How to Develop a Prayer Life that Transforms
On Ash Wednesday a wise priest said, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t give up anything for Lent, if you’re just thinking of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, or facebook. Turn your heart to God! Free yourself of the aggravation, anger, jealousy, and hatred that separates you from him. But how, you may ask? Through prayer, daily prayer.”
Lent is a time for us all to take a good hard look at our personal regimen of prayer. Do we have one? Is it stable and ordered, or merely spontaneous, whenever we happen to feel like it? Some of us might admit to ourselves that we have never really developed one. In a world filled with constant distractions of bewildering variety, in a culture passionately committed to acquisition, celebrity, entertainment, and therapy, Christians are called all the more to communion with God through prayer.
“We pray as we live, because we live as we pray.” This wise statement from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2725) is just one of many found in Part Four, which concerns Christian Prayer. In succinct paragraphs, the Catechism explains all essential aspects of what prayer is and how and why and where we should engage in it. The text, however, is more descriptive and explanatory than prescriptive, as it should be. One prayer regimen does not fit all. “To be sure, there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray, but it is the same Spirit acting in all and with all.” (#2673)
If you are interested, let me suggest a basic regimen of daily prayer, especially for those who have not yet developed one.
Following one of the earliest Christian practices, try to pray the Our Father three times per day, preferably at regular times, when you can take a short break from the day’s duties and lift your heart, mind, and soul to God, if only for a minute at a time. On the basis of the daily three Our Fathers, build up to the six daily prayers outlined below. They are tied loosely to the Liturgy of the Hours, said from dawn to dusk: Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.
1. Upon waking, get up, face east, and pray. Christians in the first centuries usually prayed facing east, which ties belief in Christ to the universe. In the east comes the dawn, the sign of hope and God’s promise to humanity. Also, the line of the horizon and the vertical trajectory of the rising sun form the Cross of Christ written in nature and the cosmos. Extend your thanks to the Lord for the new day with your whole body, heart, mind, and soul. Devote yourself, your being and your doings to God. Offer him the day. Pray the Our Father very slowly, one word or phrase per breath.
2. Mid-morning, take a brief pause from your activities. Place yourself in God’s presence, after the teaching of St. Francis de Sales. Take a moment to recall that you are God’s creation, his child, and that without him, you would not exist. Know that he is with you, above you in Heaven looking down, alive in your beating heart, and all around you in life and nature. His infinite, loving, transcendent being includes and encompasses you. Pray a Hail Mary. The Blessed Virgin is a signpost to God, and she intercedes on our behalf. Pray a decade of the Rosary if time allows.
3. At lunch, secure a quiet moment to pray the Our Father very slowly, one word or phrase per breath. Remember that the day is his, and that the goal of the Christian life is to unite your soul to Christ’s, so that he lives in and through you.
4. In the afternoon, take a five-minute break from work and pray the Angelus. If you can take a walk for fresh air and movement, pray it then. If you can pray it during the commute, do so. Detox and get ready to return to your home, the domestic church.
5. At dinner, if you have a family, be sure to pray as one, briefly, at the table. Ask everyone their favorite moment of the day. Or ask what each is most thankful for.
6. At night against face east. Examine your conscience. Be honest about your failings this day. Place your hope in Christ, the source of all hope, for tomorrow. Pray the Our Father very slowly. Make amends with all family members before going to bed.
Again, this is just a start, but it is a manageable, ordered plan to include the Lord in your day on a regular basis.
The next step is to work in lectio divina. After the six daily prayers become so natural that you miss them if you happen to skip one, add in a special time for opening your heart to God’s word. Lectio Divina is meditative, prayerful reading of Scripture, part of religious life for more than a thousand years. Once per day, pray a Psalm or read a passage from the Gospel prayerfully. You can also use the day’s Mass readings. Prepare yourself. Ask God to speak to you, “Your servant is listening.” Then read out loud or in a slow whisper, breathing each word or phrase. Free the mind to dwell on a word or image or passage. Let the inspired text speak to your soul. Mediate on the text, contemplate the scene. Be there with Christ.
Also, when you are ready, the final prayer of the day can develop into an examination of conscience. Place yourself in God’s presence and survey the day, its virtues and sins. Discern where you did what God expects of us and where you did not. Based on those observations, make a plan for tomorrow, to stay closer to God than you were today.
The regimen above does not specify times for wishes and requests to God, which Jesus encouraged us to make in a spirit of loving, filial trust. Prayers of petition can be made at any time – the Our Father includes seven – but they can be dangerous. We should not ask things of God in order to test and see if he hears and answers them to our satisfaction. On the contrary, instead of waiting impatiently for results, we ought to consider first and foremost whether any of our prayers are pleasing and acceptable to God! He is Father and Savior, not a means for personal satisfaction.
I don’t pretend for a moment to be a spiritual authority, but I can simply say that a regimen of daily prayer has brought wondrous graces into my life, family, and work. There is no other more compelling, rational explanation. Those who readily dismiss the efficacy of prayer really ought to try it themselves, in faith, humility, and charity. They might be pleasantly, positively surprised.