Serving as a missionary for the last five years, I’ve often heard and taught about our need for a regular daily prayer life. Many times that’s translated into a “holy hour” or time of prayer, usually in the morning. And it’s mostly comprised of meditative prayer and/or spiritual reading. But I often find that I don’t do much with this little period of prayer, and I end up feeling like something is missing with my interior life.
Having checked the holy hour box, I usually just continue on with my day. It’s a crapshoot if I’ll live in the light of the grace I’ve received in that prayer or continue to meditate our ponder the Lord. I read about lovely concepts like practicing the presence of God, and I don’t know for the life of me why I’ve completely forgotten about these ideas approximately ten minutes after I’ve signed out of prayer (literally a phrase I learned in Catholic high school- you sign in when you do the sign of the cross at the beginning and you sign off when you do it at the end- woof).
But that approach ignores St. Paul’s exhortations to “Rejoice constantly, pray ceaselessly, give thanks in all circumstances… Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:16ff). We forget that the God wants to sanctify you wholly (1 Thess 5:23), not just in the times we set aside for prayer, but in every thought, action, and word we speak or hear.
Russian spiritual master and theologian Theophan the Recluse warns that a prayer life that exists going from holy hour to holy hour is a faulty one. Every hour of prayer you build up your heart, only to spend the day tearing that foundation down when you don’t remain in the presence of God. Then you spend your next holy hour building back up on the fallen foundations, limping along in your progress without sustaining the grace that you’ve been built up in.
In our bento box life, compartmentalized in its aesthetically pleasing way, our interior life, at least in practice, becomes just one more storage space like the rest. And meditative prayer seems to be the most aesthetically pleasing form of prayer to fit into that box.
But the Spirit exists to break the boxes that we place ourselves into. And I think help in sustaining ourselves in the Lord lends itself towards a bit of an out-of-the-box solution. Out-of-the-box because it seems to call us, in a sense, to regress in our interior lives.
Maybe the key is getting back to our basic prayers, a little less aesthetically pleasing in one sense, a little more bland maybe, but still potentially revolutionary. Remember that when the apostles asked Jesus how to pray he taught them the most basic of rote prayers: the Our Father.
The Virtue of Simple Prayers
We have loads of these prayers memorized. Why not put them to good use. Our friend Theophan claims that when you fill your mind with this type of simple constant prayer, keeping in mind that the Lord is present in your heart as you say the words, your mind can be at prayer even when your hands are at work. Even more when you attempt to fill your mind with the things of God, you tend to start thinking more like God. Your conversation and the inner workings of your psyche start to transform- all through a persistent stream of Hail Mary's, Our Father’s, Glory Be’s and (if you’re feeling adventurous) the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer.
But basic, simple prayers in and of themselves tend to bore us. I’ve heard a million times, “I don’t like praying formal prayers like the rosary. I like to pray more organically in my own words.”
“During lengthy prayer, the mind of the inexperienced cannot stand long before God, but is generally overcome by its own weakness… and drawn away by external things… Short, yet frequent prayer, on the other hand, has more stability, because the mind, immersed for a short time in God, can perform it with greater warmth… St. John of the Ladder also teaches: ‘Do not try to use too many words, lest your mind become distracted by the search for words… An excessive multitude of words in prayer disperses the mind in dreams, while one word or short sentence helps to collect the mind.”
The short prayers we say are filled with depth, though we often barely consider them.
The “Our Father” is probably the first prayer you learned, and it’s said everyday by most Christians across the world, which probably accounts for the fact that we’ve lost a sense for its profundity. Luis Martinez, in The Sanctifier, thinks differently: “In the prayer to his Father in which he made a sort of summary of his desires to teach us what ours should be, we find these words that seem to come forth as a triumphant cry from the depths of his soul: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10).”
If our heart was rightly ordered we would pray this prayer with all the gusto we can muster because it is a list of the desires of Jesus’ heart- given to us as a model for the desires our hearts should yearn for.
The “Hail Mary” is another great example of a profound prayer that goes unnoticed as it passes our lips, but it has contained in it all we really need for a good heartfelt prayer. 1) The first couple lines are scripture. We acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ Incarnation and our faith in the Word of God. It’s basically a little summary of the creed. 2) The hinge word is the name of Jesus. Jesus is the center of the prayer. When we pray His name we say the most powerful word in the world. Just saying his name, according to Fr. Mike Schmitz, calls upon His power, His healing, and His presence. When meditating upon the mysteries we call upon all of those things in the midst of each moment in His life. We step into His life with Mary. 3) We ask for mercy and intercession. The Eastern Catholics base their entire spiritual lives upon the name of Jesus and the plea for mercy.
Lastly in our list of basic prayers is the “Glory Be”, which is basically you giving God glory for whatever is happening at that moment- good or bad in your heart. It’s a practical application of Paul’s advice to “rejoice always” mentioned above.
Think of these simple little prayers (or others like it) as “leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33).
Now, I’m not meaning to say that these prayers will make you holy in and of themselves. We have to pray them with our hearts and not just our lips. Theophan (and really any good Byzantine monk trying to live out the exhortation to pray ceaselessly) cautions us that without remembrance of God’s presence in our heart these prayers are clanging cymbals and clashing gongs (see 1 Cor 13 for another “overused” piece of Catholic wisdom on that).
A Cistercian abbot, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, in the appendix to his famous book “The Soul of the Apostolate” teaches us how to tie in remembrance of God to these basic prayers:
“Take some text of Holy Scripture, or some vocal prayer, like the Pater, Ave, or Credo, and say it over, stopping at each word, drawing out various holy sentiments, upon which you may dwell as long as you like […]
“[...] There is no necessity to be always making new acts; it is often quite enough to remain in the presence of God silently turning over in your mind the words you have already meditated upon, or savoring the affections they have aroused in your heart.”
So there it is, the most boring advice that has the potential to radically transform your interior life (and every other aspect of your life for that matter). Thank your second grade CCD teacher, because when they gave you that cheap plastic rosary and prayer memorization sheet (perhaps unknowingly) just may have also given you the key to ceaseless prayer and recollection.