Prayer is crucial for spiritual vitality. While praying to God seems straightforward, establishing a consistent pattern of prayer that will lead to personal transformation is not. My experience has been one of ongoing vigilance and battle, and while I just might be a tougher case than most people, I don’t think so. In this article and the two that follow, I’m going to share what I have found to be three essential keys to developing an active and fruitful prayer life.
What is prayer?
Prayer is talking to God, right? Yes, but it’s much more. Others expand the definition as communication with God — requiring both speaking and listening. I still would take it one step further. Prayer is our relationship with God. Relationships include communication, but they also include all the dimensions of the way we interact: attitudes, feelings, memories, will, and behaviors. Recalling memories of your loved one is an expression of your relationship, and so is the way you treat one another. Acting in obedience to God’s commands can then become an expression of prayer.
The first reason is that prayer expresses our dependence on God. He made us, loves us, sustains us, and intervenes in our lives. We ask for God’s help through petition, and we implore aid for others through intercession. When we act in disharmony with that relationship, we seek God’s forgiveness through confession. Sometimes we just pour our hearts out to Jesus.
The second reason is that prayer is a response to God and his love for us. We offer thanksgiving and praise. We bless and adore the Lord. God’s life within us creates hunger and thirst for him, so we seek to draw near to him. We desire communion with him.
The desire for communion makes us want to move beyond only praying when we need something or praying at Mass. The Holy Spirit works in our hearts, and disciples start wanting to pray always, or at least, to pray regularly and frequently.
Here’s where the trouble starts. As long as our relationship with God stays at the level of a casual acquaintance, we’re not bothered too much by long periods of separation and superficial encounters. That is until we don’t get something we want. Wounded by sin, desires of the flesh can take over in our pursuit of prayer. Our flesh wants to placate itself. When we experience physical hunger or pain, we want those satisfied, and we want it done now. And when we want something, we often want it done a certain way, so that it meets our demands. This demanding attitude can cause problems even when the focus of concern is only an inanimate object. But what about treating another person this way? What about behaving this way toward God?
Remember, too, that when we start to get serious about our relationship with God, Satan gets serious about diverting us elsewhere.
The desire for communion with God is a desire of the heart — a desire of the soul. We are incomplete without God. Our value, purpose, and wholeness — all of these come from God alone. God is Life and Love. No substitutions will do. So what will it take to strengthen prayer in our lives?
Key #1: Establish the discipline of prayer.
The Catechism tells us that you can’t pray all the time until you first learn to pray at specific times (CCC 2697). How do we do this? We first establish a discipline of prayer.
Developing a discipline is the practice of training oneself to do something. This training includes two goals: (1) to change from old ways to new ways, and (2) to make the new ways habitual.
Learning to do something new takes education, which is both cognitive and behavioral. It also means overcoming obstacles that cause us to resist change.
Some of the barriers are exterior ones. We don’t have a place to pray. We have frequent interruptions. We don’t have a set time, or we’re too tired and keep falling asleep. We have other habits that get in the way.
Other obstacles are interior. We don’t know how to pray, and it feels awkward. Other things compete for our attention, so we tell ourselves we don’t have time. Our brain seems to be in another solar system. We don’t feel like anything happens when we pray, and we want to see results.
The exterior obstacles tend to be the ones that keep us from getting started and developing the discipline of prayer. The interior ones will keep us from persevering and going deeper in prayer. Here are seven tips to help you overcome the exterior obstacles.
Set a specific time to pray.
Find a set time of the day you can pray with consistency. Make sure predictable schedule changes won’t force you to make frequent exceptions to your devotional time. Your prayer needs to have top priority in your schedule.
Find a place to pray.
You can pray anywhere. Ideally, pray somewhere accessible, comfortable, and free of distractions. Consider somewhere secluded to allow freedom of expression in prayer. You also might make your place of prayer special with sacramentals (e.g. a candle, statue, cross, holy cards, etc.).
Morning prayer is common, but pray at whatever time you can be consistent.
Develop a habit of prayer.
Link times of prayer to other established habits or routine daily practices. Pray the same time every day. Try to pray in the same place every day.
Set a goal for the amount of time you pray and stick to it.
Keep prayer short (5-15 min.) when establishing the habit. Pray longer once you
have a routine. As you grow, you’ll want to allow sufficient time for the different movements of prayer. Looking ahead, you eventually might work up to 25-30 minutes.
Adopt a comfortable position.
You can pray in any position.
We express our prayer through the bodily position we assume, and our position can help form our expression of prayer. Most of the time, sitting in a comfortable (but not too comfortable) chair works best.
Start praying in a way that is familiar and doable.
We’ll get into this more in future postings. For now, what you do depends on your previous experience. If you have little to no experience with praying on a regular basis, I would suggest either to pray using the Rosary, formal prayers (e.g. Our Father, Hail Mary, the Angelus, etc.), a structured prayer guide (e.g. Magnificat), or the psalms. Your priority is to establish the discipline of prayer, and that will be enough of a struggle without adding to the challenge by learning a new way to pray. If you have a method of prayer that has worked for you in the past, then use that approach until you establish the discipline of prayer.
Once you open the door to prayer using the first key, you’ll be ready to go through the next door.
Three Keys to Transforming Your Prayer Life – Part I is the first in a three-part series on developing a consistent and transformative prayer life.