Friday, October 17, 2008

A conversation on prayer

First, let me say thank you to all of you who left comments on the blog or emailed me privately since yesterday. You are such a nice group of people! We all need to get together for coffee some time.

Now, on to the matter at hand. Yes, yes, the way to begin a prayer life is to start small. Small but consistent is the key. Jill's suggestion of 15 minutes is excellent. Unfortunately, based on my own experience or maybe my own personality and prayer style, 15 minutes is still too long for me as a starting point. This whole conversation made me recall a time about eight years ago when I went to confession to a very cool priest at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. It was just before Olivia's baptism. He asked me to give myself a penance. I chose five minutes of prayer every day, not because I saw it as a form of punishment (which is not what penance is about anyway) because I saw it as the only thing that might get my spiritual life on track once and for all. Eight years later, I'm sad to say, I'm still not committed to five minutes a day. That's not to say I don't pray at all. I do. A lot. I may do 20 minutes one day and then nothing for a few days. I may do five minutes before bed or five minutes in the middle of the day, but not five minutes day in, day out, which is how it needs to be in order to make it stick so we can move on to bigger chunks of time.

I think the time you spend in prayer at the beginning also has to do with the kind of prayer you're doing. If you're saying the Rosary or praying the Liturgy of the Hours, 15 minutes might go by in a flash. In fact, it might not seem nearly long enough. If you are doing contemplation, 15 minutes can feel like 15 hours, just sitting there in silence, waiting for God to say something, which is what I've been working on. And usually, when I do pull off some time in contemplation, I end up feeling like I must have done it wrong because nothing happened, which I think is just part of our human tendency to want to see some visible progress when we work at something, even prayer.

So last night I did go down to my prayer space to sit in silence, thinking that maybe some prayer was just what I needed to shake that whiny, self-doubting mood I was in yesterday. But before I started, I decided to read a few pages of a book by a Catholic writer friend -- "The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim," by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda and her husband, Michael Scaperlanda. Now, I'm not planning on any big pilgrimages, unfortunately, but I am working on something that relates to pilgrimage, so I thought Maria's book might be helpful. Boy, was it ever, in a deeply personal way.

In the chapter called "Developing a Pilgrim Heart," Maria talks about her home office writing schedule, something that appeals to me since I, too, write from home. She talks about how she takes time for contemplative prayer before she ever leaves her bedroom each morning and how she writes in a journal each morning and then allows herself to write an entire page of "whatever comes out" before she gets down to the business of the day. She also talks about how this is a difficult discipline, one that requires trust."My soul waits for God, and that involves trust," she writes.

Then Maria goes on to talk about the amazing pilgrimage she made to Europe with her entire family back in 2000, and she addresses the "load we carry," not only in our actual backpacks when we are on physical pilgrimages but in our figurative backpacks when we are going about our days and trying to get right with God and the people in our lives.

"So maybe I am not as materialistic as some people. However, I carry another burden that is just as taxing. It is the question, Am I good enough? A little voice sings this out-of-tune melody in my ear: I am not worthy (of a nice home, cars, things, trips). I am not good enough to be loved. I will never be good enough to be loved and don't deserve the goodness and bounty that God gives me every day. This spiritual burden is one I wish I didn't carry in my backpack, but I do, all too often. It's a pattern, a habit really, that I have allowed for so long to shape my behavior that I have to consciously and deliberately fight it almost daily." (p. 31)

By the time I finished this passage, I was in tears. It was as if Maria read my heart, spoke my mind, felt my pain. Those words could not fit me more perfectly. Maria summed up exactly what I face, what I feel every day. But my tears weren't tears of sadness. They were tears of hope. Here was someone I have known for a long time, someone whose work I respect, and who seems to be many, many spiritual years ahead of me even if we are almost identical in human years, and she, too, regularly battles the demons of self-doubt and unworthiness. Wow.

You have no idea how this passage about heavy spiritual backpacks lightened my own burden last night. All I can say, is Thank You, Maria. Gracias, amiga! Your words were the jolt I needed to remind me of what I already know: Even when I feel unworthy, even when my prayer life seems plodding and unproductive, I am loved by a Creator who put me here for a reason.

Five minutes, 15 minutes, two hours. Whatever amount of prayer time we can pull off makes a difference. I think I've said in a previous post, that we can even use everyday things -- like the dryer buzzing or a car horn honking -- as a moment of mindfulness that calls us back to our center and reminds us to focus, even for just a few seconds, on God.


UB said...

Besides a blog post, I think you've written a great column. This is a message that would help a great many people. Everything we do in recognition and praise of God -- from deep contemplation to offering up the most mundane chore as an act of prayer -- is known to God and appreciated by God. Too often we assume the Gospel message to be much more complicated than it really is -- "prayer" must be some mystical experience, "love of neighbor" must require some great sacrifice on behalf of someone on the other side of the world, when prayer can be a moment of sincere thanksgiving and love of neighbor a small act of kindness to the people we live with.

Tomorrow I will actually be on pilgrimage -- to the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC -- and will pray and celebrate Eucharist for you and all readers of Not Strictly Spiritual who seek to draw closer to the Lord of Life.

Barry said...

Yes, when I'm talking about it with my high school students, I suggest starting with 5 minutes a day, or even 3.

Unfortunately, I think our ever-developing access to communications devices of various kinds (and particularly, perhaps, the constant use that so many teens make of them) is going to end up eroding even more our ability to pray. It cannot be gotten around: if we can't handle a moment's silence without filling it with something, we can't have any kind of intimacy with God in prayer.

Michele B. said...

It takes me about 1 minute to pray 5 Hail Mary's. Sometimes when I'm baking or cooking and I need to stir/beat etc. something for a certain amount of time, I gauge it by Hail Mary's. It's amazing how my mind can turn to God while I'm whipping up a cake batter! I tell my children that it's not so much about saying we did X amount of Hail Mary's, but that we are constantly aware of God's presence and then His will becomes our heart's desire.

A.L. said...

Michele and I are on the same page. I thought saying Hail Mary's while making pudding was my idea.