by Taylor Croissant, OblSB
Christmas is my most favorite time of year, not just because we gather to spend time with family and friends but because of the wonderful liturgies and music that go along with the season. One area that I find more fulfilling each year is to use this period as a time to develop my prayer life.
Prayer is one of the areas that I struggled with most when I made my Oblation in 2017. I did not grow up in a religious household and I had no examples outside of Mass on Sundays of people who prayed fervently. St. Benedict’s call in The Rule to "prostrate oneself frequently in prayer" (Chapter 4) seemed utterly foreign to me.
At a surface level, The Rule says little about private prayer despite so much being devoted to community prayer. St. Benedict clearly felt prayer was the work of the community and therefore, provided more direction for how they monks were to pray together. Private prayer seems to be relegated to confessing sins to God daily and putting nothing above the love of Christ.
While this seems like scant direction, it is instead a call to a cultivation of a deep faith and continuous prayer throughout your life. In Chapter 20, St. Benedict demands "humility and pure devotion" in prayer. In Chapter 52, he states that if one is called to private prayer "let them go in and pray, not with a loud voice but with tears and an attentive heart." Both of these verses recommend prayer be kept brief and pure.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of those who pray loudly so others may hear and commend them (certainly this is directed towards the Pharisees). This is not the type of prayer St. Benedict wants for the monks. It is performative rather than calling us deeper into our relationship with Christ.
Prayer is like a muscle, it requires consistent effort, appropriate nutrition to support a
strong prayer life. Continuous prayer is not easy when we have a poor cultivation of our relationship with Christ. How do we improve our prayer life?
One is the consistent practice of daily prayer. In the new year, we have a wonderful
opportunity to commit more to prayer. I always use my phone to set alarms for daily prayer. This ensures it is a focus each day.
The second way is to open your hearts to new forms of prayer. Prayer is fundamentally a dialogue with God, a two-way street where we ask and receive. We may not always get the response we wanted but we often get what is needed for us at that time. There are many forms of dialogue with God. Focus more on lectio divina or take up contemplative practices. The important thing is to find formats where you hear Christ’s voice.
Third, create a prayerful space in your life. It is easier to devote time to prayer when you have a space set aside devoted to that practice. I often find it easiest outside because I see the miracle of life in nature on a consistent basis. How could I not be drawn into awe at God’s creation? I also created a space inside my home when it is so cold like it has been recently. In this way, I do not have external distractions dividing my attention so I can cultivate a deeper faith.
Fourth, remember that prayer is not limited to the times when we initially set out to do it. The Rule specifically provides for spontaneous prayers. Two perfect times for thanksgiving are when you set out to do a task so God may help you see it to completion and when a good thing has happened. A third time when prayer is warranted is when things go the opposite of what we expect. For example, I always pray for people I have conflict with--it helps me to let go of my frustration and focus on what is important to restore relationships.
All three are opportunities for grace. Remember that prayer is a labor of love. We are called to prefer nothing to the love of Christ and prayer is our opportunity to bring this into focus for our lives.