Today, we continue our series on how to prepare for a good Lent by focusing on the first of the three pillars: prayer.
“Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.” – St. Ephrem of Syria
Other than professional athletes genuflecting and pointing to the sky after a touchdown, when is the last time you associated manhood with prayer? Honestly, the only time most men pray is when they are in imminent danger or in desperate need of some kind. The rest of the time, they leave praying to the grandmas who attend daily mass.
Yet, this is entirely the wrong attitude. Courageous knights of ages past were not ashamed to kneel in front of the altar, or to dedicate themselves to the service of Jesus and Mary in prayer (check out this post for some knightly spirituality). Real men pray. Let’s talk about why.
Prayer is the breath of the spiritual life. Without it, your soul suffocates and dies. That’s why Jesus and the great saints of the Church were so urgent in their calls for us to pray always and everywhere. St. Paul commanded us to “pray without ceasing.” Jesus taught us to “pray always and not lose heart.”
In fact, prayer is so important that St. Alphonsus Ligori says, “Whoever prays is certainly saved. He who does not is certainly damned.” Let that sink in.
Prayer is so important because, whether or not we realize it, we are essentially beggars before God. Everything we need to be virtuous men has to be given to us. We will never be holy without grace, and there is no other way to obtain grace than through prayer.
Do you need courage? Ask for it. Do you need humility? Ask for it. Do you need to be pure in a world filled with temptation? Ask for it. Are you trying to overcome an explosive temper? Ask for patience. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive— it’s that simple.
Our Lent will be completely wasted if we aren’t praying. Fasting and almsgiving will simply become sources of pride if we aren’t approaching them prayerfully. No matter what else you are planning to do for Lent, prayer should be first on the list.
How to Pray
Maybe you want to build prayer into your Lent as well as your daily life, but you don’t know how. It seems so hard to sit still for even 15 minutes and pray. Even if you manage it, you’re not always sure what to say.
I understand because I struggle with the same problems. Prayer, like anything that is worth doing, is hard. Nevertheless, here are some tips based on the writings of the saints that will help us to pray.
1. Keep it simple – Prayer is paradoxical in that the more you say, the more difficult it is to mean what you say. Keep your prayer simple, and mean every word. The Our Father, the perfect prayer, is seven simple petitions. Many of the early monks would even pray by repeating one word or phrase, such as the name of Jesus. If you spent 5 minutes saying “Jesus” over and over with love, it would be far more profitable than endlessly reading prayers from a prayer book coldly and mindlessly.
2. Just do it – The saints tell us that the best way to learn to pray is by praying. A distance runner doesn’t begin running ultramarathons over night. He begins with shorter distances and builds over time. So too with prayer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like you are accomplishing anything, or how many times you try to pray and fail. It doesn’t matter how many distractions you have to fight. We have to keep showing up, day after day or we will never learn to pray. Simply asking like the disciples, “Teach us to pray,” is a great prayer to start with.
3. Intentional time – Monastics through the centuries have had specific hours set aside for prayer. While most of us probably can’t pray seven times a day like they do, we should build prayer into our daily routine. If we don’t, it’s never going to happen. I recommend praying 3 times a day: morning, noon, and night. In the morning, offer your day to God and ask for the graces you need. At noon, renew this offering of your day and ask for help to persevere in virtue. At night, review your day and confess your sins. Ask for forgiveness and give thanks for the blessings you have received. Again, if you aren’t intentional about prayer, it is never going to happen.
4. Acknowledge the need – A lot of us don’t pray because we are self-satisfied. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we think we have everything we need, and we view prayer as a favor we pay to God. That’s why we don’t want to do it. In reality, though, we are like the blind beggar Bartimaeus in the Gospels, completely helpless and needy. Like him, we should recognize our helplessness, and call out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” We should examine ourselves and spend some time recognizing our own weaknesses. Not only will this make us more humble, it will inspire us to call for help— which is one of the best ways to begin praying.
5. Patience – If you’re expecting to become a great mystic like St. John of the Cross overnight, you’re delusional. Even if you are praying for something specific, like a virtue or a temporal need, God hardly ever answers us immediately. If he did, we’d start to think of him as a heavenly vending machine, dispensing our every desire when we press the right buttons. No, God wants us to be patient and persevere in prayer. Like the widow in Scripture who harassed the judge until he granted her desire, harass God in a good way, asking for what you need until you get it.
Volumes have been written about prayer, and I’m just scratching the surface in this post. The point is, prayer isn’t optional. You’re going to waste your Lent— and your life— if you aren’t praying. Get serious about it and make it a part of your daily life starting this Lent. It’s the way to virtue, holiness, and communion with our Heavenly Father.
What are your greatest struggles in prayer? How are you planning to pray more this Lent?