stop it, be quiet!” which only happens when we pray the Rosary as a family while driving to school. After much pleading by myself and the older kids to no avail, finally I turned around when we are stopped at a traffic light and said, “Satan, get out of here.” I can assure you that my three year old does not know what this means but he just stopped his shouting and calmly watched out the window. Everyone was shocked. Who knows, maybe it was a coincidence, but it was a huge eye opener to all of us that the enemy does try to disrupt us and exasperate us and tempt us to turn against on another.

      Dr. Tom: Great post, I love this clear check-list. That makes my brain so happy 🙂

      • Wow! Powerful! Maternal power in the flesh and Spirit. 🙂 Re lists: my wife is slowly training me to mix my lyrical prose with more orderly lists…easier for people to digest, it seems. Funny, one of my dissertation advisers said to me: “It’s strange, you write in English but it seems you think more in a German Romantic style” (German Romantic = complex and tortured prose). 🙂

    • DD: Condolences on your loss, but what a great model of family love, unity, support in a time of sorrow. Also, love your very earthy and real picture of the hardships of fidelity to prayer. Your comments are what the medieval called a “gloss” on a text, deepening insights and drawing out new ones. Enjoy the weekend of God’s glorious creation yourself — Laudato si! Peace. Br T

  5. nos. says:

    “J” I prefer providence .

    DD. TELL “M” prayers and big hugs from afar..

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