When people speak to me about prayer, I often hear how people struggle with the practice. Some find it boring. Some find the exercise dry. Many are very concerned about how distracted they become when they pray. Many are concerned that they are “not doing it right.” Some are not even sure what prayer is.
This is all normal. This is all legitimate. This is all good. Nevertheless, let’s look at some foundational elements about prayer then see if we can address some of the concerns above.
First, prayer involves a commitment. Prayer does not “just happen.” In the seminary, we were often told, “If you’re too busy to pray – you’re too busy.” We were also told that you cannot say, “Well my work is my prayer.” Sorry, that doesn’t work either. You need time – scheduled time. That’s right, put it in your calendar. You need to develop a prayer routine. Schedule a time that fits with your schedule and physical bio-rhythms. If you are not a morning person, don’t think that you are going to set your alarm to 5:00 am to pray. If you’re a “night owl,” schedule your prayer time for the evening. (Personal note: I’m an old fisherman. I’m used to getting up early to hit the lake or a stream. I cannot pray effectively at night without falling asleep – so I don’t).
Second, find a place – a physical spot – that can be your “sanctuary. It can be a kneeler, a couch, a chair, a local chapel, on the floor with pillows. Near by, place a Bible or another spiritual book, a rosary and a candle. Also a clock (A clock?) Yes. Schedule your time and stick to the schedule. When your prayer time is finished, it’s done. Close that prayer moment and move on back “down the mountain” into the “market place.”
Third, you need to find a spot where you can experience some solitude. Tell – and train – people around you (spouses, kids, etc…) that you are to be left alone “for a few minutes” when they see you “in the sanctuary.” Enforce this, especially with children. It will make a tremendous impression on them (They might even try it themselves – what a idea!).
Fourth, too many people want “an experience” when they pray. That’s not prayer,
Nothing is meant to be exciting all of the time. We don’t always eat, nor want, a banquet. Eating has a natural balance and a natural rhythm that needs to be respected. Prayer should be the same.
Along this same line, some people are often searching out “new forms” of prayer. Again, this is pleasure seeking, not prayer. They want a “high” instead of God. The (sometimes boring) ritual of prayer is important. Rituals “carry us through the midst of our tiredness, our inattentiveness, our indifference and even our occasional distaste.”
Fifth, related to points two and three above, you need quiet. Our entertainment-saturated culture craves stimulation. We use noise as a narcotic to anesthetize ourselves from a practice of interiority. Why? Because once you get quiet, all sorts of ugly, nasty, unpleasant stuff is going to start to come up in your mind. Don’t block it out. Bring that to the Lord! Talk to the Lord about that stuff! The “dark side” is not just something from Star Wars. The “Desert Fathers” wrote about our “shadow side” – the result of Original Sin. Embrace it. Wrestle with it. Struggle with it. TALK about it with someone else. The Lord can’t redeem what you don’t offer him. So offer him the ugly stuff in your heart.
Excerpts from Prayer: Our Deepest Longing