Building a Pattern of Prayer
Most people you talk to will admit that they would like to pray more often than they do. Would you like to make time for God in the ordinary circumstances of your life instead of only turning to Him when someone is sick or when you are having a difficult time?
To start with, it is helpful to think about what prayer is for you. Can you think of prayer as simply talking to God? Do you listen to God? Can you just be with God in prayer? According to scripture, it is the heart that prays (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2562). One of the saints, John Damascene, thought of prayer as "the raising of one's mind and heart to God." At our core, we desire to be with God. It is part of the way that we are made. God "tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. God calls; "our own first step is always a response" (CCC, #2567).
In the Old Testament, God patiently teaches his people to pray. It is part of what it means to be "God's people." Abraham learns to cultivate the attentiveness of heart that is essential to prayer. He submits to the will of God and acts accordingly. Moses converses with God long and often. He learns to intercede for the people in his prayer. Samuel listens and responds to God's word. And the prayer of David, the composer of the Psalms, becomes the model of prayer for the whole people.
Early Christians lived out what was taught in the Old Testament, but also "Christianized" it, bringing out the significance of the coming of Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (# 2698) summarizes what the Church has discerned to be the core of a pattern of Christian prayer.
The pattern includes:
- Daily prayer - such as morning and evening prayer, grace before meals, and the Liturgy of the Hours. Every Christian should spend time every day in prayer. In fact Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, "Pray continually." The beginning of the day is a natural time for Christians to honor God and dedicate their day to him. End of the day prayers traditionally include thanksgiving and some kind of examination of conscience. Meal times, too, are natural times of prayer because all we need to sustain us comes from God.
- Weekly prayer - centered on Sunday as the Lord's Day, and gathering with the whole community to celebrate the Eucharist. This is not a time for private devotion, rather it is the (corporate) worship of the whole Body of Christ assembled to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, the event by which we are saved.
- The seasons and feasts of the liturgical year also give a basic rhythm to the Christian's life of prayer. Examples: Lenten Stations of the Cross, Easter Sacraments, Special blessings on the Feasts of Epiphany, Presentation of the Lord, St. Blase, etc.
Building a pattern of prayer requires perseverance. No matter how much we would like to pray more often, it takes intentional effort to establish a regular pattern. We are told by behaviorists that if we repeat something daily for 3-4 weeks, it will develop into a good habit. We begin to do it without thinking about it—the action becomes "second nature." Daily prayer is a discipline which sustains the followers of Jesus. Prayer changes everything. As anyone who prays daily can attest, it is nearly impossible to find time to pray. Establishing a pattern of prayer requires that we make time to pray. It does not have to be a great length of time; set aside just 5 minutes each day to start. As the practice becomes a habit, you may gradually find that you can increase the time.
Like you and me, the disciples of Jesus were uncertain about how to pray. In Chapter 6 of the Gospel According to Matthew, we can read about how Jesus taught them what they needed to know. He cautioned them about praying in ways that call attention to themselves to impress others. He encourages them to keep it simple, reassuring them that "your father knows what you need before you ask him." Jesus gave them the Lord's Prayer as a model they could follow.
Reciting the Lord's Prayer is a good way to pray. A very early Christian document, the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles advised, "Neither pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his gospel: 'Our Father in heaven...Pray this way three times a day'" (8:2-3). We can also pray by following its pattern, and adding our own words for each step.
- Acknowledge God as your Father
- Place God's will first and ask him help you to know His will
- Ask for what you truly need
- Ask forgiveness for your sins
- Seek God's constant protection and strength in whatever you face
You can pray anywhere and use any posture you prefer. Prayer can be voiced aloud, or it can take the form of silent meditation. It can be spontaneous or follow a familiar formula of words and actions. You can pray by yourself and pray together with others. You can pray for others and ask them to pray for you. Prayer can give expression to any intention of your heart: to worship and praise God (adoration), to ask God for some good (petition, intercession), to seek forgiveness (contrition), and to offer gratitude to God (thanksgiving). Many people like to pray with the Scriptures. There are some who see all their work, offered to God, as a prayer. The Catholic tradition includes all of these and many, many more approaches to prayer.
Whatever approach we select, St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans (8:26) reminds us that need not be anxious about how to pray. He writes, "The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings." It is clear. How we pray is not nearly as important as that we pray—and pray often.
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