It’s no secret that it’s hard to sustain daily prayer. The reason for this is not always as obvious or deep as some would make it.
Why do we find it so hard to pray regularly? Some answer by blaming the culture, with all its pressures and seductions. Others blame the devil or concupiscence or laziness. While others blame prayer forms themselves, claiming that our worship services and ways of praying are outdated and unimaginative.
There is, I suspect, some truth to all of these, but, relying on the testimony of the mystics (persons who sustained very deep prayer lives for long periods of time) I want to suggest another reason: boredom, lack of energy, tiredness, distaste for prayer, and the simple inability to crank it up. According to the mystics, the biggest problem we face in sustaining prayer is boredom and lack of energy, pure and simple.
This is important to recognize because, invariably, the solution suggested by spiritual authors, preachers, liturgists and prayer leaders is new prayer forms, more variety, endless novelty, or the simple challenge that we shouldn’t be so lazy and selfish and crank up more energy for prayer.
These solutions are, I submit, largely dysfunctional because they do not respect properly the rhythms of prayer and life. Praying is like eating and eating is like life itself; you need some variety, but mostly you need rhythm and ritual.
Eating has a natural rhythm and there are natural rituals to it: banquets and quick snacks, rich meals and salads, high times with linen serviettes and low times with paper napkins, meals which take a whole evening and meals which we eat in five minutes… and the two extremes depend upon each other, ordinary time and high season create each other.
Our eating habits generally respect anthropology—our time, energy, tiredness, the season, the hour, our boredom, our taste.
Prayer is the same as eating, but this isn’t generally respected. Too common are the myths that suggest that the following rules should guide prayer and worship: All celebrations should be high celebrations, upbeat, with lots of singing and energy expenditure. The more variety the better. Longer is better than shorter. More is better. Time and tiredness may never be a consideration. A good prayer leader or celebrant does not need a good wristwatch. The persons participating in the prayer need not have a clear durational expectancy. The solution to boredom and lack of energy is more variety and imagination.
Given those guidelines, it’s no wonder that we are often too tired and lack the energy to pray.
If boredom and lack of energy are the major culprits working against daily prayer, and the mystics suggest that they are, then, I suggest, what we need is a better rhythm and better rituals governing our prayer and worship. Monks have secrets worth knowing and they have, since the beginning of monasticism, suggested that the key to daily prayer is not so much variety and novelty as it is the expected, the familiar, the repetitious, the ritual, the clearly defined, clearly delineated prayer form which gives people a clear durational expectancy and does not demand of them an energy that they cannot muster on a given day.
There are times, important times, 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 celebrations, for prayer that respects our energy level, work pressures, and time constraints.
It is, I submit, no accident that more people used to attend daily Eucharist when daily Eucharist was precisely shorter, simpler, less demanding in terms of energy expenditure, and gave people attending it a fairly clear expectation as to how long it would last. The same holds true for other prayers, the office of the church, the rosary, and other such ritualized prayers. What these clear, and most of the time simple and brief, rituals would provide is precisely a ritual that depended upon something beyond our own energy input. The ritual could carry our tiredness, our lack of energy, and our occasional indifference or distaste. It would also carry us… keeping us praying even when we were too tired to muster up very much energy.
There is much to be commended in the renewal of prayer forms and liturgy in the past decades a renewal that has stressed more variety, more novelty, more celebration, more personal involvement, and has demanded more energy from us when we pray. But sometimes, I fear, we have fallen into the trap we are working too hard at it… and we are not letting the ritual do its work.
Bonhoeffer once while instructing a young couple for marriage said: “Tonight you are young and very much in love and you thinking that your love will sustain your marriage. But I give you the opposite advice: Let your marriage sustain your love.”
The advice that comes to us from the mystics regarding prayer is the same. You think that your good will and energy will sustain your rituals, Eucharist, divine office, devotional prayer, but instead, let your prayer rituals sustain your good will and energy.