Here we go again. Another new calendar year, another gloriously empty planner, another fresh start. Another chance to count our calories and our steps, watch our words, manage our time, balance our budgets. It’s our annual self check-up. What did we do well last year, and how can we build on that? What areas can we brush off and re-evaluate?
The most important things, we know, are sometimes the least urgent, and therefore may be the most neglected when we venture into the dusty corners of life. You know where I’m going with this: our relationship with God, nurtured by prayer, is necessary for this life and the next. But it doesn’t clamor for our attention like the kids in the next room. It doesn’t cry, it doesn’t beg, it doesn’t climb into our lap and ask for breakfast. And so it may not get a whole lot of anything, let’s face it. So often our prayer life may consist of a few frantic Hail Marys tossed up for heavenly grabs as if life was a series of desperation plays. And maybe some days, or some seasons, it really does resemble that.
But mama needs prayer. Shall we all sigh a collective sigh and nod our tired heads? We know it’s true. Where to start? How to recommit to – or just begin – our journey to union with God, the union which is our source of strength, wisdom, joy, and peace? It can overwhelm us. I have what I think of as a spiritual junk drawer – so many devotions, books, novenas, saints, and practices – all wonderful, all helpful, all part of our incredible Catholic inheritance – but the sheer amount of choices when it comes to prayer can be paralyzing at times. If I could somehow set aside a few precious quiet moments for God each day, which may seem like a small miracle in itself, what should I do?
Dan Burke, president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation , the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com, and the executive director of EWTN’s National Catholic Register, has managed to pack a lot of wisdom about cultivating a strong, consistent, and fruitful prayer life into a relatively brief and very readable book: Into the Deep: Finding Peace Through Prayer.
The desire to pray, Burke begins, comes from the Lord. Therefore we can be sure that with our cooperation and persistence, God will fulfill that desire. God created us to be with him; he first desires us to enjoy union with him, a union which prayer makes possible, even in this life. Knowing and receiving that invitation, he says, is the first step to beginning a deep prayer life.
The second step is to begin with a commitment to simply do it, and do it even if we don’t fully understand it. Burke invites us to trust that the Holy Spirit will take and bless our beginner’s efforts and guide us into the deep.
He teaches us to start with “Discovery Prayer,” a new term for lectio divina, the ancient but ever-new practice of using scripture as a starting point for conversation with God, meditation on his mysteries, and even the depths of contemplation. He walks us through exactly how to practice this time-tested method of prayer.
But wait – holy practices need holy time, holy places. We can – and do – pray in the car, snuggled in bed with sleepy kids, in line at the grocery store (while trying to ignore the obnoxious magazines), and during our many hours at the kitchen sink. But if we want to grow in our prayer life, if we are really serious about committing to regular, structured prayer, Burke suggests we treat it with a degree of solemnity we may not have before. He walks us through setting aside a time in our day and a holy place in our home and consecrating it to God.
Burke uses the image of a tree full of monkeys to describe our mind and all of its distractions, the biggest challenge to fruitful prayer time. He encourages us to get up early to pray everyday, or at least to do it first thing upon rising, because “groggy monkeys rarely raise a ruckus.” This, I admit, was a challenge for me. I get less sleep than I need most nights, and need to get up long before the sun anyway just to get our brood off and running each day. But I’ve learned he’s right. The few extra minutes of missed sleep are more than made up for by the peace and strength that comes from spending serious time with God. I find that I wake craving it – spiritual caffeine for a weary soul.
I also struggled to find the perfect sacred place to pray. I liked the idea. Looking around our home, it was full of religious articles. Statues, crucifixes, paintings, holy cards tucked in corners everywhere. But sacred? That gave me pause. I liked the idea of a place just for prayer. But if you are like me, you may have more monkeys in your house than in your head. And if your little monkeys are as mischievous as mine, with swift and sticky fingers, sacred places may not be safe. One day, my solution dawned on me. Literally.
With a head full of groggy morning monkeys, I was opening the blinds in our front living room. The sun, just beginning to stretch above the horizon, streamed in between the wooden slats. I realized that I’d found my spot! I wanted to pray facing East, the traditional orientation for prayer, and watch the sun rise over my prayer, fresh with the new mercies God promises each morning.
Right now, I can’t claim a place in that room just for prayer. But I have a corner of the couch, facing that front window, where I curl up with coffee and scripture each morning. To make it more sacred, I’ve tucked a bible, statue, candle, journal, and any other current prayer books into a basket kept safely out of reach and ready to pull out each morning. It’s emergence is a symbol to me – and the kids – that it’s time to pray. Time to hush our voices and hearts. Early wakers know where to find me, and sometimes they curl up next to me as I finish praying. But they know now that everything else can wait a few minutes. They know what comes first.
I hope that it won’t take them as long to figure all of this out. I pray that their inner lives will be nurtured by consistent prayer long before I got serious about it. And I already know one book I’ll be giving them to help them get started.