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If you are not praying, try to pray irregularly. If you are irregularly praying, try to pray regularly. If you are regularly praying, try to pray a bit more. And remember that wherever you are spiritually, God has not moved.

It may seem obvious, but the first thing to say about the pursuit of deeper prayer is that you need to be praying. Dom John Chapman, a nineteenth-century Benedictine, had the radical theory that if you do it more often, prayer goes better. In a letter to a layman, he observed the following:

The only way to pray is to pray; and the way to pray well is to pray much. If one has no time for this, then one must at least pray regularly. But the less one prays, the worse it goes. And if circumstances do not permit even regularity, then one must put up with the fact that when one does try to pray, one can’t pray—and our prayer will probably consist of telling this to God.

This kind of advice is pretty accurate. It does not set down a rule about how many minutes a day one must pray. The only rule is to do it as much as possible. After all, the teaching of St. Paul is that we should aim to “praying without ceasing” or, as some translations put it, “constantly.” Well, if that is the goal, you have to start somewhere and always make it your goal to increase the time spent. Why? Because, as Chapman noted, when we don’t do it, we won’t be used to it and the only prayer we’ll be able to muster is going to be something in the line of the Prayer of the Shaken Millennial: “I can’t even.”

What’s worse is that most people will go from “I can’t even” to just not saying anything at all. After all, it’s a pretty embarrassing prayer.

But let me tell you that if you are in that situation, don’t hold back with it. Tell the Lord that you are not praying well. Ask the Lord to give you something. And then attempt to listen.

Of course, listening is hard to do, too. After all, there are many, many things that buzz between our ears when we stop and attempt to pray—some of them sinful—but there’s an opportunity to ask God for help! And we’re off with a prayer that goes beyond saying we can’t pray. We are begging for God’s mercy—not a bad thing to do at all since even the holiest are still beggars before God. Acknowledging that I am a beggar before God is a good step toward being acknowledged by God, as the Prodigal Son was after his great confession, as a Son. If we are having trouble listening to God because we’re listening to the demon on our shoulder or the uncircumcised part of our heart, we can try to drown them out by calling out to the Lord for deliverance.

Of course, sometimes it’s not sins that buzz in our ears. Sometimes it’s worries about our future or the future of those we love or our health or our jobs or our relationships. Take it from a world-class awake-at-2 AM-worrier: there are endless numbers of bad things that can happen! And yet, here, too, we have a golden opportunity, for we can now obey the words of I Peter 5:7 to “Cast your cares upon the Lord, for he cares for you.”

Perhaps the worst problem we might have is not sin or worry but the mindless scrolling through our thoughts that has nothing of worry or sin about it but just mindlessness. For men, though perhaps not for women, there is even the possibility of thinking about nothing at all and arising from any time of prayer with the sense that time has passed and we have nothing to show for it.

Or perhaps it’s not such a bad problem after all. Not sinning and not indulging in worry is not so bad after all. For many of us, score such a time of prayer at least a tie. We can give thanks that there is nothing to confess and that we have not been subject to temptation to despair. And if we have to admit to being useless servants, so be it. That too we can offer to the Lord at the end of the thing. And we can take away from it, as we can from all the other situations, a good bit of humility about our spiritual state.

The best prayer I can sometimes muster is a laughing acknowledgment before the Lord of how ridiculous I am along with a remembrance of what my uncle said to me when I was doing my doctoral work in theology: “You know how the procedure goes, right?” he asked me. “First, you start with a B.S. We all know what B.S. is. Then you get an M.S., which is More of the Same. Finally, you get a Ph.D. That means Piled Hip Deep.”

Though it’s a Ph.D. in theology, it is good to be reminded that a good part of me is full of it. Or, as St. Paul liked to say, “puffed up.”

So the first part of deepening prayer is to remember the advice of Dom John Chapman, which sounds suspiciously like the advice of a shoe company: “Just do it.”

And the second part is from Chesterton: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” For as we have seen, even failed attempts at prayer can give us the opportunity to turn to the Lord to beg for help and exercise what St. Bernard thought of as the most important virtue: humility.

But how is it that we move from those inconsistent times of prayer to something that looks a bit closer to praying constantly?

For Catholics, Mass attendance on Sundays and days of obligation is obviously the start. Going at other times is also a good. But if that is not possible, and even if it is, we have the capability to do quite a bit. Though the Mass is not everywhere, God is. And our goal is to meet him everywhere.

A very good priest once told me that I could change my life by turning to the Lord at least six times a day in prayer. Now I don’t know if this is literally true. The number six in biblical terms is not quite perfection. After all, it’s seven days in the week, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven sacraments, seven liturgical hours. The Devil is represented in the Book of Revelation as 666: thrice coming up short.

But maybe my priest friend had a method to his madness. Turning to the Lord six times would be a pretty humble thing to do. Perhaps the last prayer is that the Lord would inspire a seventh, unscheduled prayer. In any case, I’m pretty sure his broader point was that we often think that the way to increase our prayer is to spend long periods of time trying to pray. But a humble person who is just beginning to pray might well know how weak he or she is and try to pray more times during the day even if those times of prayer aren’t very long.

For myself, I like to pray the prayer known as the Morning Offering shortly after I wake up—preferably with my kids. I have three meals a day usually, which allows for prayer beforehand. And I try to pray the Angelus, that prayer remembering the only true turning point in human history, the Incarnation—both at noon and 6 PM if possible—and I generally pray not to be awake at 6 AM, which is the other time that prayer is offered. In any case, that’s at least six opportunities to pray during the day. I’ve been trying for several years to close meals with a prayer as well—“We give thee thanks, almighty God, for these and all they benefits, who livest and reignest forever”—but meals with a lot of kids can sometimes be even messier ending than they begin. But I’m not giving up on that goal since the traditional meal blessing we pray—“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord”—is a good petition but it doesn’t include a thank you!

