How do you pray all the time? The secret is that not all prayer looks and feels the same.
I remember the first time I read 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 in a way that actually registered. In that passage, St. Paul wrote this to the church members in Thessalonica:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Now, I am a cradle Catholic. So I heard that Scripture passage often while growing up. At least I assume I did. I doubt I paid much attention, to be honest. Sometime during my first year of college, at a Newman Center Mass, I heard that section of that First Letter to the Thessalonians and simply didn’t know what to make of it. “How is that possible? Give thanks all the time? Even when I blow a test, or when I’m homesick, or when the girl I ask out turns me down? And I have to pray all the time? I don’t think I can do that.”
I resigned myself that I would be the best Christian I could be, but that I always would fall short of perfection especially in the realm of prayer. Yet now, 37 years later, I can say I indeed “pray without ceasing.”
First, I needed to resolve to make prayer a part of my daily life, not just a when-I-get-time kind of activity. Once that desire took root, I began to gradually incorporate different forms of prayer. I had to understand that not all prayer looks and feels the same. Consider the reflection of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in her “The Story of a Soul”:
“For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart; it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”
That’s what my 24-hour-long prayer life became: my heart’s aspiration, a heavenward glance, gratitude and love. An expansion of my soul that unites me to God.
Here are my Seven Pillars of Unceasing Prayer, one of which you might consider adding to your day as a Lenten practice this year:
- Constant Gratitude.
From the moment I wake up until I prepare to fall asleep at night, I try to be grateful. When I put my feet on the floor, I thank God for a new day. Before I get into the shower, I intentionally thank God for my hands and fingers, shoulders and arms, feet and toes, legs and knees, all my senses – and I ask Him to bless myself and others through all of those that day. I thank Him for the warm, clean water, for keeping my family safe, for giving me a job, anything else that comes to mind. As the day progresses, I turn to thanks whenever appropriate. At the end of the day, I reflect gratefully on whatever I experienced, whether joyful or difficult. As someone who has battled chronic, major depression and severe anxiety for 15 years, that’s not always easy. But it’s necessary and it’s holy.
- Special Time.
I carve out time for specific prayerful activities. Daily Mass can be the most important spiritual activity for anyone, but there’s much more possible. You can try Morning, Evening and Night Prayers from the Divine Office. I pray the rosary as often as possible; there’s also The Jesus Prayer and recitation of certain other vocal prayers, such as the Litany of Humility.
- Frequent Intercession.
Like most Christians, I frequently receive requests to pray for people and come across special intentions. Every Sunday, I reflect on each one of those needs and people, and I muse on exactly how I would like for God to bless them. Then I set a specific time, when feasibly possible, to take five minutes to run through that list mentally and ask God to bless them as He knows I desire. As I momentarily say each name or situation, I picture that person in my mind and call them to mind in my heart.
Part of my daily carved-out time is reserved for external silence and as much internal silence as I can develop. You might begin by meditating on an aspect of God or your relationship with Him. Ultimately, I hope to move to a place where I’m not thinking of anything but instead am simply contemplating God’s love. That can take many forms and mental images. It definitely takes practice. In the end, it’s a gift from God.
- Occasional Music.
I generally listen to music only when I’m in the car, but I’m in the car about an hour every day. I might pop in a CD or call up a favorite sacred song on my phone and use that for some meditating-while-driving prayer. Or I might shut all that off and simply sing a song of praise. Usually I’m alone, so as long as God can stand listening to me, I’m good.
My mind never shuts down. There are all these moments that find a person randomly coming to mind, or I think about a specific reason for joy or sorrow, or I worry about something. I get ready to call someone, or I hang up the phone after an interesting conversation. I might read or hear some news. I might have to enter a meeting or prepare to write something. All those instances are opportunities to pray with gratitude or petition.
- Dedicated Breath and Action.
Before you completely embark on the day, you can quietly focus on my breathing. “God,” I will say, “I give you every breath. Every time I inhale, please let me take you in, Father. Every time I exhale, please let me share you with the world, Jesus. Let me love and be loved. Holy Spirit, move in me to direct all my work, my play, my words and thoughts and feelings. I offer all to you as a sacrifice of love.”