The Importance of Personal Prayer
By Rachel Swenson Balducci
Sharon Cosper knows the importance of prayer. For years she has started her days with quiet devotion, and when she makes the effort to spend time in prayer, Sharon notices the difference.
But these days, with three children under the age of four, the wife and mother can’t realistically make quiet reflection happen first thing.
“I’ve struggled with wanting to start the day with a prayer time,” said Sharon, who is also a full-time assistant professor at a medical university in Augusta, Georgia. “But I live with the reality of wanting to have a better prayer time than what I can have in the morning.”
So, while spending dedicated time in prayer is important, Sharon has decided that she will still start each morning with prayer—just an abridged version.
“Each morning, right when I wake up I dedicate my day to God. Recently I’ve been praying that God will allow me to accomplish everything he wants me to accomplish that day—and only that. It has brought so much grace and peace. I can rest knowing I’m going to get done what he needs me to.”
At the end of the day, once she and her husband, Jonathan, have put their children down for the night, Sharon spends time in prayer and reflection, giving her time with Jesus the focus it needs.
Either way, Sharon says, no matter what time of day it happens, prayer changes things in her life.
“I’m a busy person, and I’ve had different seasons when I’ve made the time for prayer and when I haven’t made the time. I’m always better when I have the prayer time; things just go better.”
Make the effort
It can be easy to tell ourselves we don’t have time to pray. Especially for moms with young children, where the days are intense and nonstop, quiet time alone seems out of the question.
But what we shouldn’t buy into—none of us—is that deep, intimate prayer is reserved only for the ordained and consecrated among us. We are all called to a deeper union with Jesus, from the young stay-at-home mother to the old priest about to retire. Jesus wants to spend time with each one of us.
Worth the effort
Father Brett Brannen is a retreat leader for priests and seminarians and the author of To Save a Thousand Souls. When he offers spiritual direction, he is quick to point out that spending time with Jesus is what we were all made to do.
“The only success recognized by God is Christ-likeness,” said Fr. Brett, pastor at Blessed Sacrament in Savannah, Georgia. “That’s the purpose of our life; that’s what we’re on earth for.”
Prayer, he added, is how we get where we need to be.
“The only way to become like Christ is to spend time with him in prayer,” said Fr. Brett. “This is how we are transformed. The two things that will stretch a person’s heart are mental prayer and suffering. I don’t think we want to start with the second one.”
Perhaps a best first step in making time for prayer is recognizing how crucial it is in our lives. Prayer isn’t just sitting down and telling Jesus what we need, it’s fostering a relationship that gives us the grace to do what we’ve been called to do.
“One cannot give what one does not have,” said Fr. Brett. “Our job is to bring Jesus to others. As a mom your job is to bring Christ to your children and husband. To do that, you have to be filled with Christ first. We can’t be nice and patient unless we sit with the Lord.”
Fr. Brett has one compelling motivator to spend time in prayer: Remember how ineffective we are on our own. “Each one of us has to recognize with humility, ‘I’m nothing without Jesus.’”
What does prayer look like?
When we hear “prayer time,” we might think, Adoration Holy Hour. Which then makes us think, Unrealistic. And we are back to: Not gonna happen.
But deep, meditative prayer can also happen at home, and it doesn’t necessarily mean long spans of time. Different stages of life will afford different prayer times. The young mother and the older retiree will likely have different approaches to personal prayer.
“Don’t get overwhelmed,” says Fr. Brett. “Just do what you can.”
“I encourage people to spend even 15 minutes talking to Jesus from their heart and listening in silence,” he said. “And secondly, simply come to Mass, receive the sacraments, and pay attention. If people would do those two things, 90 percent of my work as a priest would be finished.”
It’s easy to think in certain seasons, “My life is a prayer.” That can certainly be true, but when we accept our limits—that we are nothing without Jesus—then we have to admit we need as much help as we can get. We make time for prayer (to our best abilities) and pray for grace and peace on our journey.
