Bede is an artist with an interest in theology and the lives of the saints.
An Eternal Skill
The quills of Mozart and Shakespeare rest in peace; Michelangelo's chisels are silent. While their masterworks continue to inspire us, their work careers are over.
Other masters continue to use their skills unto eternity. These are the giants of prayer, such as St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and St. Faustina. While their works also inspire us, their skills are eternal: they practice now in heaven what they perfected long ago on earth.
Thus, if somebody were to ask you a hundred years from now, "What is the one thing you would learn to do better if you could return to earth?" A likely answer might be: "I would master the art of prayer."
The saints who dwell now in beatific light excelled in this art while walking amid earthly shadows. They go on praising and thanking God forever and ever and ever. Hence, prayer is the art of arts, and to do it well, it must be done continuously.
"Why should I pray always—is it really necessary?", "How can I divide my attention?" We must first address these objections before delving into ways to gain this eternal skill. In addition, we'll glance at the difference between prayers and prayerfulness.
Summary of the 7 Methods to Pray Always:
- Transform Daily Actions Into Prayer
- Transforming Daily Sights Into Prayer
- Paths of Gratitude
- Short Prayers
- Purity of Intention
- The Practice of the Presence of God
Why Pray Always?
Jesus indicates that the way to heaven is narrow, difficult, and that few find it (cf Mt 7:13). An arduous mountain path comes to mind. An experienced mountaineer may say, "Ha, I can climb this—no problem." Yet, the foolish fellow doesn't foresee the precipices and dangers, wild dogs, bandits, darkness, and fog.
The little child knows better—he knows that he needs help. He, therefore, asks his daddy to accompany him. He confides in one stronger. And if he's a very small child, he will hold his father's hand and not let go.
This is the meaning of continual prayer: to hold the hand of our Father. He who knows his weakness entrusts himself to one who is stronger. The independent spirit doesn't feel the need for support or direction. Ah, foolish fellow!
We can entrust ourselves to the Good Shepherd who has traveled the way before; He knows well how to scare off the dogs and prevent bandits from coming near. We, therefore, hold onto Him with love: "Because he clings to me in love, I will deliver him." (Psalm 91)
"My work involves too much concentration."
"This may have worked four centuries ago but certainly not today."
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"Continual prayer drives a normal person into derangement."
While these protests appear legitimate, they are, in fact, lame. Yes, praying always is a challenge, as is any worthwhile habit. For instance, many people recognize the value of physical fitness and so have the habit of daily exercise. Is not the soul more important than the body? The soul lives forever, whereas the body turns into juicy rottenness. Yet, consider this: if we learn to pray, our body returns to us in a glorious condition.
But, these objections are best met with love: Holy Scripture commands us to pray always, and the saints recommended it by word and example. Therefore, it must be achievable because God does not command the impossible.
Prayers Versus Prayerfulness
The best that some busy persons can do is have a few prayer slots during the day. Their occupations or obligations prevent them from doing more. In addition, the very atmosphere of daily life precludes the possibility of deeper prayer: whiny kids, traffic signals, smartphones, and general commotion. "How can I elevate my mind and heart amid so much noise?"
While silence and solitude are the best requisites for prayer, there are workarounds to everything. The key is to learn the art of prayerfulness. Two facets comprise this skill: first, the understanding of God's nearness—He is next to you, night and day—and secondly, calmness. The latter is a challenge for many people, including this little ant.
However, adopting an approach to life that is calm and perceiving God's nearness, transforms even the busiest actions into prayer. While prayers assist, the spirit of prayerfulness may be of higher value. Simply knowing God is present is one of the best forms of prayer.
Let us now consider various ways to pray always.
1. Transform Daily Actions Into Prayer
How many daily actions go dressed in rags when they can be clothed in fine linen! This is because no thought is attached to them—they are bare routines. However, with a little mindfulness, even the most insignificant actions can gain value; nay, even ridding the body of waste may be attired in gold! This first method, then, involves transforming our daily routines into prayers.
How does it work? First, grab a notebook and a pen. Second, write your routine actions on the left side of a page, and on the other side, write a suitable prayer, holy thought, or Scripture verse to accompany these actions. This may involve some cogitation, but it's worth it.