Now, what’s nice about all these prayers is that they are not long at all. Even the Angelus only takes a minute or so in total. If we actually turn to the Lord at each of these prayers and try to speak sincerely to the Lord and perhaps listen a little bit, I think that they can indeed change our lives quite a bit.

Seriously turning to the Lord each of those times should help us remember his presence and spur us to remember it more often and turn to him. My priest friend liked to point to the lesson of the Church Fathers who were said to hurl their prayers into the air like arrows. For that purpose they had short prayers that they could send up at various times.

We do have those short prayers to offer. Sometimes they simply fly off our tongues or our hearts. Sometimes, we find that we have little but groans. Those are the times to repeat the prayers that have been handed down to us from the past. The Lord’s Prayer (or “Our Father” as we uncreative Catholics call it) is not very long nor is the Hail Mary. And there is, of course, the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” But there are many other short prayers—the long history of the Church is filled with them, and any decent prayer book will have a number of them that you can memorize both from Scripture and the Saints.

But we need longer times of prayer that are mental. And the best way to do this is meditation. When my kids hear the word meditation, they always cross their legs, imitate the prayer poses taught in Yoga, and start chanting mantras such as “Om.” It’s no surprise. Many people in our culture think of meditation as a practice of eastern religions in which you completely empty your mind and end up in an advanced state of inner peace and enlightenment. But, again, if enlightenment were simply procured by thinking of nothing, every man in the world would have reached that long ago.

Meditation in Christian practice is not a matter of emptying the mind completely but filling it with the things God wants us to fill it with. Meditation is sometimes described simply as thinking in the presence of God. But what are we to think about? There is often much to think over about our own lives—where we have experienced God in them, where we have missed God’s presence, what we have desired, what we have gained, what we have lost (and why that might be a mercy), and plenty of other things. We can do this at night time through the traditional practice of examining our consciences, looking at the decisions we have made during the day to listen to God’s voice or not.

Saint Francis de Sales not only examined his conscience at night but did a kind of examination in the morning that looked forward to the day and asked the Lord to prepare him for what might be coming. We can indeed plan not only the six or eight or ten times that we will turn to the Lord for set prayers but also a general plan of what’s going to happen and what things we can turn over to him.

But to meditate properly on our lives, even in the context of an examination of conscience, takes a lot of discipline. It is easy to turn meditation on my life into yet another tour through the glories of me. Or to turn a plan for dealing with my day into another Irish Alzheimer’s episode in which I forget all but my grudges. Or a questioning of God that is less sincere than rhetorical (“Why me, God? I have plenty of people on my list to whom you would be wiser to send these trials!”).

True Christian meditation, even on our lives, takes a lot of meditation on the words of Scripture and the events depicted in them in order to approach our lives in the proper way. What God has done and said in history is always worthy of thought. We need to read and ponder in a spirit of true desire that God would speak to us, answer our questions, question us in return, and speak to us in ways that we might not have even dreamed of. Most importantly, we need to desire that God would make his presence known to us in these events.

This thinking might benefit from our own imaginations. God has given us the ability to form images from what we are thinking about. Those images often make things real to us in ways that more abstract forms of thought do not. Though we should not ultimately rely on the images formed in our minds, they are quite often good tools to take us deeper into prayer if we take them lightly and make it our goal to be listening with our whole selves to what God might be saying with them.

To make all this worthwhile, however, we need to connect our prayer to our action. The English Dominican Gerald Vann once observed that the goal of the Christian is that prayer motivates all our action and our action embodies our prayer. Quite often the answer to our prayers is in changing our own hearts so that we can obey God and do some task he has in store for us. Perhaps that task is moral—some particular kindness toward someone for whom we have distaste or a grudge.

Perhaps it is ascetical—exercising some greater discipline in our own lives whereby we put away a temptation to sin or perhaps a practice that is not evil in itself but manifests an imbalance in our lives. Today it is quite often a taming of the control technology and the internet have over us, causing us to be unable to plug into God through prayer because we are never unplugged from the stream of news, entertainment, and games coming at us through our phones, tablets, and laptops. We may be called at least to work toward the conditions for inward silence by turning off the ever-present sounds and sights emitting from those devices and listening with the ears of our hearts to the Lord’s still small voice.

Or perhaps it is just spending yet another time in prayer during the day so that we may get closer to our goal, which is ultimately to turn to God in prayer about every single thing: rejoicing and giving thanks for the Good, lamenting to God about the bad (while still thanking him for it all), and seeking out what his will is for everything we do. While we cannot be consciously thinking of God or speaking to him at all times, the more we do turn toward him, the more we will approach our lives with the thought of God serving as a kind of frame to everything else. Or, to think about it another way, even the beating of our hearts will be a kind of prayer.

The key is, as we began with, the need to pray more and more every day. Short prayers but also more extended times of prayer. A “holy hour” once a week, praying in front of Jesus in the Eucharist and reading his words in Scripture. And, periodically a few days, or even a week if we have the time, to “retreat” from the world of the everyday and get used to exterior silence, the better to develop that interior silence in which God is heard most gloriously.

But lest you get intimidated by the big picture, just remember that the goal is to get started where you are. If you are not praying, try to pray irregularly. If you are irregularly praying, try to pray regularly. If you are regularly praying, try to pray a bit more. And remember that wherever you are spiritually, God has not moved. He is still right there urging to you turn to him and heed his voice so that he can fill you with every good thing.

This is an adapted version of a talk given at the St. Lawrence Newman Center’s spring retreat in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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