One challenge for some Catholics is that they know they should pray, but beyond asking God to protect loved ones, heal those who are sick, that is, intercessory prayer, they do not always know what to do. They want to pray, but they do not know how to pray. I have become more convinced over my life that the beginning of prayer is to still the heart. That is, to enter on sacred ground where we place ourselves in the presence of Jesus and hear the command, “Be still and know that I am God!“
That has led me to think about a very gentle beginning. Could you commit to spending five minutes a day with Jesus? Could you make it a point, every day, to place yourself into his presence and focus on him? Could you ask him to come into your heart? Could you accept him as your Lord? Could you simply ask him to help you to grow your faith? After all, the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith. Why don’t we?
If you have never prayed silently, five minutes at first might feel like five hours. But over time, if you can stay with it, you might just find yourself finding that five minutes may not be enough. Over the next few days we will try to provide tips to help you get started. Some days we will focus on mechanics (what you need to do to place yourself in a space for prayer). Other days we will provide a short phrase from the bible or from a saint. On other days we might provide a line from one of our daily reflections.
Why start with just five minutes? First, it is because it is small. It is an achievable beginning. It is a time where we can ask ourselves what could we really do by surrendering only five minutes. When we are seeking to change our lives, it is easy to take on too much at the start, and then find ourselves quickly giving up. The goal here is to build a habit.
How long does it take to build a habit? Depends on who you ask. Some say it can be done in as little as a week, some say it takes as long as a year. Truth is, we really do not know. There are so many aspects of building habits that I do not think anyone can really say. But what I do know that we can form a way of being that can change us. We can work to seek the grace God gives us to grow closer to him.
Building on Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas used the idea of virtue as an active pursuit to cooperate with God’s grace in such a way that our attitudes, our dispositions, and most important our relationship with Jesus become transformed. The word used to develop these virtues is habitus, which often gets translated as habit. But the way we use the word habit is not what Aquinas means when he uses habitus in connection with virtues.
We can think of habits as those things that come to us when we put in a lot of very hard work to do things repeatedly. But for Aquinas, a habitus is much more an openness to changing an attitude, developing a disposition in such a way that we reflect more fully the grace that God gives us so we can become our best selves, the selves God has created us to be.
So the first step is to trust God enough to develop an openness to what God can do for you. That is why I suggest five minutes. First, we will look at what I call the mechanics of silent prayer, which, in fact, are not much different than what some people may be familiar with in terms of meditation. We’ll look at breathing, focus, and relaxation. God tells us to “be still” and in our present age the toughest part of that “being still” is to focus, to “still the mind” from all the many things that will likely initially pop up in your mind as you seek to be quiet.
One very important point. Our ultimate focus is on Jesus. This is not simply a “relaxation technique” (though it can help us to relax) or the participation in the latest fad (though mindfulness exercises will seem similar to some). Rather, it is a personal invitation from Jesus for us to “come away and rest awhile.”