When I was growing up and went to confession, the priest would always ask, “Did you say your morning and evening prayers?” I would feel guilty and wonder if I prayed enough or in the right ways. Happily, as I became an adult, I read about prayer and worked with a spiritual director and realized that prayer is more than the words I prayed at a certain time.
Prayer is also walking with God and attending to God’s presence throughout my days.
What Is Prayer?
One of the earliest definitions I learned was that prayer is talking and listening to God. As a child (and even now some days), I did more of the talking and less of the listening. Much of my early years were spent saying rote prayers I learned at school, including novenas and the rosary. For me they were the real prayers—the right ones to say if I were to answer the parish priest’s question with an affirmation in confession.
It wasn’t until I was in college and began reading some of the classics like Teresa of Avila, and contemporaries like Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, that I began to understand prayer as being more aware of God and God’s presence throughout the day, and that prayer can happen—and does happen—at any moment.
All times and all things can be prayer. It sounds simple enough, but it takes a willingness to recognize that God is incarnational and present in all creation. Whether I’m sitting before the Eucharist in the tabernacle, or watching my son strike out again at a baseball game and feeling his pain, I am praying. Saint Paul writes, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit . . . there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (1 Cor 12:4-6). I like to paraphrase it by saying there are different “prayers” but the same Spirit; there are different prayers but the same God who accomplishes all of them in everyone.
Distractions and Worries
Each of us is called to be a person of prayer, whether we are a parent, teacher, young adult, senior, or student. There are multiple prayers we will echo in common, and there are many ways of praying that help us reach the goal to which we are each called: praying always. Indeed, we can offer all we do and say as a prayer.
However, there will be many moments in life when one may question as I did, “Am I really praying if I am so distracted?” Most mornings I find myself so preoccupied by thoughts and plans of what I am going to teach that day that I feel I can’t focus. If I were to grade my morning prayer based on how focused I was and the number of distractions I had, I would fail most days. Even while praying the psalms aloud with an app, I find my mind wandering.
I must be a slow learner, because it took numerous years and countless talks with spiritual directors to accept that perhaps my most personal prayer was the distraction I experienced. I have learned that these distractions are my prayers, as I strive to gently release them into the hands of God without feeling that I am praying poorly.
I vividly remember my “honeymoon” of prayer when I could focus and frequently experience the warm feeling of God’s presence as I sat in my prayer spot. My mindfulness of God, though, doesn’t always happen during my formal prayer times.
Today my awareness of God happens when I am peeling potatoes in my kitchen. I give thanks for the food and recall the many hours spent in the kitchen with my mom as I offer prayers for her. When I drive by a church steeple, I think of my childhood and the Sunday afternoon drives with my grandparents.
My grandfather wore a hat, and even though he would be listening to his Red Sox game on the radio, he would tip his hat whenever we passed a church. I thank God for reminding me of his presence and offer a prayer for my grandfather.
Being more attuned to God in my ordinary time, rather than during my formal prayer time, has become almost the norm for me. Some days I am most aware of God while cooking or folding laundry, whereas I struggle to stay focused during my morning prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours.
Recalling a directed retreat more than 30 years ago, I remember being so frustrated with distractions and a lack of feeling God’s presence that I was ready to leave on day three of an eight-day retreat. My wise director told me to take a break from formal prayer times and take a walk into town. As I walked across the bridge that spanned the roaring river and into the quaint little town, I perceived God telling me how much he loved me and realized how he had been in my everyday life. Our God is a God of surprises, and I have learned that
God can become apparent in any place at any time. It is I who must realize his presence.
Many Ways of Prayer
When I think of the many gifts I have received, the best one didn’t come in a package tied with a bow—it was the gift of prayer. Spiritual directors and friends have shared little lessons in discovering God through different ways of praying along my spiritual journey.
