I’ve long been a fan of Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691), who teaches in his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, that we can be in prayer all the time: while we are preparing food, teaching a class, caring for a child. Think of it as 17th-century multitasking.
But two years ago I learned some new facts about this same Brother Lawrence who practiced God’s presence: He also participated in formal, liturgical, corporate prayer eight times a dayÑeight times, every day. And then, he prayed without ceasing.
I began wondering why my experience of prayer was not more like the one he described. It’s like having been given a cake recipe that left out the part about turning on the oven.
Then and Now
Brother Lawrence had a discipline of prayer throughout his day. Ah, I think, but that was then; this is now. He didn’t have a carpool, two children, three committees, four jobs and a cell phone. But he did have a soul and a savior, just as I do. And he did have a moment-to-moment relationship with God in Christ that my heart often longs for, an intimacy of constant and soulful communion.
I love God. I have wanted to know him, and so, for many years, I gave prayer about 15 minutes a day. Even then, I might skip praying if the alarm clock failed or someone called a meeting before 9 a.m.
Could I possibly model Brother Lawrence? What if I tried to pray, not eight, but maybe four, times a day, say for 20 minutes? It was a tall order for me, but it is God who enables us when we follow his commands, when we conform to his design for us.
Three Meals a Day
The truest analogy I can draw here is to eating. Too often my prayer life was like being on life support, my nourishment coming from an IV attached to one very used and abused vein, and I was subsisting on glucose and electrolytes or, at the very best, small snacks.
Imagine a person who, for years and years, has grabbed coffee and a bagel each morning and then fasted until the next day, taking only sips of water, juice or soda, maybe grabbing a cracker or a pretzel when her busy life allowed it.
And then, imagine one day she hears of this new approach to nourishment: something called meals three times a day. Cereal with milk and coffee in the morning; an entire sandwich at lunchtime; meat, pasta, salad, crusty bread for dinner; and, at bedtime, a piece of apple pie such as you haven’t tasted since you were a child.
That comparison comes closest to describing the change in my life once I started praying 20 minutes, four times a day. It gave new meaning to the lyrics “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord ” (Psalm 34:9a).
With prayers spaced throughout the day, I was never far away from God. I found myself anticipating the sweetness of my times with him, looking forward to the resting or to the intensity of deep-heart conversing that my former prayers had never fostered.
And yes, of course, I found myself thinking: My, aren’t I holy, praying all the time! But frequent prayers make sin stand out in stark relief, and instant cries for forgiveness and mercy run throughout the day.
A Brave New World
I wish I could tell you that when I began this new discipline it was like pulling teeth, that it was hard and tedious. But prayer is what we are made for, our spiritual connection with the living God.
It is not an ordinary experience. We are creatures designed by God to operate a certain way. When we are in harmony with our design, we work, and when we are out of harmony with our design, we don’t.
A whale stranded on a beach flops about. Ah, but see him in the water and he is the magnificent creature God made him to be. Likewise, when we are in communion with our Lord in prayer, we are something to behold, something God beholdsÑwith pleasure.
I am not saying that the change from snatching snacks to sitting down to three meals a day was easy. It was enormously challenging. It called for a radical overhaul of my weekly schedule, an uprooting of priorities and commitments, a reordering of relationships and, especially, of my mind-set. It meant revision of my goals.
I literally had to rearrange my life. And the preparation took more thought and energy and planning than the prayer. It’s like preparing a Thanksgiving dinner. It takes 10 hours to make the meal, and one hour to eat it.
New Practices, New Prayers
The first thing I had to do was take a look at how I was spending my time and then ask about every activity on the list: Is it necessary or optional?
Then came more specific questions: Can I reduce the amount of time I spend on this or that task? Can I do with sleeping 10 fewer minutes? Can food preparation time be cut? (When Martha raised that question with Jesus, he had some pretty specific thoughts on the subjectÑsee Luke 10:42.) Do I need to open junk mail, answer every e-mail and cell phone call, shop, read magazines and watch the news?
We don’t have blocks of time sitting vacant, waiting to be filled with prayer. They are already filled with other activities that we will no longer be able to do. To give prayer a central place in my life, I had to eliminate a number of things that felt pretty vital to meÑat least they did until I tried prayer in their place.
