As mentioned last week, one of the three pillars of Lent is prayer.
Like most of you, I am in continual need to grow in my prayer life. And far be it from me to give advice to those who are my spiritual betters. But one thing I have noticed is that many people say that they “try” to pray but that they do not get anything out of the experience.
On of the reasons for this is that we need to prepare for prayer.
To be sure, prayer can be spontaneous and sometimes brief. In class, if a student asks a deep question, I quickly pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. When and ambulance passes by, my wife and I pray a “Hail Mary” for the safety of all involved.
But in addition to this, we must make sure to set aside time for deep, personal prayer. We know who and what we love by the way we give our time. Time is life. Every minute of free time you give is a piece of your life that you can never get back. So with that in mind we must give our life, our time to God in prayer.
It is not merely quantity of time that is important, but quality. 5 minutes of very good prayer can be more important than 3 hours of distracted prayer. However, we shouldn’t disregard the time spent in distracted prayer as wasted. He wrote, “I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God’s eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling.” (CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer) The commitment we make to prayer is itself a kind of victory. As Fr. Mike Schmidt pointed out recently in a Lenten homily, consistency beats intensity every time. Part of building a good prayer life is building a consistent prayer life, even when the feelings are not there.
Once we have established that consistency, we are called to delve deeper. And while there are many ways to do this, I would like to focus on the preparation for prayer.
Prayer is encountering God. When you encounter other people, don’t you prepare yourself? You dress nicely or make sure your hair is combed and your teeth brushed. To be sure, we are less formal with the people around us. But if we are to give our attention to a person we love, we have to remove the distractions. Aren’t we perturbed when someone is watching the TV when we are trying to talk about our day?
The first thing is to find a space for prayer. We may not be able to find the perfect oasis, but we must do what we can where we are.
The next thing we need to do is remember that we are human, so we pray also with our bodies. We are in the flesh and we must use this to our advantage.
Prayer ultimately is making yourself present to the Presence of God. But we cannot be present to God if we are not present in the moment. Often we are thinking about things in the past or are distracted about our plans for later. We must be mindful of the present moment. How do we do this?
Here is where we can use the body to help. What I am about to share is something I received from a prayer book I used over 25 years ago. I have tried to find it again, but I cannot remember the title in order to give the author the proper credit for the below meditation. But the exercises used to prepare a person for prayer have helped me greatly. This is only one method of prayer preparation. Use for you what is most effective.
When entering your prayer space, find a comfortable position to sit, but not a position so comfortable as to cause drowsiness. Once in that position, close your eyes and be aware of your body and how it is comfortable.
Then begin to breathe slowly: in through the nose and out through the mouth. We breathe 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If we ever stopped we would die. But we barely notice. Now, notice the air rush down your nostrils. Feel the expanse in the chest and abdomen. Then feel the release of the muscles and the warm air rise up and out through the mouth. After a few moments, pray this prayer, “God, you are closer to me than my own breath. With every breath I breathe, make me more aware of your presence.”
Next, listen to the sounds around you. The world does not go away when we close our eyes. We are bombarded by sounds all the time, but we filter most out. But take time to hear all the sounds and be aware of their reality. After a few moments, pray this prayer, “God, you are more real than the sounds that I hear. With every sound I hear, make me more aware of your reality.”
Finally, be aware of the feeling of the clothes on your skin. We are encased in clothing most of the day, but we barely notice. Feel the texture of the fabric on your skin. Feel where it is loose or constrictive. Feel out it touches your body. After a few moments, prayer this prayer, “God, you are nearer to me than the clothes on my back. With every sensation I feel, make me more aware of your loving embrace.”
Making yourself aware of your own bodiliness in the present, draws you into the present moment. And in this present moment, we can present to God’s presence. From here, you can engage in any time of prayer that works best for you. But the important thing is that you prepared your mind and heart for this encounter.
If we prepare for prayer, then we prepare to truly encounter God.
Copyright 2023, WL Grayson
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