Here are some examples of this method:
- When rising from sleep: "Awake, O sleeper, and Christ will give you light!" (Eph. 5:14)
- When using the restroom: "Dear Lord, as I remove waste from my body, purify my mind of bad thoughts."
- When washing: "O Lord, as I cleanse my body of dirt and odor, cleanse my soul of impurities."
- When dressing: "O Jesus, as I clothe my body with these garments, adorn my soul with precious virtues."
- When eating breakfast: "Dear Lord, as I nourish my body with this food and drink, sustain my soul with your grace, that I may eat at your heavenly table."
- When putting on shoes or going for a walk: "O Lord, guide my feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1:79)
2. Transforming Daily Sights into Prayer
This second method is similar to the first. It involves using daily sights, sounds, persons, or objects to remember God. To remember God was the goal of the earliest Christian monks. An early monk says, for example, "Distraction and forgetfulness are death to the faithful disciple, but continual remembrance of God brings him life and frees him from every evil." (Evergetinos, 6th C)
Thus, if visible objects can serve to recall God, then true prayer is not far away. This exercise may lead one to a contemplative outlook on life. While this method may properly be called meditation, it leads naturally to prayer. Let us consider some examples.
Clouds or rivers may recall how life passes quickly and soon ends in eternity: this may inspire hope. The apple seed speaks of God's wisdom, providence, and metaphysically, of the atomic power of grace in the soul; I respond with praise. So also, the cycles of life, such as winter and spring or night and day, prompt thoughts of the resurrection; flowers recall virtues; sunlight and rain are images of divine grace, etc.
Some saints employed this method frequently, such as St. Francis de Sales. When he saw a beautiful landscape, he would say, "We are fields cultivated by God." At the sight of a majestic church, he considered, "We are the living temples of God; then why are our souls not as well adorned with virtues?" If he came upon a river, he thought, "When shall we go to God, as these waters do to the sea?"
The Russian mystic St. Theophane the Recluse also recommends attaching the thought of God to visible things. He says, "The smallest object, the slightest occupation, and the most unimportant work will always suggest to you the thought of God. From then on, you will walk in the visible world as in a spiritual domain; all things will speak to you of God, and everything will support the attention to God."
3. Paths of Gratitude
If you're like me, you travel the same passageways each day: down the familiar path, up the same stairs, across the same corridor. So also, you may desire to be a more grateful person. The Scriptures recommend it, as do modern health specialists. It is beneficial for our well-being and pleasing to God. However, this resolution often weakens after a few days.
Perhaps there is a way to join our familiar passageways with the practice of gratitude?
Indeed, there is a simple method. Pull out your notebook again and write your habitual passageways on one side. Next, write out two or three things you are grateful for on the other side. You may wish to connect them thematically, for example, by giving thanks for flowers, animals, and trees. In addition, you may write them as an acronym to help your memory. The association will be automatic once the habit is formed and won't require much thinking.
4. Short Prayers
The use of short prayers to accompany ordinary actions is the most common method for persons striving to pray always. The emphasis is on brevity so that the attention is better fixed and the mind remains energetic. This method is recommended by the so-called "Desert Fathers and Mothers." These are men and women who escaped the tumult of the cities and devoted themselves to a life of prayer and asceticism in the deserts of Egypt or Palestine. Short prayers helped them attain unity of spirit and a state of recollection. Simplicity fosters attentiveness.
For example, St. John Climacus of the Sinai desert says, "When you pray, do not try to express yourself in fancy words. It is often the simple, repetitious phrases of a little child that our Father in heaven finds most irresistible. Do not strive for verbosity lest your mind be distracted from devotion by a search for words. One phrase on the lips of the tax collector was enough to win God's mercy; one humble request made with faith was enough to save the good thief...Single words of their nature tend to concentrate the mind."
The example of my grandmother comes to mind. Night and day, she prayed, "My Jesus, mercy." All her actions, whether sewing, slicing bread, or washing dishes were enlivened with "My Jesus, mercy." It is a simplified version of the "Jesus Prayer": Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. The Jesus prayer is beloved of Eastern Christians, especially among the monastics. While it may appear similar to a Hindu or Buddhist mantra, the practice of this prayer does not aim at self-emptying of thoughts but remaining in continual contact with God.
