By Carolyn Shields
Wow. It’s changed a LOT this past year alone, but I’ve grown particularly fond of a few things that have never appealed to me in the past. It’s interesting to go back and reflect on how your prayer life has changed since you were a child, and I encourage you to think about it sometime soon. For me, this past year I’ve seen significant changes in my prayer life and wanted to share five new practices that have greatly impacted it:
1) Emphasizing the first three minutes
It honestly frightens me at times when I’m on my knees, and I find that my heart is literally racing. I am brutally forced to realize how quickly I was going or how much I was feeling, and when I convince myself to pray my heart has to catch up and slow down. And it scares me how much freaking effort it takes me to slow down everything. From my heart rate, to my breathing, to my thoughts, it takes me a few minutes to to get into a place where I can open my heart. I’m agitated, antsy, and fidgety, and I think I can’t possibly focus until I dust that windowsill or send that text I forgot about from twelve hours ago and suddenly remembered…but by closing my eyes and praying either “Come Holy Spirit” three times between multiple deep breaths, or some other phrase like “Here I am,” helps me to prepare for prayer. It usually takes a solid three minutes, which, as we know, can feel like an hour all into itself. But I can’t emphasize enough how crucial emphasizing these first few minutes of prayer has been for me, and again, how much work it takes every single time. But it 100% sets the tone for my prayer.
2) Praying out loud
In the most practical sense, it helps me focus. In my little apartment all by myself, it’s startling how distracted I can become within my own head, but by imploring the Lord’s name aloud until my words begin to dwindle allows me to also literally enter into the silence where the Lord can reply.
3) Praying novenas
I still remember my first novena in college and it makes me simultaneously smile and shake my head at my younger self. It was probably something beautifully cheesey, like Our Lady of Broken Hearts (if there is such a devotion, which I don’t think there is…though there should be!), because I was definitely praying it because of a crush. (Wow, who ironically enough was just ordained as a priest last week!!). I smile though because I totally broke the rules and skipped days so that it would end on a day I knew I would see him in case something miraculous happened.
But last year I realized I booked a much needed silent retreat on St. Jude (my man!)’s feast day NINE MONTHS after praying consecutively to him. Nothing spectacular happened on this retreat at all, or maybe something did and I haven’t realized it yet, but ever since then I’ve picked up this beautiful practice of praying novenas before a beloved saint’s feast day or some other devotion.
What I love is since they are only nine days, it’s easy to do. I find myself way more aware of the ways God is present to me during those nine days and can sense almost a “trend” or “theme.” Why? Probably because I’m actually looking! And for nine days, I don’t get too tired or distracted! When I was praying to Our Lady Undoer of Knots, a ton of beautiful matronly things transpired in my life. As I’m in the middle of the Sacred Heart novena, I sense movements on matters of the heart.
(Side note: I’m always frustrated because I hear about feast days like, the day before they happen. Would you be interested in purchasing a Novena poster that helps you see when to start a novena for special feasts? Share your thoughts in the comments!)
4) Praying with the Liturgy of the Hours
My gosh, I love this one! I was so vocally against the Liturgy of the Hours for years. Even as a campus minister I loathed it when we prayed it on retreats and gosh did I feel guilt about my dislike of it. I got nothing from it and moaned like a baby about why I couldn’t just pray my own prayers or journal or sit in silence. I hated it.
Until, you know, I didn’t.
My desire to learn and own the Liturgy of the Hours happened out of nowhere, and I asked my big bro/seminarian to teach me how to pray it. And you know what, it’s actually breathtakingly beautiful. And yes, kind of complicated, but beautiful. And there’s always one line that undoubtedly sticks out to me and I go, “Ah, yes, that’s exactly what God wanted me to hear right now.” Clear as day.
The reason I love it so much besides the poetry? I love how no matter where you are in the world, a beloved can be praying the exact same thing. If you’re both praying it, you can go back five years ago and know you were praying the exact same words. You’re never alone in this prayer.
5) Praying with Lectio Divina
Similarly, for a while this past year I was at a loss of what to pray. I had a brutal wake up moment when I realized I was using prayer as an anchor when it was meant to be a sail (for the life of me I cringe at this metaphor, but it’s so dang accurate). What took all the guess work out of prayer was Lectio Divina. Instead of sprawling in my prayer corner and wondering should I pick up one of the hundreds of half-read prayer books, or journal, or this devotion or that one, I would simply pray with the Gospel.
It also happened at a time when I knew I needed my prayer life to be stripped to the bone. To get back to the essentials. I was hurt by the Church, significantly so, but there was always, always scripture. The rock of it all.
And what a freaking blessing too that I was invited into a bi-monthly women’s lectio group. Reflecting on the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel or simply praying with the Gospel from that day was truly food for my soul when I was spiritually starving.
Bonus: Finding A Prayer Corner
I live in my own little one bedroom apartment and would justify the heck out of not having a designated place to pray. I had a whole apartment! It was always quiet! But designating a corner that I used mainly for prayer helped my mind to shift gears significantly. Researchers say if you have trouble sleeping, avoid sitting or lying in your bed unless you are preparing to sleep. It’s a psychological thing. Similarly, designating a place in your little apartment or studio or house really does make a difference. Keep your prayer books nearby, as well as any items that help you deepen in prayer, whether they are your rosary, a beloved sea shell, or your crucifix. It really does make a difference.
What’s new with your prayer life? How has it changed? Any tips or pieces of advice for those struggling?