Skip to comments.Giving God Twenty: How to Start a Real Prayer Life
Posted on 02/18/2003 12:27:58 PM PST by Polycarp
Giving God Twenty: How to Start a Real Prayer Life
by Bud Macfarlane
If you are serious about being a Catholic, keep reading. This is for mature audiences only. It is rated R for Realistic.
We all know that a Catholic adult who does not have a daily contemplative prayer life is a contradiction in terms. If there is one constant in the advice of the saints, it is that every Catholic should have a serious prayer life. My goal here is not to berate you if you do not have a prayer life. I have fallen short myself until recently, so I am the last one who can possibly criticize you.
So my purpose is to encourage you and to help you avoid the common mistakes which prevent most folks from establishing the habit of daily prayer. Let us begin.
SIMPLY SIMPLE Thousands of books have been written on the subject of prayer, and I know you may have the impression that contemplative prayer is complicated, difficult, and only for nuns and monks hidden away in monasteries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Silent prayer is for everyone. Anyone can do it. You can get started right away--today, in fact--and within a few days or weeks, rise to a steady and high level of union with God.
THE KING OF SILENCE For our purposes, let us define contemplative prayer as time spent listening to God in silence. The key is your silence. Stay quiet. Don't say a word. If you're from New Jersey, like me, just shut up. "Contemplative" prayer ceases to be intimidating if you regard it as sharing silence with God.
Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is silent in the most profound manifestation of His real presence on earth, the Eucharist. You are concretely setting out to imitate His silence. He is the King of Silence. You enter his Royal Court through prayer. The door to the court swings open with the touch of a warm, silent breeze. This breeze is the breath of God. Inhale Our Lord and He will exhale you right into your day.
GOD WILL SPEAK TO YOU Jesus can speak to you by leaving messages on your soul in a similar way that we leave messages on telephone answering machines. Your soul is a supernatural email "in-box." Silent prayer is your way of downloading your messages (grace) from your King. You were designed by God to do this. The only words you need to tell God before you begin to pray are these: "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening."
GOD INSIDE YOU If you are in a state of grace, the Holy Trinity dwells within your soul. Your body is a flesh and blood home for God. He is literally inside you. He is not far away. If you remember this truth--that God dwells inside your soul--you will know He is not "up there in heaven somewhere" when you seek silent union with Him.
In this sense, silent contemplative prayer is not only possible, it is impossible to mess up because God is right there with you. This is why it does not matter for the first few years if you pray badly. You don't have to be "well-spoken" with God precisely because you are not talking. You are hanging out with Him.
This is why it is so important to go to Confession frequently--once or twice a month. By absolving you of sin, Christ is keeping the "communication link" open with your soul. You are in range of His cell tower. Never let sin stop you from praying every day; do allow Confession help you pray every day.
EVERY DAY MEANS EVERY DAY You must pray every single day. I strongly recommend that you commit to silent prayer as the very first thing you do in the morning. I try to pray after I shower and get dressed--before I start my "regular" day of work and responsibilities as father and husband. There are several advantages to the First Thing in the Morning Method.
GO FOR THE HABIT You simply must keep in mind that the evil one's fear is that we will develop a daily habit. After a lifetime of holding you in the slavery of the bad habit of not praying every day, he will fight tooth and nail to get you to miss one day so he can then discourage you from starting up again the next day. Don't fall for this sucker punch. If you missed your prayer time yesterday, get back on board today.
Fortunately, a good habit works in your favor. String together seventeen days of any behavior and it starts becoming a habit. Knit together seventeen times seventeen days, and it will become difficult for you not to pray. Put on prayer like a pair of pants. The evil one will then concentrate on ruining your silence, but dealing with that minor challenge is for the Advanced Course a year or two down the road.
God will not give up. Only you can give up.
