A friend and I have been discussing prayer lately. First off, I told her that I am not a prayer expert worthy to give out advice! I have so much to learn. So much more time to pray…for that is the way that you learn about prayer…by doing it.
I did share some things with her, though, to encourage her as she strives, with the aid of her spiritual father, to build a prayer rule.
Human nature, our little ways and quirks, are fascinating. Since God designed us Himself, he knows about each and every one of our strengths and weaknesses. Part of giving ourselves to Him completely is offering our humanness and allowing Him to transform every aspect of it. When it comes to prayer, there are many physical aspects of human nature that the Church uses to help us. Human nature tends to dissolve into laziness and distraction, so when we pray, we use our body to keep us focused. We stand, we bow, we cross ourselves, we use what appears at first glance to be a frailty to instead be an advantage. We take what is imperfect and offer it to He who is perfect.
Ever tried to break a bad habit? Anyone who has knows how strong a hold a habit can have on our human minds, just simply because it’s a habit. When trying to learn to pray, this idea of habit is so powerful. What often becomes a negative trait, in the way of bad habits, instead can be transformed into a powerful tool to build prayer. I have many habits, some of which seem so ingrained that it seems daunting to imagine what it will take to stop me from doing them. What if prayer was one of those habits?
It takes about three weeks to make a habit. Don’t do something you want to stop doing for three weeks straight, and the hold of the bad habit will be broken. Do something you want to make a good habit for three weeks, and after that time, you’ll find it second nature.
I encouraged my friend that thousands of years of example shows us that beginning a huge and complicated prayer rule all at one time doesn’t work. Rapid change like that is just not human nature. You’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, start small, and give it a few weeks..maybe a month…to get used to it. Then add another small amount. Five more minutes of prayer in the morning…or one more prayer at night…or one Psalm midday. Just a little bit. Then, do that for another month. At the end of the month, you won’t be able to imagine giving up what you’ve already been doing…it will be a habit. A habit worth keeping. Then, and only then, you can challenge yourself to go to the next level.
None of what I said is my own invention, of course! All the Fathers and anyone who has ever had a prayer rule or tried to begin praying the Jesus Prayer knows about the value of tapering. Building up slowly. Using human nature to our advantage, rather than letting it discourage us. I am just applying the wisdom of our holy examples. What has made me chew on this lately, though, was the last thing I said to my friend.
I commented to her that if each of us added just five minutes…even just two minutes…a day to our prayer…once a month…for the rest of our lives. Oh, Lord have mercy! Where then would we be? Where would I be if I followed my own advice?
A life of prayer. One habit at a time. What an amazing opportunity!