“Moms really need to believe in what they are supposed to be doing: bringing Jesus to their children,” said Fr. Brett. “And then they must recognize, ‘I can’t bring him if I don’t have him. I’ve got to be filled with him first.’”
Of course, even when we have the best intentions, life will get in the way. And we need to remember that.
“We all need to consecrate to Christ what we are doing,” said Fr. Brett. “St. Vincent de Paul told his priests that if they were sitting in prayer and a poor person knocked on the door, they shouldn’t feel like they were neglecting Christ if they answered the door.”
Just do it
Dan Almeter is a husband and father and the moderator of the Catholic Fellowship Council of the International Catholic Fraternity. He recently retired as a social worker. Years ago, when his children were young, he felt a call for deeper prayer in his life.
“All the saints talk about deeper prayer, and I thought, How do I get it? What do they have that I don’t?” said Dan. That question is key to growing in prayer—recognizing that we are called to the same relationship with Jesus as the saints.
Around this time Dan and his wife, Marie, had their sixth child, and Marie was working nights as a nurse. Dan would get up around 2:00 a.m. each night to feed the baby her bottle, and he decided to practice opening himself up to deeper prayer during this time.
“I’d warm up the bottle, light a candle, and sit in the rocking chair,” said Dan. “The whole time I’d say ‘Jesus, I love you.’”
In that simple way, Dan said God flooded him with a sense of his presence. From there he began reading about contemplation—spending quiet time in prayer.
“John Paul the Great talks about us becoming ‘schools of prayer,’ in the tradition of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila,” said Dan. “I began to wonder, Why did I wait so long?”
It can be easy to think another season of life will afford more time. Dan realized he needed to jump in and begin.
“Our biggest hurdle is that prayer just isn’t the priority for most people,” said Dan. “I’m not saying we don’t need to fulfill our duties—we do. But if you just count how many hours a day you listen to or watch media and compare that to how much time you spend in prayer, you can get a quick fix on how important that is.”
Sharon had that same "aha!" moment.
“I realized that if I don’t just do it, I’m never going to do it,” she said. “As if I’m going to reach a season where I can finally breathe and sit and have a prayer time—I’m always going to be busy. I have to lay that down and just do it.”
The effort is worth it. Prayer changes things. It doesn’t necessarily solve all our problems, or convince God to give us what we want. But it floods our souls with the peace only Jesus can bring. It carries us on our journey as we head toward eternal life with our Creator.
“We were created for union to God, but people are very distracted today,” said Dan. “Breaking through that distraction and making time is the biggest challenge, but deep prayer is meant for everybody. It helps us grow in love and charity and holiness. It’s a gift.”
Make prayer a habit
1. Dedicate your day to Jesus, first thing in the morning. “You have to really believe in prayer,” said Fr. Brett, “and don’t wait until 10 at night.”
2. Ask Jesus to remind you to pray. Ask him to show you when you could spend time in prayer. He wants to spend time with you—he will give you the time.
3. Don’t get bogged down by your time constraints. “We all have time for prayer,” said Dan, “even if it’s not large chunks.”
4. Carve out a special space. “Light a candle in front of the crucifix—that really sets the mood,” said Dan. “That might sound a little contrived, but having a quiet place where you feel really at home is key.”
5. Work as a team. Spouses should work together to spend time in prayer. “Mom and Dad both need quiet time, and they should cover for each other,” said Fr. Brett. “They both need time to be with the Lord and sit at his feet.”
Books on prayer
- Prayer Primer by Fr. Thomas Dubay talks about all forms of prayer.
- Fire Within and Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer, both by Fr. Thomas Dubay, focus specifically on contemplative prayer.
- Thomas Green, SJ, has several books on prayer that focus on meditation and growing in prayer.
- Impact of God by Iain Matthews examines St. John of the Cross’ spirituality.