The key advantage to committing to First Thing Every Morning Prayer is that your commitment to silence with your Lord will start jumping into your head as soon as you wake up--just as your need to take a shower or your desire to have breakfast leaps to the forefront of your mind when you wake up. You will know that the good habit is forming after you wake up every day for a week with "I will pray today unless I get run over by a truck" on your mind.
CRACK OF DAWN OR DUSK If you experience a distraction or emergency that prevents you from praying Right Off the Bat, you have all day long to get your prayer time in. If you are having a truly off day, don't go to sleep before you pray. Have a cup of coffee. You want it to play out that if you do find yourself praying just before you go to bed, it will be your sixth or seventh "attempt" because you've had it on your mind since waking up. Use meal times as your measuring stick. If you miss prayer before breakfast, try before lunch. Or just after lunch, or just before or after dinner, etc. Associate prayer in your mind with having a spiritual meal.
So this is your simple Rule of Prayer:
"I will begin my day with prayer as the first important thing I do every day until the day I die. I will never go to bed again without spending time in silence with my God."
THE ANTI-FREAK-OUT Another bonus of praying Right Off the Bat is that prayer gives you two benefits which you will soon begin to crave. First, it helps you begin your day in a settled, peaceful, and contented state. Let the house burn down! Let the kids go bonkers! Did the bank repossess your car--Cool! So what if your psycho boss screams in your ear? Inside your soul, you're as cool as a Catholic cucumber. You have spent your time with your Savior, and you know it, and you know He knows it. Silence is calming in and of itself. Silence with God is the best, safest, most natural anti-freak-out medicine you can take.
RIGHT OFF THE BAT The second bonus is that Praying First Thing makes you like a baseball being struck by a Divine Slugger. "Pitch" yourself to God. Toss Him your soul like a softball first thing in the morning. Let your day become a big fat fastball right down the middle of the plate. God will lift his front leg, keep his shoulder in, extend his hands and belt you right into the spiritual upper deck--first pitch, first at bat, every time.
I have no way of proving this, but I believe this is why virtually every home run king in major league baseball history was or is a Catholic--including Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Bobby Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Maris, and Sammy Sosa. God loves the long ball.
If I've noticed one universal difference between so-called "good" Catholics who pray every day and those who don't, it is the uncanny way those who do pray have their entire day shaped and formed by God.
DROP AND GIVE GOD TWENTY I recommend twenty minutes of daily silence with God as a minimum. I am annoyed when I hear Catholic "experts" recommend "starting small" to folks hoping to start a lifetime habit of prayer--five or ten minutes. It never works. Nothing seriously human happens in five minutes--not taking a shower, not having a meal, not having a decent phone call with a friend. Human beings are not wired that way. According to the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, psychologists discovered long ago that the human attention span is seventeen to twenty minutes long.
There are practical reasons for giving God Twenty. It takes five minutes for most of us to just to settle into listening mode. It takes several minutes to quiet down your imagination and fend off the thoughts and worries about your daily tasks and challenges. If you pray for twenty minutes, the likelihood is you will spend five or ten minutes of that time for the first several months getting accustomed to shutting up your jabbering mind. To have five or ten minutes of silent prayer, in other words, pray for at least twenty minutes.
I know many Catholics who have a daily prayer life. None pray for only five minutes. Twenty minutes or bust. The best five minutes of prayer are almost always the five minutes that come after the first fifteen minutes!
THE HOLY "NOW" Here is the progression you will likely follow. For the first several days the twenty minutes will feel like an eternity. Five minutes will seem like an hour. This is not God's fault. It is probably not really your fault, either. We live in a rushed, loud, and godless society where the devil's big lie is that there is a tomorrow. Ever notice how the world, the devil, and the flesh are always "pushing" your attention away from the current moment by pushing your thoughts toward tomorrow?
In fact, there is only the Now. By the time you make it to tomorrow, it will be today again. It will be Now. God lives in the Now--in what theologians call the Fullness of Time.
