It’s Lent. You’ve got your fasting goals set. You’re going to give up pop, or TV, or sweets. You feel pretty good about yourself.
Then you hear your priest give a sermon on the purpose of Lent — that it’s more than just giving up something. He says, “Don’t just give up something for 40 days, get to Easter and then go back to normal life…Give up something, draw closer to Jesus, get to Easter, and then go back to normal life — closer to the Lord than you were before.”
“So I guess giving up my stupid Netflix shows won’t be enough?” I asked myself. “Cutting back on my Dr. Pepper intake just won’t measure up, huh?”
“Well, no…unless you do those things to make room for Me,” said a Voice in my head. “Then they matter a lot! Because you can fill yourself with Me!”
Some of you might be rolling your eyes at this bit of imagery, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah — we know our attitudes need to change about fasting. You’re just gonna say, ‘Offer it up.’ Well, we’ve tried that, and it doesn’t help!”
The truth is, offering it up only works if you’re united to the One you’re offering it up to!
Which brings me to the real point of this post:
(DING, DING, DING! YAHTZEE!)
That’s right: We can’t just give up something this Lent and expect to come out on top. We have to draw close to the Lord, not just remove the things that distract us from Him. We have to pray.
So, whether you’re just starting out on a new prayer journey or you’re levitating every time you even think about going to a chapel, I submit to you my six foolproof tips to building a prayer life:
1. Just show up.
This one sounds like the easiest tip, but it is actually the hardest. We are busy people, and sitting down for a few minutes of silence is, for most of us, the last thing on our minds. We usually get too focused on what we’re going to pray about, how we’re going to pray, and what we will pray with.
In sports, we’re often told, “It’s 80% mental, 20% physical.” In prayer, I’m claiming it’s the opposite: merely getting there physically is 80% of the battle. Making yourself stop for a few minutes and going to a quiet space is the most difficult but important step.
2. Do it every day.
Some may think that prayer is like exercise: Some days you do legs, some days you do arms, some days are long cardio workouts and some days you take off. Well, I was with you for the legs, arms and cardio part — but days off? No way, Mister.
St. Paul says, “…pray without ceasing…” (1 Thess 5:17). If that sounds intense, we should at least pray every day. If you’re tempted to pray 30 minutes four times a week or an hour three times a week, I advise you, cut it down and do it every day. It’s better to build the daily habit of smaller chunks than do long “cardio” prayer sessions a couple times a week. If you don’t believe me, read Chapter 1 of “Time for God” by Jacques Philippe, and you’ll get the picture.
3. Don’t play Bible roulette.
Never heard of this game before? You stick your finger randomly in the Bible and pray with the passage your finger lands on. You’re usually left to pray with some random deuteronomic law that makes no sense and only leaves you wondering what sacrificing pigeons has to do with your life.
Let’s get this straight: All Scripture passages are inspired, but some passages are easier to pray with than others. Set up an easy plan of passages that you’ll pray with. My three recommendations are (a) the daily readings from Mass, (b) a Gospel, chapter-by-chapter, and (c) a preset list of passages like the 30-Day Prayer Dare or the spiritual exercises by St. Ignatius.
4. Get a guide.
A guide could be a person, if you have a priest or friend who’s willing to verbally guide you through a meditation over the next 40 days. Most of the time, though, we don’t have this luxury, so we need to find a book or meditation companion to go along with our Scripture passage.
If you use something like “Magnificat” or “Word Among Us,” you already have meditations at your disposal for each day. Personally, I like a book called “An Ignatian Introduction to Prayer” by Fr. Timothy Gallegher because he literally walks you through each step of the passage you’re reading. Either way you choose, find something that can jumpstart you into conversation with the Lord and bring your attention back to the Lord when (and I mean when) you get distracted.
There’s quite a menu for types of prayer: WRAP (Write, Reflect, Apply, Pray; Lectio Divina; Ignatian meditation; ACTS (Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication). When you finally sit down to pray, no matter what method you choose, the key to making your prayer an actual conversation and not just sustained silent reading like you might have done in elementary school is this: Listen.
In between reading a phrase here or a sentence there, ask yourself: “What is Jesus saying to me through this passage?” If that doesn’t get you anywhere, Pope Francis even suggests asking: “Why am I not interested in this?” (“Evangelii Gaudium” para. 153). You’ll be surprised at what this question tells you about your heart and what Jesus is trying to say to it.
6. “I love you.”
Mother Teresa said, “How can we last even one day without hearing Jesus say, ‘I love you’ — impossible. Our soul needs that as much as the body needs to breathe the air.”
In my own experience of prayer, this is absolutely essential. Not only is it essential, it is the goal of your prayer. Everything — the silence, the passage, reflecting, listening — is leading to this one simple moment: to hear Jesus say, “I love you.” Sometimes, this moment feels like heaven is only an inch away, and we can practically taste the presence of Jesus. Other times, we have to almost force ourselves to hear the words because we don’t feel anything. Either way, I challenge you: Never walk out of your prayer time without this moment, even if it’s just for a few seconds. This moment will make all the difference.
So, this Lent, don’t let these days pass you by only leaving you a little less attached to Dr. Pepper and Netflix. Make sure you set up a plan to be less attached to those things and more attached to Jesus. May these tips jumpstart you on your praying journey!