Prayer is hard. In the Rule of Saint Benedict the phrase used is ora et labora or ‘pray and work’. It’s partly understood as prayer is work and work is prayer, it’s a holistic approach to our lives where each part of it feeds the other parts, no distinction is made between them.
Yet it’s really easy to reach burn out, to get discouraged with prayer and for blockages to build up between us and God.
The monastic tradition offers a wealth of resources for reinvigorating our prayer life. Some of these things work well as occasional practices, whereas others help cultivate habits of prayer that will last you a lifetime. Here’s a few you could try out yourself!
From the Ignatian tradition, the Examen is about reviewing your day with God and becoming more aware of how God has been present in your day. You take time to still yourself and come before God and then go through the day with him, paying particular attention to the emotions you felt at certain moments. Then you pray especially about one or two things that happened and bring them before God, asking what he can teach you from it, before lifting the new day to God.
One of the strengths of the Examen is it creates a habit of gratitude, where you thank God for each day, recognising it as a gift from him and learning to better discern his presence in your life in each moment of each day. If you want to try out a led Examen, try the Pray As You Go app.
Another gem from St Ignatius is contemplation, a way of praying with the imagination in such a way as it engages the mind, the heart and emotion.
Ignatius believed that God can speak to us through our imagination and advocated a way of praying with a gospel passage where we immerse ourselves in it, using all of our senses to place ourselves in the story through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to uncover what God wants to say to us through the passage.
If you worry your imagination might take you too far beyond the text, then discern as you imagine whether it is bringing you closer to Jesus or not. A great text to do Ignatian contemplation with is John 5:1-9.
If you are an especially visual person, then praying with icons and pictures can be a helpful way of bringing yourself before Jesus and prayer beads are helpful if having something to hold and fidget with allows you to maintain focus better.
Daily office is a feature of many monastic communities, but the practice of punctuating the day with prayer and praise is a much older concept. The Psalmist in 119 says: “seven times a day I praise you”.
Beginning with the apostles, the monastic communities created standardised patterns of prayer throughout the day. In the Anglican tradition, there are now four offices: morning prayer, prayer during the day, evening prayer, and compline (night prayer).
The Daily Offices help create a rhythm to your day based around prayer and worship. The regularity of them means your day is continually reoriented to be about God and his presence punctures our self-reliance and our disappearing into the chaos of daily life.
Now it’s not possible for all of us to say all the offices each day, but even just saying morning prayer or compline each day creates a rhythm for your life which is centred on God. The offices are scripturally rich, and there is something to be said for beginning each day with: ‘O Lord, open our lips and our mouth shall proclaim your praise’ and ending each day with ‘The Lord almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.’
Following on from daily office, having a personal liturgy helps you to be more intentional about personal prayer time and forces you to slow down and give this time to God.
It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate – I sing a worship song chorus to begin and pray the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner). Then I end with saying the Lord’s Prayer. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a way of saying this time is for God and with God and that this is my priority. It creates a posture of prayer and openness to God’s presence in that period.
In monastic traditions there is what’s known as The Great Silence, the period between the final prayer of the day and the first prayer of the next day, when they return to their rooms. In The Great Silence there is the paradox where all seems still, but God in his eternal changelessness and glorious mysteriousness remains active and working, often in ways we will never see nor understand.
Silence is hard! But it is profoundly life-giving. In the rule of life the Community of St Anselm abides by, it says of silence that it “is the quietness of the heart, silence is discipline in speech, silence is reflection, silence is being present in God’s ‘now’. Silence positions us to be self-controlled and not to be swept away with a sea of unthinking reactions”. The joy of God’s ‘now’ is one of silence’s greatest gifts, so just try for an evening: phone off, laptop away, and take yourself away and be with God in his now.
Jesus said to his disciples in Mark 6: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”. Going on retreats, be they for a day, a week, or in the case of the Ignatian ‘Spiritual Exercises’ retreat thirty days, are a good way of giving your prayer life a much-needed MOT.
There are all kinds of retreats, often run by monastic communities, from ones focused on inner healing, to ones for couples, and silent ones. The value of retreating is it brings you back to what – ie who – is important: God. And this can be done more regularly than full-on retreats. Rick Warren recommends this pattern: divert daily, withdraw weekly, abandon annually.
Spiritual direction is when someone accompanies you in your walk with God and helps you to deepen your relationship with God and to grow in your spirituality.
They’re brilliant for asking the poignant and sometimes tough questions in order to get you to go deeper. They help you discern what God might be saying to you in your prayer times and help you uncover new ways of praying that enables your spiritual life to flourish. And having accountability is such a gift, it forces you to be honest with them, honest with yourself, and honest with God about just how your prayer life is going.
Nothing can ever replace personal prayer, but sometimes corporate prayer can provide the accountability and impetus you need to give your personal prayer a boost.
Prayer is hard but God is good and kind and gracious. When prayer gets tough and stale or life gets in the way don’t beat yourself up about it because all that does is draw you further away from Jesus. Prayer is a bit like a muscle, you start simple and gradually build up your strength and stamina, so don’t be hard on yourself when you slip up or if your mind wanders after a minute or two. God’s not going anywhere so just keep coming back to him.