You are about to experience the Miracle of Time. The scales will fall from your eyes and you will realize, day in and day out, that time does not exist. Time is merely, as Aristotle defined it, a grade-school ruler. He defined time as "a measure of objects moving through space." Your soul is immortal--timeless. Your body "keeps" time as you "move" through your years on earth, but any union with God transcends time.
Gradually you will discover a wonderful truth: your twenty minutes of silence with your King will begin to go by quickly. Eventually, probably within a month or two, you will find yourself lingering beyond twenty minutes, even regretting that your time with God is so short. You might experience five or ten minutes of distraction on a particular day and find yourself desiring to add to your prayer time so you can have more peace with Him.
THROUGHPUT When this starts to happen--when you start tapping into the reality of being with the God Who Lives Beyond Time, you will know that you are truly downloading His graces. You are now receiving His graces via T1 line.
Your desire for God is now becoming a craving--a longing as strong as any bride who pines to be with her groom on her wedding night. God is your lover, now. Today and every day is a wedding day. This is why the great mystics who wrote the book on contemplative prayer--Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila--described God as Lover. They describe union with God in terms of ecstasy.
You are in God's strike zone now.
You have become a Catholic with a contemplative prayer life. You will never, ever want to go back to limping through a day alone again. You are a Christian adult, and the graces of your Baptism, Confirmation, your Sacrament of Marriage (if you've taken the vows), Confession and the Holy Eucharist now work in unison like powerful horses pulling your chariot of fire (with your family and friends on board) through time into eternity. Bang zoom!
Here are some practical measures you can rely upon.
1. SILENCE INSIDE You can pray with noise around you. I know this sounds crazy, but it is possible to shut the world out. Moms, you can pray with the kids buzzing around you if you have no other options. Close your eyes. The King of Silence is inside you. He is all-powerful. He can make the noise go away.
2. FIND A PLACE, BUT NOT YOUR CAR It helps if you pray in the same spot every day. In front of the Eucharist is ideal, but barring that, pray in a room in your home. Moms might have to pray with the kids nearby. Do not attempt to pray silent prayer while you drive to work. You can't do two things at the same time. Have an informal "conversation" with God while you drive--or pray the Rosary with a tape-- but don't count that as your Silent Twenty Minutes.
3. STOP WATCHING TELEVISION This is self-explanatory. If you have time for TV, but don't have twenty minutes for God...
4. SIT DOWN? Most of my friends pray sitting down. Contemplative nuns and religious usually pray most while they are sitting down.
Some prefer to kneel, especially if you have the opportunity to pray in Church, ideally just after daily Mass and receiving Communion.
5. ON THE ROAD My job requires a lot of travel. My "spot" is often the chair in the hotel room.
6. CLOSE YOUR EYES Even though you will pray with your eyes closed, it is a good idea to pray before a holy picture or statue, so if you do open your eyes, you will see a reminder of Jesus or Mary. If you had a rough day and are forced to pray before bedtime, avoid praying in bed. You will probably fall asleep. Stand up to stay awake if you must.
7. TAKE NOTES It is definitely an excellent idea to keep a notebook. If you "hear" God say something (which the saints call Promptings of the Holy Spirit), write it down, though it is usually best to wait until after your Twenty Minutes is completed rather than leave the silent zone.
8. THREE SOURCES It is difficult for novices like us to know for sure if these promptings are from God or not. There are only three possible sources: God, the evil one, or your own self.
If you get "instructions" that are contrary to any moral law or Catholic teaching, discard them immediately. Very few of us will ever "hear" explicit words, but most of us will get peaceful promptings. It might be a name of a person you might meet or the image of a friend or situation. Something from your past or something (or someone) in your future. It might be something more mysterious--hard to put your finger on exactly. An intuition. Often the same prompting will return to you regularly or sporadically for days, months, or years. Often it will be that soft still voice of your own (until now, ignored) conscience telling you about a sin that you need to confess and jettison from your life.
