Emilie Griffin in her book Clinging says that the moment between wanting to pray and actually praying is the most pivotal instant in our life of faith. I liken it to standing on the edge of pool and not being quite sure that one wants to get wet but knowing that the water is going to be so refreshing and so wonderfully invigorating and cleansing. Suddenly, you just jump in and you find yourself completely immersed in the deep end of the pool and you begin to swim. Then you say to yourself, “I should do this more often ….” The dynamic of prayer is just like that. You have to just jump in. You have to just do it and you have to immerse yourself in it. You have to get wet. But still we often remain frozen between the desire to pray and actually praying.
Why? Well, prayer takes time, something that we don’t seem to have a lot of. The demands that are made upon us by work, family, school, sports, and all the other things that make up our daily activities, do not, at first glance, allow for a great deal of extra time for prayer. Yet, I would offer that if we were to chart out exactly what we do each day and when we do it, we could easily find a lot of time being used for activities that could be substituted for prayer. Let me ask you, in the grand scheme of life, what is more important, watching the latest edition of “Dancing with the Stars” or “Keeping up with the Kardashians” or taking the time to pray? When we get up in the morning, do we really need to put our feet on the floor and rise off the bed so quickly or can we keep our feet on the floor or even bend our knees for a few minutes of prayer to begin the day. When we look at what we are actually doing with our time each day, we realize that there is time to pray, it’s just a matter of priorities.
We need to pray daily. In the greatest of our prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” No matter how you try to get around it, the emphasis is on daily. In the great story of creation that we find in the book of Genesis, the first thing that God creates is the separation of light from darkness. “God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." Thus evening came, and morning followed--the first day.” The most primitive unit of time is the day. It requires no clocks, no mathematics, no astronomy. It marks the simple movement from light to darkness and back again, the simple rhythm of sleep and wakefulness. It is the first of God’s created gifts and calls forth from the believer a simple act of thankfulness. If anything, we should pause both at the beginning of the day and at its end to offer prayerful thanks for all that God has done for us. This was part of Jesus’ prayer. As a devout Jew, each day he would turn towards Jerusalem and pray both in the morning and the evening a prayer called the Shema Yisrael – “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One ….” Thus, when we commit ourselves to prayer at these times each day, we are imitating the example of Christ himself.
Prayer also means to be focused on one thing and one thing only – conversation with God. Yet in a world with so many distractions and so many ways to multitask, it is hard to do that. Think about all the potentials for being distracted: the cell phone, the radio, the TV, the people around us, the noise around us. We have to turn them all off (well maybe not the people around us) if we are to pray. Do you work with music from the radio or computer on? Is the TV always on somewhere in the house? To turn on to prayer, you have to turn off those things that distract from prayer. All of this means that we have to choose to pray, to jump into the pool and get wet. Once we do, we realize how wonderful the ‘waters’ of prayer are – refreshing, cleansing, and invigorating.
If I may quote a famous ad campaign, the most important advice that one can receive when it comes to prayer is “just do it!” The early Christians were certainly a people of relentless prayer. In an ancient church order entitled the Apostolic Tradition written in the 3rd or the 4th c. we read of the practice of prayer in the early church: Let every faithful man and every faithful woman, when they rise from sleep at dawn,... before they undertake any work, wash their hands and pray to God. Then they may go to … work. If there is a day when there is no instruction, let each one at home take a holy book and ...read enough of it to gain an advantage from it…. If you are at home, pray at the third hour and praise God. If you are elsewhere at that … time, pray in your heart to God. For in this hour Christ was seen nailed to the wood… Pray also at the sixth hour. Because when Christ was attached to the wood of the cross,... the daylight ceased and became darkness. Thus you should pray a powerful prayer at this ...hour, imitating the cry of him who prayed and all creation was made dark for the ... unbelieving Jews…. Pray also at the ninth hour a great prayer with great praise, imitating the souls of the... righteous who do not lie, who glorify God who remembered his saints and sent his Word... to them to enlighten them. For in that hour Christ was pierced in his side, pouring out... water and blood, and the rest of the time of the day, he gave light until evening. This way... he made the dawn of another day at the beginning of his sleep, fulfilling the type of his resurrection…. Pray also before your body rests on your bed… [Toward the middle of the night], rise and pray. Because at this hour, with the ...cockcrow, the children of Israel refused Christ, who we know through faith, hoping daily… in the hope of eternal light in the resurrection of the dead. Wow! That certainly is a lot of prayer. Think about how our lives would change even more for the better if we just did half of the ‘hours’ of prayer!
But the writer(s) of the Apostolic Tradition does not leave the reader simply with encouragement to pray at these hours but also with instruction on how to pray. Prayer should begin with the “sign,” what we call the Sign of the Cross. The text explains it to be the “sign of the passion” and speaks of it as useful to invoke throughout the day especially when tempted because the Adversary [the devil], when he sees the strength of the heart and when he sees the inner... man which is animated by the Word shown formed on the exterior, the interior image of the ...Word, he is made to flee by the Spirit which is in you. But even beyond the use of the ‘sign’ as a small rite against the power of evil, when we begin our prayer with the Sign of the Cross, we recall the beginning of our life in faith when we were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It is interesting to note that when we greet adults and children at the beginning of the rites of initiation, whether it’s the Rite of Becoming a Catechumen or the Rite of Infant Baptism, we sign them without words on their forehead with the sign of the Cross anticipating the fullness of the sign that they will receive in baptism, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In making the Sign of the Cross, we are reminded, too, that we are conformed to Christ, that we are new creations by virtue of our baptism, having died with him and risen to new life. So, the outward sign of the Cross expresses the inner being of the Christian. If as we make the sign of the Cross to begin our prayer, we were to pause and make the Sign slowly, recalling the gracious love of God poured forth through each person of the Trinity and then take a moment to recall our own conformity to that Sign, it seems to me we have already begun our prayer well. We have collected our thoughts, begun to focus on God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and slowed ourselves down so that we may enter more fully into the prayer that lies ahead.