Another option is to use a favorite psalm verse for the whole day. I know a person who used a two-week schedule with a different psalm verse for each day. Advantages to this practice are variety (not the same prayer everyday), and also conservation of mental energy by not searching for words to pray.
5. Purity of Intention
The Desert Fathers chose simple handiwork to earn their livelihood, such as basket-weaving. This left their minds free for prayer. However, most people living today, such as secretaries, doctors, teachers, and crane operators, require their full attention for the task at hand. Mishaps may occur otherwise. These persons generally can't split their attention unless God elevates them to the transforming union.
How can such persons turn their actions into prayers? The answer is in the purity of intention. For example, a doctor is about to perform surgery; in advance, he says a quick prayer such as, "Lord, may these efforts be for love of You and this person's health and well-being." Or, a teacher may say, "Lord, may my efforts turn these students into better persons." God highly esteems purity of intention. When praying with words is impossible during certain actions, the virtual intention works as silent leaven.
6. The Practice of the Presence of God
This method of praying is the highest but also the rarest. Realizing through faith that God is present is a great grace from heaven. St. Jean Vianney, for example, says, "You can pray by putting yourself quite simply in touch with God. When one finds nothing more to say to Him but just knows He is there—that in itself is the best of prayers."
However, because the human attention span wanders so easily, it's often necessary to use short prayers to reconnect. Some advanced souls, such as St. Faustina or St. Teresa, reached the transforming union, whereby they felt God's presence experientially, even during conversations or mind-absorbing activities.
For the rest of us, a few reminders can help. St. Francis de Sales has four tips for fostering this awareness: 1) Remember that God's presence is universal, that is to say, everywhere. When people are about to pray, they say with conviction, "God is indeed here." 2) God is especially present in the heart and mind by grace, as in a temple. 3) Consider Jesus in his glorified humanity, who looks down on all men from heaven, especially his children who pray. 4) Use your imagination to represent God at your side or near at hand. (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Ch. II)
This final method is for suffering persons. Their very sufferings are the stimulus to turn to God continually. The model for this prayer is the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the Cross. Her Divine Son has been beaten severely and near death; her heart is consumed with grief. She is silent, and she adores and submits wholeheartedly to God's will. Her example is the epitome of surrender. Take note: she remains totally connected to God through humble submission.
Life sometimes has moments of suffering when the mind can't quite formulate a prayer. The dark clouds dissipate through humble and silent submission to God's will: "He knows what is best. I trust."
While this prayer may appear weak, it is the prayer of the strong. There's no rebellion but gentle compliance. "Later, this will make sense; for now, I accept with love." A beautiful prayer of Fr. Dolindo Ruotolo says: O Jesus, I surrender myself to you, take care of everything!
St. Faustina says that this prayer greatly glorifies God: "Faithful submission to the will of God, always and everywhere, in all events and circumstances of life, gives great glory to God. Such submission to the will of God carries more weight with Him than long fasts, mortifications, and the most severe penances. Oh, how great is the reward for one act of loving submission to the will of God!" (Diary, 729)
Fr. Jacinto gives advice in the following video on how to pray always.
Practice Makes Perfect
Artistic mastery normally develops under certain conditions. These include solitude, silence, patience, and constant practice. As it is, the same conditions apply to the art of prayer. Silence helps concentrate the attention; solitude keeps distractions to a minimum; patience endures moments of discouragement and continual practice brings perfection.
However, no one becomes a great master without fiery motivation. As St. Teresa says, "We must have a determined determination to never give up prayer." (Way 21:2) To pray always is no easy matter unless one sees the value or end goal. There is very little motivation otherwise. Hence, we must better learn the benefits gained by prayer, namely, God's friendship in this life and blissful joy in the life to come.
Finally, the most important factor for any mastery of prayer is God's grace. One needs grace to pray, but grace comes through prayer. Thus, practice makes perfect.
The Name of Jesus, by Reverend Irénée Hausherr, S.J., Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1978
Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales, Image Books, Doubleday, 2003
Thoughts of the Curé D'Ars, Tan Books, Rockford, Illinois, 1984
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Bede