"Prayer is like having a date with God," says Trappist monk and author Thomas Keating. "Regular periods of prayer let us get acquainted with Christ and God, not unlike the way we might phone someone who has impressed us or attracted us to their goodness. It's the same way in forming a relationship with God. We have to hang out together."
For the monastic, hanging out with God is a way of life. For the rest of us, busy with babies and bosses, spouses and parents, God is content with a brief date--he asks only that it be a standing one. St. Benedict expressed that in his Rule when he wrote: "Give yourself frequently to prayer," but added, "Prayer should therefore be short and pure...."
Ron Berges, an oblate of St. Andrews Abbey in California, aims to balance the demands of his law practice with a commitment to his prayer life. "The important thing is to set up a cycle of prayer," he says. "If you give God five minutes a day in this type of practice, God honors that. Your five minutes might be equal to someone who has the leisure time of five hours."
These days, even our weekends are filled with errands and activities that compete with our time with God. Dorothy Remy, a college professor in Washington, D.C., and her husband, Lynn Cunningham, a lawyer and faculty member at George Washington University, have designed their Saturdays in a way that respects the needs of body, mind, and soul.
"There are times I feel that the things that have to be done and the time available to do them are completely out of sync," explains Remy, who has just completed her juniorate studies with the Fellowship of the Holy Trinity, a lay organization influenced by the Rule of Benedict but not affiliated with any church. "That's when we very intentionally structure a day that includes prayer, quiet time, and work. We spend 10 minutes reading a psalm together, and then we're off to our household chores or gardening, maintaining as much silence as possible. At lunch, we read another psalm for 10 minutes and so on. It somehow anchors the day so that it doesn't spin out of control. We are reminded that there is another reality besides the to-do list."
"Prayer is an ongoing relationship that grows and deepens and introduces us to the world of the Beloved," says Keating. To initiate this relationship, Keating recommends spending 15 to 20 minutes a day reading the New Testament, especially the four Gospels. "Scripture is the logical place to get to know Jesus, because that's where we can read something about where he came from, what he likes, doesn't like, and so on," he says. "From that acquaintance, a relationship can then flourish into friendship."
As with any new friendship, there is an initial awkwardness. So initially, we may want to communicate through prayers that others have written. But once we become more at ease with God, we can formulate our own.
Another style of praying, contemplative prayer, does not use words but is simply a means of creating a space within to be with God. Keating is one of the developers of centering prayer
, a method in which one sets aside two 20-minute periods daily to "wait for God."
"This level of relating to God enables the faculties to be more and more quiet in God's presence and to listen to God not just through words and reflection but heart to heart," Keating explains.
Karin Rudolph, director of public affairs for Community Residences, a nonprofit agency in the Washington, D.C., area, learned about centering prayer at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, where she has been a member for five years. Because of centering prayer, she says, she is more present with herself and others; it has allowed her to slow down and see things more clearly. "It gives me perspective," she says. "When I stop, I can see what's going on, and now I don't take things as seriously."
Whatever the form of prayer, do it wherever and whenever you can, advises Paul Wilkes, who wrote "Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life" after a year of regular visits to Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, SC.
"There are so many simple ways to pray--waiting at a traffic light, waiting in a traffic jam, waiting at a store," he says. "Try using your time waiting in a good way rather than shuffling your feet and thinking, 'Why can't this clerk get it together?' For me, that's a good time to reflect on my life. I ask myself, 'How am I doing today?' and I say a little prayer."