Prayer takes work.
It’s true that even the youngest child can prattle off a prayer learned by heart, and many adults will mumble through the prayers at Mass while mentally going over their grocery list or thinking about what they’re going to order at Sunday brunch. But real prayer, truthful prayer, the kind of prayer that enriches your soul; that kind of prayer takes effort.
In many ways, that’s the problem with prayer. It’s hard work, and to get anything out of it takes consistent effort on the part of the person praying.
Too often we’ll hear people say, “I don’t pray anymore because I got nothing out of it. It was just a bunch of words learned by rote, and I don’t know if God ever heard me, because He never answered.” For these people, prayer outside of the memorized Mass responses involves complaining: “God, why is this happening to me?” or asking: “God, please let me win the lottery.” For many people prayer is a one off event, when it’s convenient for them. They aren’t willing to enter into a dialogue with God, they would rather tell God what’s up and expect Him to jump. Then they act surprised when God remains silent, much the way they do when family and friends are demanding in the same way with them.
And when God is silent, they refuse to keep the conversation going.
The funny thing is, I’ve found that the deepest, most meaningful conversations I’ve had have been with people I’ve known for a long time. Our best conversations were never the first ones we had, but rather after numerous conversations where we learned to trust one another in both words and silence. Gaining that mutual trust took work, it took an effort to get to know one another intimately. The relationship took time, growing in baby steps.
Prayer is like that; it takes time and effort, growing in baby steps.
Once you have decided to enrich your prayer life and deepen your relationship with God, you will need a plan. Recognize that it will take time and effort, that you won’t hit the contemplative jackpot overnight. Here are a few points that can help you create a plan for you how you’re going to take those prayerful baby steps.
Like any change you make in your life, if you want to change your prayer life, you will need to set goals for improving your prayer life. However, make sure the prayer goals you set are attainable. There is nothing more discouraging than wanting change, making the effort, and then falling short. Trying to add hours of contemplative prayer on obscure scripture passages is a sure fire to ensure you give up on prayer.
Instead, start by adding an amount of prayer that is feasible in your life; Matthew Kelly suggests 15 minutes a day, while Peter Kreeft would say to start out with 10 minutes of prayer a day. If you don’t already do it, adding prayer to your day could be as simple as saying grace before every meal. Once this new habit takes root, you’ll be surprised that you’re spending more time in prayer each day than you originally intended. Remember, even the greatest saints didn’t become a super contemplative overnight.
Make sure you have a routine to your prayer. If you set out to spend 10 minutes in prayer every day, but only do it when it’s convenient on any particular day, you’ll find yourself lying in bed, exhausted and upset that you didn’t get your prayer time in that day. Once you’ve skipped a day or two, it will conveniently grow to a week between prayers, then months.
Pray at the same time and place each and every day, especially when you’re starting out. Look for opportunities to incorporate time for prayer into your current daily routine. I find the best time for me is first thing in the morning, saying the Rosary while I walk the dog. You may even find that you need to wake up 15 minutes earlier to add prayer to your daily routine. It’ll be tempting to his the snooze button the first few days, but once you’re in the habit, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t gotten into the habit sooner.
Share your prayer plan with others who are also striving to deepen their relationship with God. You’d be surprised by how the challenges you face are the same challenges they find in their own prayer lives. Think of it as a prayer support group. Seek encouragement from others who have gone down the path before you. Everyone’s relationship with God is unique, but when you’re not sure where to start your prayer life, listening to what has worked for others will give you some ideas of where to begin. It’s also comforting to hear that those who we think have a deep spiritual life also struggle from time to time. Knowing you are not alone will give you the courage to continue praying.
Once you’ve established a prayer routine and you are comfortable with your new prayer life, challenge yourself to deepen your relationship with God. Be careful, however, that a little bit of success doesn’t breed overconfidence. Jumping from saying the Rosary daily to praying the Liturgy of the Hours is only asking to stumble and you will find yourself right back where you started from, or even further away from a rewarding prayer life because of disillusionment.
Add slowly to your prayer life. Pick and choose how you want your prayer life to grow. Start going to Mass once a week during the work week; read and reflect on the daily Gospel; spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – the options are endless, and only you and God know how your prayer relationship is intended to grow.
Once you have a prayer plan, stick to it, and you will be amazed by the blessings it bears.