Father Paul Ouellette, OMI, gave me the gift of understanding and learning traditional prayers, and the realization that prayer happens all the time when one is open to finding God in everyday experiences. After I completed my master’s degree in theology, he asked me what I had learned about prayer in my studies. I had to admit that while I had taken classes in Scripture, liturgy, Church history, systematics, and morality, most of what I had learned about prayer had come from retreats, spiritual direction, and my own reading. Under his guidance, I read and practiced many types of prayer.
While Ecclesiastes talks about there being a time for everything: “A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak” (3:7), I learned that there is a time for the rosary and a time for centering prayer.
There is a time for quiet meditation and times for crying and pleading to God to make his presence known. And most of all, there is the response to God’s grace of simply being present to the moment.
As a teenager, I would take long walks into the woods or pause by a bubbling brook and converse with God in my mind about all the usual concerns of a teenage girl: arguments with my family, not feeling popular at school, and worries about college. Somehow I felt better about life when my walk ended. Although I never considered these walks and conversations as prayer, they were some of my deepest prayer times.
Recognizing the divine throughout the day can take various forms. Teaching in a Catholic school, I noticed that one of my middle-school students always paused to make the sign of the cross and say a prayer when he heard a siren. Seeing a military vehicle or a member of the military, a friend of mine offers a prayer for safety and peace in our world. Walking through a doorway, I use it as a signal to ask God to open the door of my heart to his grace.
When I spent a weekend at a Carmelite monastery while in college, my director, Sister Margaret, suggested that I offer a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s love every time I saw a cross, such as in a windowpane or wires against a telephone pole. I look for crosses in nature every day and remember her.
To notice God in everyday instances, it helps to have a regular prayer time and a method of prayer that nourishes one’s soul and relationship with God. Just as my physical body needs a balanced, nutritious diet to function well, my spiritual life needs a variety of prayer to sustain me. My diet for prayer is nourished with Ignatian prayer, centering prayer, the Jesus prayer (see sidebar, p. 42 ), lectio divina, Liturgy of the Hours, Scripture, novenas, and traditional devotions, including the Stations of the Cross and Marian devotions.
Additionally, Saint Ignatius of Loyola recommended that an Examen be part of daily prayer. This involves reflecting on where God was present or not present throughout the day, and asking forgiveness for faults and sins. Indeed, I believe it is because of my formal prayer times that I am more conscious of God during the day.
Praying through Life’s Changes
Through Father Paul and other spiritual directors, I have learned that just as there are seasons in the year, there are seasons in my prayer life. There are times of light and times of darkness. Mother Teresa wrote about times when she sensed that God was absent. I could relate to her experience, but thankfully, my periods of dryness lasted only a couple of months. I have been blessed by many fruitful experiences of God.
When I became a mother in my 30s, I quickly realized that my extended, quiet prayer times for meditation were no longer possible. Indeed, getting married and having children opened my prayer life to new possibilities. I no longer found God in a lengthy period of Ignatian meditation, but in the quiet of the middle of the night as I nursed a fussy baby back to sleep. I couldn’t hold a prayer book or a Bible, but I reflected deeply on how God had fed me in the Eucharist, and how Mary must have felt nursing baby Jesus to sleep.
While washing my children’s dirty feet, I recalled a meditation on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and I felt God calling me in prayer to wash the feet of those people with whom I had difficulties.
Just as I often prayed blessings for my own children, now I pray for each of my students as I walk around my classroom checking their work. In quiet moments or while taking a walk, I recall a prayerful reflection from a retreat I attended when I was free of family responsibilities. Occasionally, I pray with Scripture by repeating a passage or verse. A favorite is Philippians 3:10: “[I wish to] know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death.”
While I cook or clean the house, I say grace or the Jesus prayer. The plaque of Saint Francis of Assisi above my sink reminds me of Saint Francis’ call to simplicity, humility, and peace as I wash dishes. God is in the midst of everything we do or touch. My life can become prayer at every moment when I take the time to acknowledge the incarnational nature of God and how my life is embraced, enriched, and enlivened by it.