As Christians, we are aware that the Scriptures ask us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (cf. 1 Thes.5:17), but this can often seem like an insurmountable task. In fact, sometimes the very thought of praying at all seems alien to us. For many, prayer is simply something that they do not – for a whole variety of reasons – do; for others, it may be something that they do only in times of need – those darker moments of life when we perceive how great our need is, and we turn towards God, for example. As things improve, the danger is that we forget our promise to continue to pray, and revert to our old ways.
Throughout the history of the Church, the Saints have encouraged us in the way of prayer and have constantly recommended prayer to us – after all, prayer is to the soul what air is to the body. Prayer is the bridge connecting God and man; we cannot live a spiritual life without prayer. There are various types of prayer – contemplative, meditative, vocal, for example; the simplest of these to begin with are the vocal prayers. Our vocal prayers help to focus our attention and the Lord even gives us a particular vocal prayer in the Our Father, telling us this is how we are to pray. There are a great many particular vocal prayers, such as the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, as well as whatever words fill our minds and hearts as we pray.
So how, then, do we make prayer a daily part of who we are and what we do? How do we cultivate the habit of prayer?
The first thing we need is the grace of God. We might think prayer is our move toward God – in reality, it is our response to God’s move toward us. It is a reaction, rather than an action; a response, not an initiative. The very desire to pray is a gift of the Lord, Who seeks us out. I think He is particularly generous with this grace – He calls so many souls to enter into a deeper conversation with Him, to listen quietly to His voice speaking in the silence of our hearts.
And this word ‘conversation’ is key here. Prayer is nothing more – and nothing less – than the conversation between two hearts, or ‘an intimate sharing between friends’, as the great St Teresa of Avila describes it. She also says this – ‘Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed.. all that is needed is the will to love’. And so this is the next thing we need – desire, or the will to pray and to continue praying. Our will opens the door to God’s grace -and it can close that door just as easily. God will never force us; He will always respect our ‘yes’ or our ‘no’.
Assuming, then, that we are responding to God’s grace in having the desire to pray, how do we actually develop prayer into a habit?
Habits are formed by repetition. By doing the same thing at the same time or in the same place, we might develop a habit. And so when it comes to prayer, the same principles apply; we need to make a time and find a place.
At least to begin with, perhaps it is sensible to keep our goals attainable. It is better to commit to five minutes of prayer and do this consistently and well, than to promise we will pray for an hour and quickly give up altogether because we don’t manage it. Perhaps begin simply, with an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be; after all, what matters more is the quality of the prayer, not the quantity. You may well find that as the habit of prayer develops, your heart yearns to pray more – this, too, is the grace of God at work.
To strengthen and support our prayer life, it can be very helpful to have a particular place which we associate with – and set aside for – the habit of prayer. In the same way we associate one place with eating, another with sleeping, perhaps there is a place somewhere at home which we can use specifically for prayer, where we have devotional objects to assist us in this task – a Crucifix and candle, for example, and a Bible.
As far as possible this time and this place should be free of distractions, particularly if (especially in the early days) our mind is likely to wander. Writers often have a favourite desk at which to write; Saints often have a little corner where they like to pray. Perhaps we can follow their example.
Cultivating the habit of prayer becomes something of a discipline – most of us lead busy lives and it can seem difficult to make time for prayer, but make it we must if we are to succeed. Otherwise, we will probably find that we quickly lose the habit and our efforts come to nothing. For some, first thing in the morning may suit best; while for others, the evening may be better, after the work of the day is done and our minds can begin to quieten little. It can be useful to pray at the same time each day – this develops the habit of prayer more easily and gives us a fighting chance to succeed.
For me, I pray the Rosary late each evening, when the cares of the day are already passing and I can concentrate better on my prayers; this time also allows me to go over my intentions of the day, which have increased as the day has gone on.
And this leads on nicely to the next point – what are we praying for? Our first reason for praying is to give praise to God, Who deserves our praise and our adoration. He also deserves our thanks for all the blessings He grants us each and every day – beginning with the fact that we are alive, and then becoming more specific as we look at our lives and all they contain, including the people with whom we interact each day. As human beings, we all have needs – and that might be the next focus of our prayers. We may pray for our own personal needs, whatever they are, as well as the needs of others; after all, if we stop at ourselves, we have missed the point of acquiring and developing the habit of prayer. As much as the Scriptures tell us to pray, they also tell us to pray for each other – remember, the Lord gave us the Our Father, not the My Father. Prayer is communal; we lift up each other in prayer, and prayer gains even greater power when we pray in company.
Pope Francis tells us that “prayer is all powerful” and he goes on to say that “miracles happen – but prayer is needed; prayer that is courageous, struggling and persevering, not prayer that is a mere formality”.
St John Paul said that “often the most powerful prayers are the unspoken acts of mercy we choose as intercession for a specific person, intention, or global need”. He said that “prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history”. He went on to say that his favourite prayer is that of the Rosary, which he called “a storehouse of countless blessings”. He said “the Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christ-centered prayer. It has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety. It is an echo of the prayer of Mary, Her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in Her virginal womb”.
Perhaps, then, this is a further crucial element we need in order to acquire, develop and maintain the habit of prayer – a model in prayer. We have so many such models to choose from, each with a particular slant on prayer, it’s form and it’s type. There are many who will tell us what prayer is, of what it consists, and recommend various ways of doing it. In the end, though, the important thing is not really that we know about prayer, but that we actually pray.
The model above all others is surely that of the Mother of God, the Woman of prayer of the Gospels, Who “kept all these things and pondered them in Her Heart”.
And that, surely, perfectly describes the habit of prayer.