It was Martin Luther who said, “Work, work, from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
I always have the same reaction to this quotation: Guilt. Capital-G Guilt. And I’ll be honest with you, I sometimes also think, Three hours? What in the world would God and I talk about for three hours?
Sad, isn’t it? I have always believed that prayer must be at the center of my relationship with God, yet I can’t think of one single morning that I set aside three hours to pray.
Especially since becoming a parent, I’ve always been more attracted to the Brother Lawrence school of prayer. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French monk, described a way of praying that he called practicing the presence of God in which he was in constant communication with God even and especially while he was doing tasks such as washing the dishes. Nineteenth-century nun Thérèse of Lisieux also echoed these ideas in her Story of a Soul, writing that Christ was most present to her “not during my hours of prayer … but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.” What better type of prayer practice for a busy mom, right?
Yet I find it hard to be Brother Lawrence. Sometimes I go for hours if not days without being in communication with God at all. Perhaps because I am more of a spiritual beginner than Brother Lawrence, I seem to need some more concrete reminders as a way to connect with God.
In exploring different times of prayer, aided in particular by Richard J. Foster’s life-changing work, Prayer, I have come to believe that there are as many ways to connect with God in prayer as there are Christians and that it’s OK to dabble in lots of different kinds of prayer. It’s also OK , when you find the ones that really work for you, to stick with them. Here are some prayer practices I find helpful.
1. My church prints beautiful prayers of confession each week in the bulletin. When I particularly like one, I cut it out and tape it to my bathroom mirror so I can pray it while I brush my teeth or wash my hands. This would, of course, work with any prayer, from a selection from the Book of Common Prayer to a Psalm.
2. The Prayer of Examen. This Ignatian form of prayer really resonates with me. I like the idea of examining each day and looking for God in it. My practice is to pray the Examen at night before I fall asleep. My version of the Examen has three parts: 1. Where did I see God that day? 2. How might I have shown Christ to another that day? 3. Where did I go wrong and/or where do I need correction? I find I sometimes do this entire prayer in a minute or so. Other times, I spend much longer on one or other of the parts, usually the last. Of course, the next step after thinking over where I went wrong is asking for forgiveness and the strength to do better next time.
3. Praying with my children. This prayer practice is my favorite and also my most consistent since it’s a part of the routine. We pray before meals and most importantly, before bed. I love praying for and about them in their hearing, but especially I love hearing their prayers. My three-year-old is likely to thank God for trains and, on special occasions, for the members of his family. My six-year-old favors expansive, all-inclusive prayers in which he thanks God for EVERYTHING in the world, ALL the animals, and ALL the blessings God has given him. You can feel the power of these heartfelt prayers. I love it.
4. Contemplative prayer. I love this kind of prayer and when I have the quiet time, this is what I do. Sit in a comfortable position (for me, usually in my office chair) and be silent, listening for God’s guidance. When I find my thoughts drifting to my to-do list or what I am going to make for dinner, I repeat the word “Jesus” to focus me. I set a timer so I don’t spend the entire time wondering what time it is, and I usually only do a few minutes at a time, maybe 5. (Oh yes, that’s just how spiritually advanced I am!) I like to think of this practice as God-led therapy.
But these practices don’t mean that I have given up on praying during daily tasks. In fact, as much as I like the discipline of sitting still for contemplative prayer, I still struggle with making that a consistent part of my practice. I more reliably experience times of contemplation while I am in the shower or on a walk, any time I can take advantage of the combination of quiet and a familiar routine.
Kathleen Norris writes beautifully about this kind of prayer in her book The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.” She describes the motion and the repetition of tasks such as walking, baking bread or doing laundry as offering both a rhythm for prayer and also the space and freedom for our minds to brainstorm. Inspired by her words, I tried another kind of prayer the other day. While I normally watch TV while I fold laundry (making it hands-down my favorite household task), this time I decided instead to sit in silence at the kitchen table rather than the couch and pray over each item as I folded it. At first I prayed earnestly over each workout top and each pair of my husband’s soccer shorts, and then, well, I started to get a little tired of thanking God for my healthy body, for my husband’s strong legs and his love for the game. I wonder if God might even be tired of my repeated words too as I started to think, Wow, I have a lot of workout tops and How in the world did he go through so many pairs of soccer shorts this week? Is he playing in the middle of the night? Instead, my thoughts drifted toward a couple who is thinking of leaving our church and the hurt they are feeling, then toward some friends and family members who are suffering health problems. As I brought them before God, the folding went faster and before I knew it, I was done.
This lesson is a continual one for me. Open yourself up to God, and God will guide you along the path you need to travel, not necessarily the one you planned.
Julia Roller is the author of Mom Seeks God, the story of her journey to reconnect with God through ten essential spiritual practices that she did her best to fit into the chaotic life of a mom with small children. She lives in San Diego with her husband, two sons, and miniature dachshund.