Anyone who wants to be good at something knows that they have to practice. We've all heard that worn out adage, "practice makes perfect." Heck, I'm sure most of us have used that on numerous occasions. In the world of music, if someone wants to learn an instrument for the first time, or pick up a second instrument, one of the first things a professional musician will tell them is to practice for at least a half an hour every day (ideally at least an hour). Salespeople are encouraged to practice their sales scripts and pitches. Athletes practice their particular sports for hours and hours. Even soldiers in the military "practice" for combat through drills. What makes us think the spiritual life would be any different? When entering into the arena of spiritual combat, what makes us think we can come out victorious over our enemy if we haven't first prepared by practicing the Jesus Prayer or any other form of prayer?
The goal of all prayer, according to St. Ignatius and countless other great spiritual masters, is unceasing prayer, unceasing communion with God the Trinity, unceasing remembrance of God. St. Ignatius makes a very interesting point:
"In order to become eventually capable of unceasing prayer he (the novice or beginner at prayer) must practice frequent prayer."
"Frequent prayer!" The word is self-explanatory and really needs no definition. Frequent prayer means turning to God whenever we have the chance. We can use the Jesus Prayer or any other short prayer that draws us into God's presence. St. Ignatius says:
"Do you happen to have a free moment? Do not waste it in idleness!... Use it for the practice of the Jesus Prayer."
I remember listening to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware talk on the Jesus Prayer. He mentions some very practical moments in which we can turn to God with the Jesus Prayer. Any time we are standing in line waiting our turn at something we have a free moment to practice the Jesus Prayer. While we wait for the bus at a bus stop. While we're driving in traffic. While we're walking from one place to another. Any time we are engaged in any sort of activity that doesn't require our complete focus we can engage the Jesus Prayer. Practice!
It is this practice of frequent prayer that leads to the habit of prayer. As I mentioned in a previous post, the more we do something the more it becomes a part of who we are. The more we practice frequent prayer the deeper it enters into the core of our being and changes our hearts. In time and by God's gift of grace eventually unceasing prayer will be granted to us. We just have to persevere in hope. We just have to practice!
In our practice, however, we must remember not to become despondent no matter how many mistakes we might make. We will get distracted. We will lose focus. There will be days, months, or even years where it will just feel like our heart isn't in it. Don't let that discourage you. Don't let that lead you to abandon your practice. Stay the course and be strong. Confess your fallenness to God. Beg is forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and help. He's already sent His Son to die for us, so giving us a little help in prayer is an easy thing!
Not to belabor examples from the world of music, but musicians often go through similar struggles as those seeking to deepen the prayer life and spiritual life. Musicians are told to practice the fundamentals. Even professional musicians who have been playing their instruments for decades will always come back and practice scales, various basic finger techniques, proper breathing, etc., etc., etc. When we first get started playing music we don't want to practice this stuff. We want to play music, not scales and techniques. But by practicing these scales and techniques it becomes easier for us to actually play the music and learn new music. I knew a young fiddle player who, for a number of years, could only play a handful of tunes. He focused on those tunes so that he could develop his style and technique. He practiced and practiced these tunes for years, only learning a couple of new tunes each year. Eventually, however, he had solidified his unique style, and then learning tunes was nothing for him. He went from knowing only a handful to knowing a wealth of music; and he is now one of the finest Irish fiddle players you will ever hear (no, it's not me).
The same applies to our prayer life. Sure the Jesus Prayer is simple, it is short, we may get bored of it after some time because, on the surface, it doesn't seem to have the theological richness of some lengthier prayers. But if we stick with it and practice this fundamental prayer, then unceasing prayer will eventually be granted. Once it is we will be able to pray any prayer and be drawn immediately into the heart of that prayer, and that prayer will be immediately in our hearts. God will be with us as He always is, but we will be constantly with Him as well. May heaven consume us.