Posts in Communication
If Your Prayer is Simple, That’s a Good Thing

How simple is your prayer? This question is particularly valuable for those starting out and for those highly mature in the spiritual life.

  • The “starter” just wants to be with the Lord, spending time simply with the One who they are falling in love with.

  • The “veteran” has a simple prayer life as if a grandfather is spending time with his grandchild- the time together is enough.

My graduate class this semester is dealing with this tension- how simple should prayer really be? It’s a fascinating topic and one that my students are (appropriately) wrestling with. It’s something I wrestle with too! At times, I want to engineer more feeling, more emotion and more clarity. At other times, it’s cool to just present myself to the Lord.

Be compassionate with yourself when it comes to this tension. Depending on the season of your life, the level of simplicity will correspond. The key, not surprisingly, is to keep showing up day after day. The Lord will do the rest.

Clearing out the Clutter: False Notions of Prayer

Last week I cleaned out my gardens. I should quote the word “gardens” as they are nothing more than 3x3 boxes of weeds. At least they were. Now, they are gleaming boxes of dirt, waiting for new flowers to be planted.

My son and I had to first pull the huge weeds followed by a ritual activity with a hoe. As you can imagine, this is hardly a popular call to arms for the helper. For me, it’s just something that needs to be done in order to let new things grow.

Think of your prayer life- is there clutter that can use cleaning? Are there weeds that need to be pulled?

Many of us, myself included, have incorrect notions about prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a rich resource for Christian teaching, says this about our misperceptions about prayer:

  • “In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures” (2726).

For some, prayer is thought to be nothing more than mindfulness, dwelling on our breath and being aware of our surroundings. While a good start, this isn’t prayer as the person of God is not involved in the activity.

For others, prayer is thought to be a process of clearing the mind until one thinks and feels nothing at all, a sort of psychological bliss. While St. John of the Cross hints at contemplative prayer as being beyond thoughts and feelings, he never abandons the fact that prayer involves two who are in love- God and the disciple.

Finally, as the Catechism states, some view prayer as merely a set of ritual hoops through which to jump. Think of the rapid-fire Rosary prayers... not bad but often missing the point of communing with God.

Each of us is susceptible to false notions of prayer. The key, like a garden, is to continually ask God to prune out what doesn’t belong. Then, new things can grow and God can do wonderful things in us.

Worried About a Boring Sermon or Homily?

Bad preaching is a real problem in the Christian church. Without understating the difficulty of delivering a message to a diverse audience, preaching is hard. Imagine giving a talk to both young children and senior citizens… at the same time. Not easy.

With that said, here’s a trick that I’ve learned when it comes to matching your prayer life with the routine of listening to a homily. During your morning prayer time, go over the readings of the day (for Catholics, this refers to the Bible readings that will be featured in the daily Mass). Read these slowly and let God show you what stands out. Then, imagine yourself delivering the homily or sermon. Imagine nodding heads as they listen to you and make meaning for themselves out of the readings.

I’ve used this technique for years, not because I see myself as a better preacher than the priests in my parish. Rather, envisioning a homily coming out of my mouth makes the readings come alive. New ideas form. Insights emerge. I see myself communicating God’s word to others.

 
 
After Twenty Years of Journaling, Here’s What I’ve Learned

I’m a journal guy. It started in college with those 99 cent notebooks you could get at any local grocery store. Then, after college, I graduated to the more expensive, $1.50 versions. Each morning, during my time of prayer, I would jot a few thoughts. Sometimes, these looked like prayers while on most days, I would just write whatever came to my mind.

This has continued for the better part of two decades. 

I’ve discarded most of my journals. Rarely do I go back and read them. I don’t care about them. I don’t want to relive the past.

What I value is the very act of journaling and after two decades, here is what I’ve learned: 

  1. Journaling has been the singular best way for me to measure progress in my spiritual life. By keeping to a daily discipline of journaling, I am reminded to pray. I only journal in the context of praying and in so doing, I take a mental note, “I prayed today”. This develops streaks which propel me closer to God. Momentum trumps willpower any day of the week as I’ve mentioned in The 5 Habits of Prayerful People.
  2. Journaling is a selfish endeavor.  When I journal as a form of communication with God, journaling is God-focused. Most of the time however, I’m journaling to get stuff out of my head and that’s fairly self-focused. If I’m honest, I journal for myself more than for anything or anyone else. I need to clear my mind. Some people jog. I journal.
  3. Journaling is a core component of my prayer life.  I use journaling as an essential part of my daily devotions. By practicing the ACTS method of prayer, my journal serves as the “container” for that routine. If you’re unfamiliar with ACTS, this video will help.
  4. Journaling helps to clarify thought.  The more you write, the more clear you think. The more clear are your thoughts, the better you will communicate with the rest of the world.
  5. My journals are 100% temporary and disposable.  I rarely go back and review what I’ve written. I don’t care if they are lost, destroyed or misplaced. It’s the act of writing that counts more than the final products. I journal to stay in mental and spiritual shape. The journaling is a blunt means to an end.
  6. My doctoral dissertation and book would not have been possible without journaling. I don’t think that I would have been able to write a book-length dissertation or The 5 Habits of Prayerful People without two decades of journaling. It’s partly about volume folks! Even a marathoner starts with a 5K race.
  7. Journaling can masquerade for prayer itself.  While journaling is a part of my morning devotional time, I can at times mistake journaling for prayer itself. It can be but it’s not necessarily the same thing. Just because I’m writing doesn’t mean that I’m automatically praying. 
  8. A digital journal app is the single most important app I use.  My calendar and email app are important but without my journaling app (I use DayOne) I’d be toast. It’s an anchor for daily prayer, intellectual growth and my interior life in general. 
  9. I’m only getting started.  Who knows where God will take my writing and prayer in the next two decades. One thing I know- I’m only getting started! Each day, I look forward to writing a few thoughts. 

