I recently heard a theologian suggest that eternity (Heaven) depends to a certain degree on how willing you are to pray: if you can’t carve a small space out for God in this life, how can you expect that either of you will want to spend eternity together? God has always been the perfect gentleman – at His first coming He was born in a quiet, hidden way, and was known in His infancy only to those who sought Him with sincere hearts: shepherds, wise men, and a handful of holy individuals who were watching for him from the temple. To everyone else, he was just another baby, just another child. As St. John says, there is for each of us the possibility that Christ might be so much more:
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” -1 John 1:12-13
We all struggle with prayer. There are moments where we feel more or less devoted – but this is, more often than not, because of how invested we are in a thing we are asking for or hoping for than because of what we hear or how God meets us in our prayer. Many times it seems like we are talking to ourselves or to an empty sky because we don’t hear anything back – but the response isn’t the point. We ought to pray because prayer opens us up to God – it disposes us, should He wish to speak, to hearing what He has to say. Prayer helps us discover the purpose of our lives, peace in the midst of chaos, and the ability to love others in ways we couldn’t do ourselves.
The world has been captivated by Pope Francis – the joy and kindness which he radiates in all that he does, whether it be his morning Masses or the gifts he bought for the poor of Rome. Time even named him “Person of the Year” in 2013! The thing is that Pope Francis’ secret is simple: his joy is simply the joy of living in relationship with Christ – a relationship that is founded in daily prayer.
If you’re convinced, here are a few things I’d recommend you do in order to give you a chance to succeed:
1) Find a place of quiet. When Jesus suggests we out to go to our rooms and shut the door (Matthew 6:6), it really was a practical suggestion. Praying in the middle of a shopping mall or in the hallway of your school between classes likely won’t get you very far. You can remind yourself that you are (always!) in God’s presence in those – and every – moment, but to truly devote yourself to prayer, you need to find a quiet place. This should include turning off your phone, or throwing it into airplane mode if you want to use it to pray– because if your phone is buzzing or beeping with notifications during your time of prayer, the “quality” of your prayer is going to be seriously lacking.
2) Set a time: Jesus asks Peter, John, and James to stay awake with him for an hour (Matthew 26:40). And that’s a great place to aim for – many saints made it a point to make a Holy Hour each day. But don’t start there – an hour in prayer can seem like a long time. I’d recommend you start with ten or fifteen minutes (set a timer on that phone you just put on “Airplane Mode”) – and stick to it. Quite often the grace or consolation we get in a time of prayer comes from the perseverance of sticking with the time we’ve promised to God. Also, look for a time you can be faithful to – first thing in the morning, right after school/work, right before bed (but if you’re doing it then, sit or kneel beside your bed… you’ll be more inclined to drift off to sleep rather than be attentive to God!)
3) Don’t let discouragement ruin your prayer life. The guilt or sense of discouragement that comes from missing a day of prayer doesn’t come from God – He’s grateful you’re trying. Just go again tomorrow. Distractions will certainly come, but that doesn’t defeat your prayer life. There’s an old saying that says “saints are just the sinners who get up one more time than they fall down.” Bishop Eugene Cooney once said that a succesful time of prayer is just like that: it’s a time of prayer where you chose to focus on God one more time than you were distracted from Him.
With that in mind, what should you do? Well, the Rosary is a great method of praying for about fifteen minutes (Don’t have a rosary? You have ten fingers – use those to count. Don’t know how? Click here for a downloadable .pdf). Bob Rice’s 40 Day Spiritual Workout is a wonderful way to build the habit as well, which you can either do via the iTunes App or via daily e-mails sent to your inbox. I love the app iBreviary (available for Apple & Android), and Laudate is excellent as well. If your school has a chapel, it’s likely that your teachers or chaplain may have some resources there. The Irish Monks have a great site up at http://www.sacredspace.ie/ that has daily prayers for you to use.
If you want a structure, one I can recommend is based on what St. Francis de Sales presents in his Introduction to the Devout Life – which was addressed to ordinary lay people trying to live a life of faith. Here are the steps he suggests for a time of prayer & recollection:
Step 1: Preparation (~1 minute)
Light a candle, turn down the lights (and silence your phone or any music you were listening to), and make the sign of the Cross. Then, you need to recognize God’s presence with you. De Sales suggests four ways to do this (pick the one that works best for you):
- Recognize that God is in all places and at all times, that there is no place in the world where God is not present right now… including the space you have chosen to pray.
- Remember that God dwells in your heart, so turn inward to speak to Him.
- As a loving Father, God is watching His children and turns His attention towards them – particularly when they begin to pray. As you make yourself attentive to Him, be consciously aware that He is doing the same for you.
- Imagine Jesus sitting, standing, or kneeling beside you, and begin speaking to Him.
Step 2: Talk to God (~2-3 minutes)
Don’t spend a lot of time on that first part – “shake the dust of your feet off,” and head inside to speak with God. If you want to begin with some kind of formal invocation, scripture offers a lot (particularly in the Psalms), but whether it’s “Let your face shine upon me, oh God” or “Hey, God, it’s Mike,” and start talking. There may be a few things on your heart that are bothering or worrying you – let Him know what those are… give them to Him – and then move on to the next step.
Step 3: Meditation or “Mental Prayer” (6-7 minutes)
This is where scripture or another prayer book would come in handy. If you’re going to work your way through the Bible, pick a Gospel to read, or look at the daily readings (which you can get via the apps I mentioned above, or on the USCCB website). You could also read from the Saints – there is no shortage of “through the year with…” books you can get. But whatever you’re going to consider during this time of reflection, you’re going to want to take some time to chew on it. de Sales suggests 4 steps here. First, use your imagination – put yourself into what you’re contemplating. If it’s a Gospel story, make yourself a character. If it’s a letter from St. Paul or the writings of some saint or holy person, imagine they are writing it to you. Second, consider what this means: how does what’s being spoken or written impact your life. What would your life look like if you did what was asked of you? From there, the third step is to make a resolution – what is God asking you to do or change today? Make a resolution of something you’re going to do with what you’ve meditated on.
Step 4: Conclusion (~1 minute)
Then, to conclude, make a spiritual bouquet – a collection of prayers to conclude your time with God. Say a word of thanks, offer your day and life to God, and ask His blessing on those family and friends you know need your prayer. Also, ask for His help to live out what you’ve just pondered. St. Francis de Sales explains this last part beautifully:
“When we walk in a beautiful garden, we usually gather some few choice flowers, inhale their fragrance, and carry them away with us, retaining and enjoying them through the day. So when our mind has fed upon some mystery by meditation, we should select some few points which especially strike us and are most calculated to benefit us, and dwell upon them, inhaling their spiritual fragrance.”
End with an Our Father or a Hail Mary, then, ten minutes is up, and off you go. If you want to go longer, by all means do so. This is just a rough guide to get you started. As you pray, you’ll find that God will begin to teach you, to soften your heart, and you’ll begin to recognize His voice much more clearly. Remember, He’s hidden in the sense that He wants us to look for Him (like the Shepherds and wise men did), but He’s hiding in plain sight that we might find Him.