That’s Peter Kreeft’s advice about prayer in an article he wrote for the Integrated Catholic Life web site the other day. It’s a “how-to” piece and the gist he summarizes in a just a couple of sentences: “Let’s get very, very basic and very, very practical about prayer. The single most important piece of advice I know about prayer is also the simplest: Just do it!” – Good Advice, especially concerning prayer.
Prayer is like many things we’d really like to do, things that we know we’ll enjoy or benefit from in the long run, but it’s just these kinds of things that seem so hard or lacking in any kind of instant gratification. Without that gratification, prayer becomes easy to dispense with during the rush of a busy day. In fact, for many Christians, prayer is the first thing we drop from our daily schedule when things get hectic.
For Dr Kreeft, the big challenge for most people is making time each day for prayer. While I don’t argue with that idea, in my own experience finding time isn’t the problem. The real issue is that prayer can be hard, dry, even useless; it seems like nothing happens, that God isn’t even there. The idea of doing that day after day is sometimes less than appealing. Thus, if things get busy, it’s easy to say, “I’ll just do it tomorrow,” when tomorrow comes, it’s just as busy, and so prayer is postponed to the next day. Pretty soon, I’m spending no time in prayer. I believe that’s called sloth.
The way to avoid sloth is, as Peter Kreeft says, “Just do it.” I would add, you must do it without any expectations; prayer isn’t all sunshine and flowers, it can be hard and quite unrewarding. Sometimes it’s just allowing yourself to spend 20-30 minutes in God’s presence, nothing more. If you allow God to set the agenda instead of trying to take control, always a temptation, things tend to be much easier. As Fr Michael Casey once wrote, what would we think if Samuel had said, “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!”
Everyone’s prayer is different and the way you “just do it” is quite likely different from my own. For me, sometimes my prayer time involves nothing more than asking God to send His spirit, praying a prayer like St Anselm’s prayer I posted last week, and then reading a favorite Psalm. (Most often, I find myself turning to Psalm 1 or part of Psalm 119. Sometimes I might open up Proverbs or the Gospel for the next Sunday, and just start reading there.) Many times something in my reading will strike a spark in my mind and prayer seems to come. Other times nothing happens, and then I just sit and try to listen and be silent. Sometimes my scheduled 20 minutes seem to just fly by and I want to stay longer, other times I sit there and count the seconds. I don’t often have great experiences of God’s presence or His working in me; mostly it’s just sitting and letting myself have a few minutes of silence.
Oh, and if my 20 or 25 minutes was really dry and tedious and empty, I follow St Ignatius’ advice and purposely sit there for another minute or two, no more. I try never to quit before the time is up. You can experiment to find what’s best for you, but don’t give up – Just do it!
I generally hesitate to write about things like this because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m holding myself out as an expert on prayer. I’m not any kind of expert; I am the rankest of amateurs. It’s just that I hope, by sharing some of my own experience, I can offer encouragement to anyone, myself included, who might be struggling in prayer by letting them see they’re not alone and that the struggles can be overcome. Sometimes, you have to just do it.