If you are a journaler, I’d love to hear why you journal and what God has taught you through it.  Want to see how I use DayOne for daily prayer? This video explains much of it.

The Power of Being Specific When You Pray
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Science has affirmed what we already knew- gratitude is good for you. It cuts down on your stress and connects you with other people. “Practicing” gratitude, or listing 3-5 things each day for which you are thankful, is a healthy way to ensure that you are in touch with all that God is doing in your life.

I wonder though if, at times, we are too vague in our acts of gratitude.

Think of the last time you had a moment of prayer before a Thanksgiving meal. No doubt the things said were honest (“I’m thankful for our home”…”I’m thankful for my family”, etc.) but what if we infused our thanksgiving with more specificity?

Being specific with God does a number of things:

  1. It pushes the savor button all the more, turning over and over the bits of God’s goodness that we might otherwise miss.

  2. It accompanies a healthy examination of conscience.

  3. It cultivates resilience.

  4. It reminds us that God is doing so much more than we typically appreciate.

Henri Nouwen once said, “I am deeply convince that the necessity of prayer, and to pray unceasingly, is not as much based on our desire for God as on God’s desire for us. It is God’s passionate pursuit of us that calls us to prayer.” Specific gratitude is a gentle response to God’s pursuit of us. It’s a way of saying, “I see you God. I’m noticing you Lord.”

So how do you do this? It’s quite simple. Be as specific as you can be when you pray. Tell God how much you appreciate the smallest of things- a soothing nap, a person’s wide smile, a conversation that brightened your day.


Quick Win: How to be More Resilient

 
 

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Five Things You Can Do For Lent (and why they matter a whole lot!)
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Ash Wednesday begins on March 6, 2019 and for millions of people around the world, this means something- action. All of us want to put our faith into action and Lent is the perfect time to do this.


People will begin a 40 day sprint towards Easter and will either give things up - a sort of sacrifice- and also try out new things. It’s also a wonderful time for humility, a time to acknowledge that our prayer lives are rarely what they ought to be. As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “You don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’ you can be sure you’ve already begun.”


I figured it would be interesting to connect five actions you can take during Lent to my upcoming book, The Five Habits of Prayerful People. I wrote The Five Habits in order to provide a virtual toolbox of strategies for prayer. It’s designed for the busy person in mind.

Before we link the book with Lenten action, let’s remind ourselves why Lent matters in the first place. Lent comes from an old word meaning “lengthen”- as the days get longer, the sunlight returns and we inch ever closer to Easter. Since Easter is all about Jesus triumph over the cross through his resurrection, Christians have, for thousands of years, practiced a sort of “retreat” during Lent. This looks like, not surprisingly, a series of actions designed to help us get ready for Easter. 


Lent is a fitting time for self-denial.
— Pope Francis

If you “do Lent right”, you’re more likely to enter into the deeper mysteries of the season and as a result, draw closer to Jesus. As Pope Francis said, “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt."

The problem of course is that we get distracted, tired or bored during Lent. The things we resolve to give up can become a distant memory if we’re not laser-focused on the task at hand.

Ok, let’s now match a strategy with each of the Five Habits:

  1. Habit of Passion and Pursuit >> Begin to enjoy five minutes of pure silence each day. Start with one minute each day for a week. Each week, add a minute to your silence. Invite God into the stillness.

  2. Habit of Presence >> Look people in the eye. When you are in public and in passing or when you are one-on-one with someone… work to give them your full attention.

  3. Habit of Preparation and Planning >> Choose the tools you’ll use during your morning quiet time. This will likely be a Bible and journal. Besides that, what else speaks to you? An icon? A crucifix? Identify and group the tools you’ll use. Place them somewhere that you’ll have your daily quiet time.

  4. Habit of Persistence and Perseverance>> Install a quote that inspires you in a place you’ll see it. This might be a quote from a saint or a Bible quote. Put the quote inside your journal or Bible. Or, have the quote framed and placed in a spot where you’ll see it often.

  5. Habit of Pondering>> Take one day off from technology each week. This is the single most powerful strategy I’ve used in the last five years. Step back from your phone and give God one day a week to break through the noise of digital stimulation.

These strategies really work. More significantly, they matter a whole lot. They contribute to a more prayerful life and collectively will help you to slow down. When we slow down, we are more present and it’s much easier to find God in everyday life. 


Quick Win: Learn the One Phrase that Will Transform Your Prayer


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