It’s hard to sustain a regular life of prayer. Why? Why is it so difficult to pray regularly?
Some reasons are obvious: over-busyness, tiredness and too many demands on our time, constant distraction, spiritual laziness, worship services that bore us, and methods of prayer that leave us flat and inattentive.
But there is another reason too, suggested by monks and mystics. The problem we have in sustaining prayer, they say, is often grounded in the false notion that prayer needs to be interesting, exciting, intense, and full of energy all the time. But that is impossible, nothing is meant to be exciting all the time, including prayer and church services, and nobody has the energy to always be alert, attentive, intense, and actively engaged all the time.
Sometimes we don’t pray regularly precisely because we simply cannot find within ourselves the energy, time, intensity, and appetite for active participation that we think prayer is demanding of us. But prayer respects that, even if spiritual authors and liturgists often don’t.
Prayer is meant to respect the natural rhythms of our energy. Praying is like eating and, as we know from experience, you don’t always want a banquet. If you tried to have a banquet every day, you would soon find coming to the table burdensome and would look for every excuse to escape, to sneak off for a quick sandwich by yourself.
Eating has a natural rhythm: banquets and quick snacks, rich meals and simple sandwiches, high times with linen serviettes and low times with paper napkins, meals which take a whole evening and meals which you eat on the run. And the two depend upon each other: You can only have high season if you mostly have ordinary time.
Healthy eating habits respect our natural rhythms: our time, energy, tiredness, the season, the hour, our boredom, our taste.
Prayer should be the same, but this isn’t generally respected. Too often we are left with this impression: All prayer should be high celebration, upbeat, with high energy. The more variety the better. Longer is better than shorter. Time and tiredness should never be a consideration. During prayer, nobody should ever look at a wristwatch. People at a prayer service need not be told how long the service will last. The solution to boredom and lack of energy is more variety and imagination.
No wonder we are often lack the energy to pray and want to avoid church services.
Monks have secrets worth knowing. They know that if you pray regularly boredom and lack of energy will soon begin to wear you down. The answer then is not so much new prayer forms and more variety, but rhythm, routine, and established ritual. For monks, the key to sustaining a daily life of prayer is not so much variety, novelty, and the call for higher energy, but rather a reliance on the expected, the familiar, the repetitious, the ritual, the clearly defined. What’s needed is a clearly delineated prayer form which gives you a clear durational expectancy and does not demand of you an energy that you cannot muster on a given day.
There are times of course for high celebration, for variety and novelty, for spontaneity, and for long celebrations. There are also times, and these are meant to predominate just as they do in our eating habits, for ordinary time, for low season, for prayer that respects our energy-level, work pressures, and time constraints.
It is no accident, I suspect, that more people used to attend daily church services when these were shorter, simpler, less demanding in terms of energy expenditure, and gave people attending a clear expectation as to how long they would last. The same holds true for other prayers, the office of the church and basically all common prayer. What clear, simple, and brief rituals provide is precisely prayer that depends upon something beyond our own energy. The rituals carry us, our tiredness, our lack of energy, our inattentiveness, our indifference, and even our occasional distaste. They keep us praying even when we are too tired to muster up our own energy.
There is much to be commended in stressing that prayer, particularly liturgy, should demand of us real energy, real participation, and real celebration. It is meant to be demanding, but sometimes, I fear, we misunderstand what it is asking of us and sometimes too, I think, we are working too hard at it and are not letting the rituals themselves work hard enough
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a little mantra he would sometimes use when he was preaching to a young couple on their wedding day. He would tell them: “Today you are young and very much in love and you think that your love will sustain your marriage. It won’t. But your marriage can sustain your love!”
That’s true too for prayer. We think that good intention and energy will sustain our rituals of prayer, but they can’t. Rather our rituals of prayer can sustain our good will and our energy.