9. SHORT CUT: FRIENDSHIP My daily prayer life got a jump start when I asked two of my best friends to commit to Twenty Minutes a Day with me. Knowing that we're in this together has really helped. Don't be shy. Your friends want to pray every day too. Call your best Catholic friend. Commit together. Help each other. Encourage each other. Trade notes.
10. DURING THE DAY Often, your silent time listening to God will prepare your soul with promptings that will become clear later in the day during a conversation or some daily activity. What you have done by praying Right Off the Bat is "tune in" to God's frequency. By no means should you "shut off" your communication with God. The saints speak of being in "in the presence" of God all day long. This is your destiny too if you have a daily silent prayer life.
11. NO TEETH PULLING Jesus really will communicate with you. Remember, His favorite way is to leave messages on your soul in silence. When you hear Him asking you to you to do something, follow the Blessed Mother's advice: "Do whatever He tells you." The saints say that obedience is the greatest virtue. The next "step" to your sanctity beyond having a daily prayer life in conjunction with the Sacraments is learning to discern the real voice of God--and learning to ignore all other voices. This is more advanced stuff, but the other voices usually tells lies tricked up to look like truth. This is why your only trustworthy source for Truth is the Catholic Church, founded by He Who is Truth.
And please, if God asks something of you, don't make Him pull teeth. Make your response, "Done."
12. OTHER PRAYERS Most good Catholics I know start the first minute of the day when they open their eyes with morning prayers. Saint Escriva called this minute the most important minute of the day. I pray the following morning prayers but I do not "count" them as part of my silent prayer time:
Morning Offering Guardian Angel Prayer Consecration Prayer to Mary Act of Contrition Saint Michael Prayer Memorare
At Noon, I often pray the Angelus, joining tens of millions of Catholics around the world.
These common prayers are online here:
Many are included on the free Mary Foundation Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet CD and audio tape:
Need more motivation? One of the best recordings ever on the need for daily prayer is "The Truth," by Father Larry Richards, and it's available free of charge as a tape or CD here:
13. SPILL OVER You will find that your daily Rosary will be more fruitful and contemplative--less the repetition of words--if you have a silent prayer life. You are training yourself in the habit of union with God; this will definitely spill over into your other daily devotions, including the Divine Mercy Chaplet and even your Grace Before Meals.
14. BEFORE BED Start with Jesus, end with Mary. Many Catholics find great comfort in having a private conversation with Our Lady before they fall off to sleep. I recommend it. She is a good listener.
Our Father Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, Amen.
Hail Mary Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
Glory Be Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.
The Apostle's Creed I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified; died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Hail Holy Queen Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.
Memorare Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins my Mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful; O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me, Amen.
The Angelus V- The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary. R- And she conceived by the Holy Spirit. (Hail Mary....) V- Behold the handmaid of the Lord. R- Be it done unto me according to thy word. (Hail Mary....) V- And the Word was made Flesh. R- And dwelt among us. (Hail Mary....) V- Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God. R- That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. LET US PRAY: Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that, we to whom the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an Angel, may by His Passion and Cross, be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Saint Michael Prayer Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do you, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
Act of Contrition O my God, I am heartfully sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because I have offended Thee my God, Who is all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin, Amen.
Miraculous Medal Prayer O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee, and for those who do not have recourse to thee, especially the enemies of the Church and those recommended to thee, Amen.
Morning Offering Dear Lord, I do not know what will happen to me today. I only know that nothing will happen that was not foreseen by You, and directed to my greater good from all eternity. I adore Your holy and unfathomable plans, and submit to them with all my heart for love of You, the Pope, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Amen.
Guardian Angel Prayer Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God's love commits me here, ever this day (or night) be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide, Amen.
Grace Before Meals Bless us, O Lord! and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
One good way of working prayer (and scripture) into your life is through the Liturgy of the Hours. The best website I've found for this is at the Liturgy of the Hours Apostolate.
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