In addition to fasting and almsgiving, prayer is the third pillar of Lenten practices. But if you are anything like me, it can be hard to find time to pray in the midst of our busy lives. Prayer often seems too serious, intimidating, or boring to be of much interest. In many images of prayer that we receive from our tradition, prayer is connected to solitude and a certain collectedness of self, two things that may seem in short supply as we hurry from school to work, from social engagements to extra-curricular activities. When prayer is understood as the act of removing oneself from the concerns of daily life in order to contemplate eternal wisdom, it is no wonder most people are not interested in prayer.
In order for prayer to make sense in our modern lives, we need to understand it a bit differently. First and foremost, we need to understand prayer as arising out of our relationship with God. All of us are directed by our loves and desires.*
In other words, we are motivated to act by what we love and what we want. If we really desire a new guitar, we will be willing to get an after-school job in order to make money to purchase it. In a relationship based on love, we often are willing to go out of our way for the other person, even to do things we might not otherwise do, because we are motivated by our love for that person. Similarly, our prayer lives can flow from our love of God and our desire to follow the example of Jesus. When we set our hearts and minds on God, prayer may just happen.
But cultivating a relationship with God based in deep love and a desire to follow Jesus is easier said than done. And the tricky thing is that prayer is an important avenue for strengthening and deepening our relationship with God. If we do not pray because our relationship with God is not that strong, then our relationship with God just keeps getting weaker as we stay away from prayer. But if we challenge ourselves to travel down the road of prayer, we may find prayer coming more easily as our relationship to God develops.
One thing we can do to travel down the road of prayer this Lent is to think of ways to include simple prayers as part of our day-to-day lives. For instance, every time I hear the siren of an ambulance, I pray for the injured person, his or her family, and the medical staff who are attending to her or him. When I sit down to eat, I say a simple grace, either in my head if I am alone or with my family if we are eating together, offering thanks for the food I have to eat and praying that all people receive the nourishment they need for a healthy life. When I get into the shower in the morning, I offer thanks to God for the body that will take me through the day ahead and ask that God be with me. These prayers become integrated into my daily routine, so that prayer is not an arduous task but rather simply a part of my daily life. How might you include prayers as part of your day-to-day life? At what moments would it be appropriate to offer thanks or to make a petition to God?
A second thing we can do to travel down the road of prayer this Lent is to think of things that we already do as prayers. I wrote about this for a previous blog post (November 9, 2011):
I have heard other people talk about being the most themselves and meeting God when they play music or sing, go for a run or shoot baskets, paint or sculpt. Prayer does not need to involve words or memorization or recitation. Things that we love to do in life, things that restore our souls, things through which we can be our best selves: these actions can be prayers. While it is important to pray as part of a community, this is not the only way to pray. We can pray while we are living our lives, which means God can be part of everything we do.
Chances are that you are already praying more than you think, if you see actions based in love as prayer. Tim, a former colleague of mine, once challenged our youth group to think about where they can meet God in video games, because he deeply believed that we can interact and pray with God in just about any situation. What do you already do that you could see as a prayer?
On the front of this week’s Spirit magazine, there are a series of statements about what makes relationships work. Prayer is an important ingredient of our relationship with God, but it is certainly not the only one. Participating in a community of faith and surrounding ourselves with people who are not roadblocks to our faith are just two other ingredients that contribute to our relationship with God. What other things are important for your relationship with God? How can you stregnthen these ingredients this Lent?
*This idea comes from Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 8.
Photo of butterfly courtesy of Mike_tn via Creative Commons Licensing