Most of us want to commit to daily prayer, but many find it hard to maintain it as a habit. Some lament to me in spiritual direction that they began praying the Examen, for example, and it was fruitful, but they stopped after a week. When I ask why, it’s often because something else took the place of it: a visitor, a family event, or something on their to-do list. It’s easy to feel one is “failing” at the spiritual life when their prayer is not where they hope it to be. Here are a few insights I’ve gained in my conversations with people seeking a more consistent prayer practice.
What am I already doing?
When someone becomes self-critical or anxious about their supposed lack of prayer, I ask them what they already do that might be considered prayer. I remember busy days as a hospital chaplain when I complained to my spiritual director that I wasn’t praying regularly. He asked me what I was doing each day. I told him that each day I listened to Christian music on my walk to work each morning, I journaled about my experience when I got home, and I thought about the patients I had met that day. “Sounds like you’re praying a lot,” he told me. In our efforts to “add on” a formal spiritual practice, we can miss moments when we’re already turning our mind and heart to God. Formal prayer practices are great, but they’re no more holy than other moments of connection with God.
Examine the Block
A prayer practice in its early days is often replaced with something else. When we notice we’ve lapsed in the habit, we need to step back and examine why. What blocked me from making the time for prayer? Was it something out of the ordinary routine like a guest visit for dinner? Was it something distracting like a TV show? Or was it sleepiness at the end of the day?
- Time and Space – In the Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius notes that if the directee is having dryness or boredom in prayer, the director should ask about the particulars—or externals—about the prayer itself. Are they praying in a space conducive to prayer? What is their posture? What is the lighting like? Are they using music or silence? What time of day are they praying? We are unique and so the environment for prayer can make a difference. If it was sleepiness that prevented prayer, then don’t pray before bed. Discern what might be the best time of day for prayer. Can you wake up earlier in the morning? Could it be just a ten-minute Examen at lunchtime?
- Accountability – Creating lasting habits is difficult. We may lose motivation to pray because of other things that seem more interesting, like TV or the internet. Do you have a friend or a partner who can hold you accountable to your prayer time? Would a habit tracker be a helpful approach? Sometimes a trigger is helpful to cue your prayer time, like waking up, going to bed, or commuting home in the car (if you choose to pray in the car).
- Disruption in Routine – When someone gets into a habit of prayer often an unusual disruption can derail your progress, like a holiday with family, travel for work, or some other change in schedule. If your prayer is triggered by an event like getting ready for bed, sometimes that trigger can be disrupted by a special event like dinner guests staying late or a different schedule while visiting relatives. Perhaps you’re on holiday for a week and you find you have lapsed on daily prayer. When you return to your normal routine, the broken habit can stick. It’s helpful to have a “Plan B” or a backup plan for your spiritual life in these cases. When your daily situation temporarily changes what is the alternate plan that goes into action? My alternate plan while travelling for work could be that instead of praying before bed—which could be disrupted because of evening outings with co-workers—I pray right after I brush my teeth in the morning.
Pray for the Grace
Ignatius was big about asking God for what you need and desire. How about just asking God for help in keeping a prayer habit! When I made the Spiritual Exercises in the 30-day format we were encouraged to add a “midnight meditation” prayer period to our daily prayer. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to meditate on a passage of scripture for an hour! I remember being told not to set an alarm but to pray to the Holy Spirit and ask her to wake me in the night so I could pray. And so I did. At around 1am most nights I woke up and felt awake enough to walk to the retreat house chapel and pray. We sometimes forget that we can just ask God for help.
Unfortunately, we can get into the belief-trap of a merit-based God. Our anxiety about prayer habits and methods of prayer can be rooted in a fear that we’re not doing “enough” for God. We need to go easy on ourselves, recognising that prayer is not for God, but for us. Prayer cultivates our relationship with the Divine and moves us deeper into the love of God. If we don’t pray, believe it or not, God still loves us! So be gentle on yourself and be okay with baby steps when trying to develop a new prayer habit. God is loving you and knows your good intentions.
- Cultivate Your Faith: Prayer
- Busy and Restless
- Being, Not Achieving: A Taoist Guide to Ignatian Indifference
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