This Sunday, Jesus teaches his disciples about the importance of “praying without becoming weary.” The selected scriptures provide two images: that of Moses praying atop the mountain with staff in hand, while war ensues below (Exodus), and that of a widow seeking justice (Gospel). In both cases, prayers are heard based on the persistence of prayer. In another place (1 Thessalonians), St. Paul instructs true disciples “to pray unceasingly.” At first glance, this constant prayer seems daunting, perhaps unreasonable, given the limited attention span of human beings—unless perhaps we look at prayer as a habit.
At the same time, we must distinguish between habit and routine. It is common to have as part of one’s life a routine of morning and evening prayers, mealtime prayers, rosaries, the liturgy of the hours, and even daily mass attendance. To the extent that these may make up the routine of life, they are only providing the foundation and environment for the more important prayer of the heart. While we might describe prayer as “raising the mind and heart to God,” we are closer to what I would call the habit of prayer or daily prayer that is conscious, purposeful and deliberate. Note that Moses and the widow seeking justice are praying with all three of those elements in place; one is praying in time of war and one is praying for a particular decision by a judge—two intentions that have not yet disappeared from the earth.
But how do you make personal prayer, mind-and-heart prayer, a daily habit? Well, first off, it does need to be conscious and deliberate. We can get up and go to mass and, to our astonishment, by the end of it, still not have actually personally prayed. A priest (I know of what I speak) can be so distracted while celebrating the mass, arrive at the end of it and have little recollection of having done so—especially if it is one’s third mass. The key is to tune in to the moment, the hour, the day by asking: “Who are the people, the activities, the concerns, even the places that are making up this moment, these hours, or this day in my life?” Having become conscious, then, one becomes deliberate by thanking God, petitioning God, or praising God as the people, places, events, and locations so inspire. I even do this during mass by simply looking out at all of you; there I find a whole congregation of reasons to pray—consciously and deliberately. I tune in. Now, you know God has to be more present to such prayer, compared to “going through the motions.” Even realizing that we have been very distracted and then telling God how we feel about that—about why something or someone had the power to distract us—is a form of personalizing prayer and breaking out of routine.
The habit of praying consciously and deliberately takes care of the weariness part. It is only when prayer is routine that it can become tedious and wearisome. The moment the people, places, challenges, and events of a day come into consciousness, so does the motivation to pray, and motivation energizes us. As a matter of fact, this is how I encourage people who are afraid to make a retreat—afraid that they will be bored or unable to be silent. Once a person discovers the power of personal, conscious, deliberate prayer, both active prayer and silence become treasured and the end of the retreat comes entirely too soon. I am most confident today, then, in saying: “Try it. You’ll like it!”