Go ahead. Admit it. You feel just a little guilty when it comes to prayer — you wish you prayed more or better. Some days, you may even wish you had prayed at all. These are actually good impulses, promptings of the Holy Spirit to deepen your relationship with God. It’s the guilt you can do without.
When you’re overwhelmed or stressed
To avoid gossip
You see, we often learn to pray from priests and Religious whose lives are structured around decent, if not lengthy, periods of time for prayer. Then we feel guilty when we cannot maintain such schedules or ways of praying due to our obligations in the world.
But if we take the simple definition of prayer as lifting the mind and heart to God, we can find ways to pray while doing the dishes, driving to work, changing diapers, and cleaning out the garage. This is not to say we should stop striving to find a time and place apart to pray deeply. It’s just that when those extended periods of quiet are not possible and there’s no solitude at home even in the bathroom, we have other traditions to fall back on.
Prayer is like marriage. A healthy marriage needs and is nourished by a honeymoon to start and then periods when the couple gets a babysitter and spends time alone together. In these moments they strengthen their ability to communicate deeply. Yet in the fracas of everyday life, they develop a kind of shorthand communication — the quick kiss on the way out the door, for example. Single people know this, too, in their relationships with close friends.
So what kind of shortcuts and shorthand does our tradition give us so we can pray always?
Sign out at the door
Not all prayer involves words. Tracing the Sign of the Cross on your body or on the forehead of another is itself a prayer. We sometimes use words with the Sign of the Cross: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we often use the Sign of the Cross to begin and end another prayer. But this powerful gesture can stand alone.
If your mornings are hectic, try this: Make it a habit to sign yourself with the Sign of the Cross as you leave your home. As a reminder, you might try tracing the cross on the door in chalk or hanging a cross or crucifix near the door.
Making the Sign of the Cross is second nature for Catholics. The upside of this is that you already have this prayer of the body ingrained in you. The downside is that we can become casual with the sign, hurrying through it as though we are swatting flies. Make the cross deliberately and mindfully as you go out the door.
Early Christian teachers and preachers saw the cross as an identification mark, an invisible seal that nonetheless marks you as belonging to Christ. Others saw the cross as a shield, protection from evil. The cross is therefore a perfect prayer to make before you sally forth into your day.
And if that seems to work, try making the Sign of the Cross when you return, too. The Cross of Christ is the ultimate altar where Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice — Himself, his own body and blood. By making the Sign of the Cross as you come in from school or work at the end of the day, you offer to God everyone you have encountered, all that you’ve done, even all the frustrations and failures of the day. You place all that you’ve experienced at the foot of Christ’s Cross.
This calls to mind another practice from Catholic tradition: the one-liner. Our grandparents were taught pious lines, the simplest of which was to say with faith the names of the members of the Holy Family, as if calling them to your side: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Others were “My Jesus, mercy,” “My God and my all,” and “My God, I give Thee thanks for what Thou givest, for what Thou takest away. May thy will be done!”
Perhaps the very first brief prayer uttered was that of the blind man on the road near Jericho, who called out to Jesus as He approached, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18:38). Or the prayer of the 10 lepers, who called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13). Or that of the sinner whom Jesus commends as a model in prayer in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-17). The Pharisee was long-winded and eloquent, but God was more moved by the simple prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Christians in the Eastern churches combined these scriptural phrases into what is today known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is often prayed over and over again, like a mantra. Some modern teachers of prayer suggest syncopating the words with your breathing, praying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” as you breathe deeply in, and “Have mercy on me, a sinner” as you breathe out. As simple as this prayer seems — and can be — it has nonetheless engaged the hearts of mystics and others of deep prayer for centuries.
Being brief in prayer is not only practical. Jesus explicitly recommends it: “When you are praying, do not heap on empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them because your Father knows what you need before you ask” (Matthew 6:7-8). On the Cross, Jesus prayed the first verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” And his dying breath was the fifth verse of Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Now God loves a good heart-to-heart, where you tell all, sparing no details. So have it when you can and when you need to. But again, when you’re in a bind and the choice is between brief prayer or no prayer, be brief.
Try out some spiritual sound bites
Brief prayers fit with our culture, too. The psalms, for instance, cover a whole range of human emotions from joy to grief to just plain crankiness (see sidebar, “Psalm Bites”). Browse the Book of Psalms and see what jumps out at you. The trick is to choose verses that speak directly to God, not just about God.
There’s nothing wrong with memorizing, calling to mind, and saying a verse that talks about God, of course. Standing beneath the canopy of the night sky, who wouldn’t want to exclaim, “Praise God, sun and moon/praise God, all you shining stars!” (Psalm 148:3). But if another way of understanding prayer is conversation with God, it’s best to speak directly to the one you want to answer. It’s the difference between saying to your spouse, “I love you!” and, “You know, I love that person I’m married to.”
Copy psalm verses as you need them on small slips of paper you can carry in your pocket or post somewhere visible. Pray a verse over and over as each occasion warrants. Soon you’ll have it memorized, and the practice will be as spontaneous as breathing and have much the same effect. Take a deep breath; pray a brief prayer. Busy people can pray always! CD
From U.S. Catholic, uscatholic.com (800-328-6515) April 2005. © 2005 Claretians Publications. Reprinted with permission.
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