Building a life of prayer
What are you going to do this week to improve your prayer life?
Last week, I had an experience at the gym that prompted a reflection that cascaded over into my work and spiritual life. On two separate occasions, I was lifting weights (once on the bench press, and the other on an incline bench press). I was surprised by how much weight I could lift — it was the most weight I have even been able to lift in my life. At age 56, I was surprised to surpass my strength as a two-sport collegiate athlete!
As I thought about the experience, however, I began to see this as the fruit of five solid years of work. You see, five years ago I was recovering from two frozen shoulders — one after the other had frozen. I had limited range of motion in both shoulders and I had not exercised in a number of years. A very difficult trek to the mountain top was the spark that led to a Spirit-led invitation to the gym upon my return to the United States.1
The first several months of the Saturday morning sessions were pathetic. Workouts were more like physical therapy than exercise. But I persisted. I added in some treadmill walks during the week. After months, I started joining the regular sessions. My physical capabilities at the time were embarrassingly feeble. But I persisted. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. And now, year after year.
This week I realized how much I had improved over those five years – one workout at a time. One week of 3-4 workouts at a time. One month at a time of being disciplined every week. Not much improvement day to day, or even week to week. But over months and years, lots of improvement. Radical improvement.
Five years into the process, everything is not perfect. But I was surprised to suddenly notice such a dramatic milestone in my strength development. The range of motion in my shoulders is close to 100%. Yes, I still have limitations. And minor aches and pains appear from time to time. Nevertheless, I can now see progress and change.
Fast forward to work last week. I was explaining to someone that the process of becoming a great attorney does not happen overnight. It is the result of years of deliberate work. Each project is an opportunity to practice essential skills of attention to detail and organization. These foundational skills take time to develop. One needs to work at them so they become ingrained habits.
We don’t need to come up with gigantic goals each week. If we just became a little more intentional about improving our weaknesses or enhancing our strengths (i.e. building good habits), over the course of a year we would all see growth in work skills. Over the course of months, years and decades, these habits are the foundation that are built into a solid structure.
What does this have to do with prayer?
Many people jump immediately into lofty spiritual goals to pray all night vigils or take on difficult fasting. They soon fail because they lack a foundation. Discouragement sets in. Do not fall into this trap!
To pray constantly,2 as St. Paul counsels us, requires practice and conditioning. You have to become a spiritual athlete. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul even compares the spiritual life to running a race!3
If you want to run a marathon, would you start your training with 20 miles a day? No way! You would start off with something small that you could do every day without injuring yourself. As you started to get into better condition, you could start increasing the daily mileage of your training run. Over time, you would be able to run the marathon.
The same concept of practice and conditioning applies to your prayer life. We must continue steadfastly in prayer.4 No matter where you find yourself in the spiritual life, there is something you can do today to improve your prayer life by 1%. And if that becomes a daily habit, over time you will see compound returns!
To help yourself do this, you should periodically ask yourself with respect to your prayer life:
What did I do well this week / month / year?
What did I not do so well this week / month / year?
What is one thing I could do today — that could be a sustainable habit over time — to become better in my prayer life?
A life of prayer is not built in a day, it is built over a lifetime. Don’t wait to start working on your prayer life. Start with something today and make it a daily habit. There is always room for improvement in the spiritual life! Build a foundation over time that will last.
I pray that the Holy Spirit would inspire you today with the one thing He wants you to start doing to improve your prayer life and that God would give you the grace to follow through on it, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
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Thank you St. Mary Magdalene.
1 Cor. 9:24-27. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”