Prayer can be hard. Many of us follow the forms laid out by the Church because they are a good foundation upon which to build a prayer life. Whether it’s the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary, we drink from a deep and pure well that can nourish our spiritual life with the wisdom of the Church and voice of God in Scripture. When we do, we join the People of God in one prayer.
Yet this discipline of prayer is like any discipline: it requires work and practice. As with a diet or exercise regimen, it can become a burden. If we put all our eggs in that basket, we can feel like failures if our discipline slips.
This why the Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes brief, frequent prayers over long, focused prayer. He says: “Prayer ought to be short and fervent, unless it happens, that one is moved by the grace of God to prolong it.”
Did you catch that last part? Longer prayer is a function of grace. Now, Benedictines certainly pray the Divine Office hours, so he’s not dismissing that. Instead, he sees the Office as a way to stand in the presence of God:
“We believe that God is everywhere present, and that His all-seeing eye beholds both the good and the bad; but there are no circumstances in which we should have such a profound and lively conviction of these truths, as while we are engaged in singing the Divine Office.”
In these deeper practices, we learn about God and dispose ourselves to His action, but prayer—the reaching out to God with heart, mind, and word—can be a much simpler thing.
The most humble yet powerful prayer is the Sign of the Cross. Body, mind, and voice all work together to proclaim the Trinity and the saving power of the crucifixion all at once.
It’s common to say “let your life become a prayer,” but that’s not quite what I mean here. Rather, we need to make prayer—short, frequent prayer—a part of our lives. Nothing big, mind you: just what the Church calls ejaculations. (Yes, I know, I know: but the Church’s understanding of the word preceded the other meaning.) Bring our lives back to God all day long with all our actions, if only just for a moment.
Say the Jesus Prayer. Make the Sign of the Cross before act. Say “God be with me” before you make a phone call. Say an Our Father at random points in the. Offer up a “Requiem aeternam” or “Lord have mercy” when you hear of a tragedy.
We all want our prayers to be outsized, deep, moving, profound. That is a worthy goal, but it should not be the ordinary way of prayer for us. The ordinary way is the little way.
I remember a video I saw years ago in a diocesan training session. It showed a woman making the Sign of the Cross over a tray of muffins as she put them in the oven. At the time I thought it looked absurd, and it’s probably not something I’d do myself, but now I see where she was coming from, and I think she was absolutely correct. She was trying to sanctify the mundane. It’s way of praying with our whole being, and composing that prayer from the simple moments of life.
We are a sacramental people. We believe God dignified flesh by taking it on Himself in the incarnation. We believe God uses matter to convey the sacred. Time, too, can become sacred, and every moment that clicks by can be sanctified for us if we turn to God in that moment and ask His blessing upon it.
Turning to frequent, short prayer throughout the day is like opening a windowshade on a bright day. The new light baths the room to reveal things formerly unseen. God is that light. The anxiety and stress of everyday life is the windowshade. Prayer is when we choose, if only for a moment, to let that light in so that we may see our life anew.
I doubt that The Muffin Lady’s Prayer was “Lord, make these the best muffins ever!” Rather, I think she was simply using her actions—in this case an act of both love and necessity in providing food for her family–as a moment to turn to God in thanks and love. She was trying to open herself to holiness by sanctifying the simple things.
“Pray without ceasing,” we are told. This doesn’t mean every person commits themselves to a life of prayer like a cloistered contemplative, but rather that each one of us is commanded to turn to God in the midst of life. We draw near to God and dwell in His presence, weaving our prayer out of the simple stuff of life, and offering up our time, our actions, our emotions, our very bodies in an act of love and devotion.