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Are words the only acceptable form of prayer?

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I can raise up my whole day (and night), and my body, and my mind, and my heart to our God of love

My little sister is a nun. She gets up in the middle of the night to pray for the dying. I’m a mother of young ones; I get up in the middle of the night too, to get my babies back to sleep.

It’s my least favorite part about being a mother. Something about those night wakings, which I can only wait for them to outgrow, gets under my skin like nothing else. I realized early on that I ought to be making use of those extra hours. I tried saying Hail Marys. I tried saying the Divine Mercy chaplet, which takes less brainpower, but my brain is usually too tired for that, too. Too tired to do words.

I thought for a long time that those middle of the night hours would have to remain an unavoidable annoyance, and nothing more — but something Dorothy Day said helped me realize that even when I’m too tired to form coherent sentences, I might still be able to let that time be a prayer:

Does God have a set way of prayer, a way that He expects each of us to follow? I doubt it. I believe some people — lots of people — pray to the witness of their lives through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people. Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?

When I try to follow what I assume to be the best way of prayer, (which in my mind, looks a lot like what my little sister does every day) I can’t stick with it. My day is pretty different from a cloistered nun’s day. But what if God wants me to pray in a way that fits my life — what if he wants me to pray, at least partly, through my life?

I’m so grateful for the set forms of prayer that the Church gives us. But I’m just as grateful for the fact that God lets prayer be so personal. So I’m working on expanding my previously limited idea of what prayer is. The Our Father, the Hail Mary, sitting down to pray with our Bible, saying a Rosary … these are powerful and important. But prayer doesn’t always look like those things. If I give it to God, which might look less like an elaborate prayer of dedication and more like a sigh and a nod in his direction, the work I do can be a prayer, too.

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God,” the Catechism says. Who is God? God is love. A day spent wearing yourself out in service of the people we love, when that love is given for God’s sake, as much as the child’s, is a way to raise my mind, my heart, and my body too, to a God of love.

Jesus would withdraw from the crowds, and go off by himself to pray. He’d set aside time out of his life to dedicate to prayer alone. It’s important for all of us to follow his example, and keep prayer as our top priority. But Jesus also kept his mind and heart fixed on his Father in Heaven, through his life and work — and his first 30 years were spent in silence, in simple work, not so different from mine.

I’m glad to know that when there’s no way for me to withdraw from the busy-ness of my vocation, there’s still a way to pray that fits right in to the life I live.

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