At first, I literally wrote my prayer times in my calendar. I decided for the sake of practicality that I would not stick to set times, although I do love the reverent aspect of the formal honoring of God at set times of worship through the day.
I made my daily prayer times the first thing in the morning, right before (or some days instead of) lunch, at the end of the afternoon and, finally, late in the evening.
As I began my new practice, it became clear pretty quickly that not only when but also how I prayed was going to have to change. For too long, prayer had often involved my sitting with my head bowed and my eyes closed, reciting the names of everybody that I knew or heard about who was in any sort of trouble, then asking a quick blessing on the day and hurrying away.
So I began to acquire several collections of prayers written by saints through the ages, prayers I prayed with concentration and intent, prayers prayed 1,000 years ago.
And I began praying Scripture, not just the Psalms, reading each word very slowly, forming each phrase into a prayer. This was very different from my study of Scripture. Now Scripture was studying me.
Prayer in Many Forms
Prayer is being consciously in God’s presence, focusing our eyes on God, on who God is. My prayer began to take the form of singing hymns and songs of praise, sitting, kneeling, standing, hands raised high or falling on my face before God.
We are flesh and blood. We must pray with our bodies. My prayer included contemplation, meditation, listening to God’s voice, sometimes writing letters to God, even e-mails.
Often for evening prayers I would light a candle, sometimes with Gregorian chant playing softly, the candle and the chant helping to focus my thoughts on him as I stood in my often-chilly kitchen late at night and prayed to the One who is the light of the world.
Or my prayer might find me standing all alone in the middle of a cornfield on a clear fall day singing out in the beautiful air “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name. ” I walk a lot, and I’ve often stopped to praise the sunset. I began stopping to praise the sun-setter, the sun-riser and the already-risen Son of God. I now have a particular spot on a hill overlooking a pond on a local college campus that is my prayer place there.
I also have a corner in my sunroom where I sit, consciously in the presence of God. In the evening I sit down alone, leaning on him and talking things over, filling my mind with images of him.
How Prayer Changes Things
Prayer is relationship. It is intimacy with the One who died and rose again. Prayer is time spent together loving.
Tell me about a mother and child who spend 15 minutes a day together in the morningÑand no more for the remainder of the dayÑand I will tell you about loneliness and disappointment, confusion, miscommunication and a pervading feeling that something isn’t right.
If we feel in our deepest and most honest hearts that there is something missing in our lives, that the joy we read about we seldom feel and that often we are going through the motions, might it be that our hearts miss prayer? We say that we don’t have time to pray. We think that we invented busy. But busyness has always existed.
The more we pray, the more we come to know that prayer does not involve two buddies sitting on a park bench chatting. It is one friend giving the other blood transfusions, one giving the other life, physically and spiritually.
This is a relationship in which one of the two is GodÑand one of the two is not. The more time we spend in prayer, the more we apprehend that God is God, Jesus is Lord and the Holy Spirit is our only strength and comfort.
I have learned a tender truth in my practice of prayer: When we please someone, we love him or her more. When I come to God at my little prayer times throughout the day, I believe I please him, and thinking that I give him pleasure intensifies the intimacy with my Lord.
Likewise, when a child feels the pleasure of his father, that child loves his or her father more. The two are drawn closer. That’s how it works.
Twenty MinutesÑMore or Less
There’s nothing magical about the choice of 20 minutes. Praying for five minutes four times every day can turn a life around and upside down.
I find that I have seasons in my walk with God. There is no schedule we must keep. At times I pray often, at other times much less. God does not judge us on performance, but he is honored when we bow before him with our loving hearts.
Is prayer four times a day for everyone? I don’t know. Nor do I know whether it is, in fact, even possible for everyone to carve out that many times a day. Some individuals’ lives are too complicated and demanding, but I believe that those individuals are rare. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think if I know one such person.
Praying Early and Often
If God is a maybeÑor even just a good ideaÑthen it makes sense to pray a little in the morning and whisper prayers here and there through the day.
But if God is God and desires to be in communion with me, then the only thing that makes even a particle of sense is to pursue God 24/7 and drop everything to enjoy that sweet, delicious honor.
Prayer is astonishing. It is the most outrageous and enlivening thing that we can do.