“Cultivating a prayer life requires building habits. And we do not build habits without a plan.”
When I read Paul’s lament in Romans about consistently doing the thing we don’t want to do – even though we know what we should do (For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…), one of the first things I think about is my prayer life. How often I know I need to pray, but I choose to waste my time doing something else. I know that I am far better off praying than I am watching television or aimlessly scrolling through social media. I want to grow in holiness. So why is it easier to waste an hour than to pray for an hour?
C. S. Lewis shared this struggle and wrote, “Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.”
At least he’s truthful, right? He goes on to reflect on the fact that this is not due to the fact that it is against our nature. On the contrary, we were created for this relationship. So why is it so difficult? It stems from the fact that we are not perfect. When we are perfected, prayer – and our duties — will be a delight.
Over the next few weeks, I want to look at several ways to pray. While deciding to pray is often half the battle, it is also necessary to know how. Through the next few Friday posts, I hope to introduce you to some of the riches of Catholic tradition when it comes to the wellsprings of conversation with God.
And that, I suppose, is where we should begin. We must remember that prayer, at its heart, is a conversation with God. We must not get so distracted by the “how” and making sure our t’s are crossed and our i’s are dotted that we tire before we have even begun. It is not about how many rosaries you can finish or how prayers you can read from your prayerbook. It is not about whether you can get through all nine days of a novena without forgetting. Those things are great, don’t get me wrong, but they should aid our conversation, not replace it or hinder it.
God would like our undivided attention, but first He simply wants us to show up.
He would rather me come to him, habitually, every morning and tell him how I slept, thank him for the gift of the new day, and ask for help in my to-do list, than to put off my prayers all day until I can pray “well.” God wants me to show up whether I’m “feeling” it or not. He desires to talk to me. I can talk to Him whether I have the right words or not. He wants me to be honest and vulnerable and admit when I’m just not sure.
Lewis finishes his reflection on prayer by musing, “I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God’s eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling.”
Do not wait until you feel like praying to pray. Do not wait until you think you can be a “good pray-er” (whatever that is). Start today. Show up.
Make a plan. Cultivating a prayer life requires building habits. And we do not build habits without a plan. If you’re temperament is such that you eschew formalities and structure, build a looser plan. But know that you will not pray unless you plan to pray.
Cultivate a routine in the morning that includes prayer. At the very least, make a good morning offering. Perhaps type out the prayer and tape it to your mirror in the bathroom. If your mornings are busy or if you aren’t a morning person, do not set that aside as your time for deep mental prayer. But perhaps plan a few moments of Scriptural reading or spiritual reading (I recommend Father Fernandez’ In Conversation with God or Mike Aquilina’s Take Five books of meditations with Newman, Ignatius, or Benedict XVI). Do it whether you feel like it or not.
Pick a few moments throughout the day that will remind you to speak to God. These aren’t times of prolonged mental prayer, but little reminders throughout the day to simply say hi or thank you to Him. If you work in an office building, maybe it’s each time you step on the elevator. If you’re a stay at home mother or father, maybe it’s each time you hang up the phone. Build little reminders to mentally speak to God throughout the day. Perhaps you can set an alarm to go off at noon to pray the Angelus.
If you’re a night owl, rather than spending time scrolling through social media or aimlessly watching TV, set aside thirty minutes before bed for more serious mental prayer. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at things like meditation and Lectio Divina.
Before bedtime, cultivate the habit of an evening Examen. Take time to look over your day, thank God for its gifts, examine your conscience and ask His help to make a resolution for the following day.
As you make your prayer plan, make goals for the week. Maybe you’d like to try to get to Mass an extra time throughout the week. Maybe you can plan to set aside time three days this week to say the Rosary. Perhaps you plan to read Scripture for five minutes every day. Do not bite off more than you can chew; set reasonable goals that are attainable based on your current prayer life. Yes, you would like to pray a daily rosary. But if you are not praying one now, perhaps it’s better to introduce the devotion into your life gradually. Remember, we are talking about building habits, and those do not happen overnight.
When it comes to our prayer life, the first step is to show up. Having a plan helps this. If the feeling isn’t there, you aren’t going to pray if it requires reinventing the wheel every day, finding time, and figuring out what to do. Have a plan. And try to show up. Maybe you are not feeling pious today. Maybe your mind is wandering and there is a lot on your to-do list. Perhaps the kids are especially needy this week and you do not know where you could find time to pray.
If you do not make a plan, it’s not going to happen. If you make a plan, it’s not always going to happen. But it’s a start. And tomorrow is a new day.
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