I am a big fan of what I call "practical spirituality." Practical spirituality is nothing more or less than taking the grandiose ideas and teachings of the Church's great mystics and applying them to our every day life and experience. So often when we read the mystical Fathers and Mothers of the past or present we may find ourselves overwhelmed with the lofty ideas expressed, or even some of their practical suggestions. We start to think that holiness and a deep and intense prayer life must truly be something reserved for hermits and members of religious communities, the monastic tucked safely away from the world in his/her "skete," as we say in the Byzantine East.
I remember once reading or hearing the late Fr. Thomas Dubay - not only a leading expert in Carmelite spirituality, but also a great spiritual master in his own rite - say that all Christians should be spending at least 2 - 3 hours a day in prayer; by which he meant sitting down and devoting that amount of time to prayer daily. When I first heard this, so many years ago, my heart sank because I knew for me it would be impossible to devote that amount of my time daily to focusing 100% on prayer. I was in college at the time, working very hard on my degree while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, as well as going to daily Mass and finding some time for my own private prayer as well as group prayer. I found that I actually didn't have 2 - 3 hours to just sit and pray the way he recommended. Now nearly a decade later, I find I have even less time. With a wife and two children (one of whom is special-needs), a job, and a small "apostolate" I find I barely have time to breathe, let alone pray for 2 - 3 hours at a time.
Fortunately for me, and for the rest of us, there are a great many other spiritual masters in our own day. Two that I've come to appreciate more and more (and whom I've also had the privilege of meeting in person and working with on occasion) have been Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia and Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. Both men have spent their lives working for the Lord in the academic field, and both have provided for me a great deal of insight into the spirituality of the busy person.
In his talk on the Jesus Prayer that I posted a few weeks ago, Met. Kallistos revealed two moments or uses of the Jesus prayer with the phrase, "Find Christ everywhere: Create silence." In the first phrase we have the "prayer on the go" mentality, which I'll talk about in the next post. For now, let's talk about "creating silence." This is what most of us think of when we think of prayer. We sit down with our materials for prayer - a prayer rope, a prayer book, the Bible or some other spiritual reading, the Liturgy of the Hours, or whatever - and we go through our normal rule of prayer. I remember when I was a boy I had a rather long rule of prayer every morning that required me to use three or four different prayer books at a time. I eventually had to trim down my prayer rule because it was just too long and I had farm work to get done. Today my little prayer rule consists in nothing more than my prayer rope on which I pray the Jesus Prayer. That's about all I have time for.
With our daily prayer rule, our daily creating of silence, there are two things we need to remember: 1) be consistent, 2) stick with it. By being consistent, according to Fr. Taft, we ought to have a basic rule of prayer from which we ought not to deviate very much. For some folks that means praying the Liturgy of the Hours (although this is not entirely possible for Eastern/Byzantine Christians), for other folks that means following the standard rule of morning and evening prayers contained in various prayer books, and for yet other people that means praying the Jesus Prayer, the Rosary, or some other form of chaplet in the morning and evening.
Something that I've come to find very helpful is to do what Fr. Taft calls "praying ahead." This is basically the reverse of the evening "examination of conscience." When we pray ahead in the morning, we think of the things we have to do that day, we give them over to God, asking Him to bless the work of our hands, talking to Him about potential temptations and begging Him to keep us free from sin. In short we give the entire day over to God and resign ourselves to His will. Then in the evening when it comes time for our examination of conscience, we go through the day and examen where we have fallen short, where we have given in to temptation, where we have not given the day over to God, etc. This, I find, not only makes us acutely aware of our own sinfulness (thus making it less likely that we'll judge others), but it also makes us acutely aware of our dependence on God and on our need for His loving mercy throughout the day. By "praying ahead," I find, it also makes it more likely that we'll talk to God as we go about the rest of our day.
I find that sticking to a rule can be very difficult. Fr. Taft, quoting another Jesuit priest, says that for most people sticking to a daily rule would be no problem if we just learned to go to bed on time. Although I completely agree with this based off of my own experience, I personally find it rather difficult to go to bed at a regular time simply because my children do not yet go to bed at regular times - although they are getting better. But even when that is the case, we should schedule a time for prayer. Set aside at least 15 minutes in your day to focus on prayer. I find I am better able to focus on prayer in the morning, so that's when I like to really focus on the Jesus Prayer. For others, 15 minutes in the evening or immediately after lunch might be a better time. Whatever! Just pray. That's all that really matters.
As far as how long one ought to be praying is concerned, St. Theophan the Recluse and others have said that we ought to start small and work our way up. Start with 10 or 15 minutes in which you focus intensely on your prayer, then work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes, or an hour! That's all you need to do. What matters isn't the quantity of our prayer, but its quality. If you find that you are not yet able to pray intensely for more than a few minutes, don't force yourself. As my spiritual father has so often told me: "Calm down. Be patient." We can't expect to be granted a deeply intense prayer life over night (although that's not been unheard of). For the majority of us, deep and intense prayer comes only after years and years of struggle, aridity, suffering, effort, and pain. But stick with it. The saints tell, and show us through their lives, that the fruits of prayer even in this life are well worth the effort.