I’m busy. You’re busy. Everyone’s busy; that’s one of the most obvious and common problems that people face these days. Keeping up a prayer life (or any other sort of spiritual discipline) is challenging when there are so many distractions, both good and bad, that draw us away from the altar of prayer and into the business of the world.
St. Anselm, who lived in the 1000’s first as a monk and an abbot, and later as the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a collection of prayers in his lifetime, and from them (and his introductions and explanations to them), a patterned approach to prayer emerges that might prove useful to busy people like us today. What follows is a summary of how we might approach private prayer in Anselm’s style, and has no bearing on corporate worship and prayer.
Step #1 – Seek Solitude
For a monk or a nun, this is relatively easy; their lifestyle is ordered such that they have frequent daily times of silent separation from others for the sole purpose of communing with God in prayer, meditation, and reading. For us who live more decidedly “in the world,” it takes a great deal more effort and initiative on our part to find and make those opportunities for quiet.
Go to a quiet corner of the house, a study cubicle in a library, an empty garden outside, or better yet a chapel if you have access to one. Leave your phone behind, or turn it off. Don’t bring homework, other books, or toys or whatever. Just you, and the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and a Bible or prayer book or other devotional resource to point you to God.
Step #2 – Awaken the Mind
If finding that space and time alone wasn’t hard enough, the second step is to overcome ‘torpor’ – that spiritual laziness or dullness that our sins push us into. We have to stir up our minds, shake out the worldly distractions, clean out the cobwebs, and refocus on Jesus: the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We really do have to decide to pray.
There are several ways to go about this waking-up process. You could recite the Ten Commandments to remind yourself of God’s Way for us to live, and thus confess your sins and get them out of the way as you begin to pray. You could recite the Apostles’ Creed to remind yourself of God’s Truth, restoring your priorities from worldly cares. You could recite the Lord’s Prayer to remind yourself of what God’s Life for you in Christ should look like.
Step #3 – Prick the Heart
As your mind gets refocused on the Way, Truth, and Life, a goal should be to get your heart warmed up in response. As your priorities are straightened out, your sinfulness becomes more apparent, and your position before God as his redeemed and adopted child becomes more clear to you, your heart should be moved. Many great Saints in the Church’s past have written of this movement of the heart in prayer, and the idea of “heart-felt worship” has again become popular in American Evangelicalism.
What should be remembered, though, is that the Christian should be moved in two directions: fear of God and love of God. After all, we cannot know the joy of salvation without knowing the horror of our brokenness. The more you know how dreadfully sinful you are, the more you can rejoice in God’s mercy toward you. (That’s basically what I preached this past Sunday.)
Once our heart is moved to greater fear and love, we become energized accordingly. On one side we become motivated to live better lives for God, imitating Christ and obeying his commands (according to the work of the Holy Spirit within us). On the other side, we are motivated to worship God more heartily, to offer ourselves for His service, understanding that even one day as a gatekeeper in his courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
Step #4 – Long for Heaven
The deeper you go in these first steps, the more you grow in your desire to be with God – to long for Heaven. Despite even the horrors of the reality of your own sinfulness, the words of Peter become our own: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). The longing, the hope, the bliss of eternal union with God through our present Communion with Christ overcomes the fear. After all, perfect love casts out all fear.
But what must be remembered is that we do not retain the ecstatic joy and longing for heaven for very long. A mistake sometimes (or perhaps often) made by some Christians today is to assume that we must always be “on fire for the Lord,” and thus every time your desire for God is missing, or whenever that feeling doesn’t show up, you’re obviously an inferior Christian. The reality is that despite our profession of faith and baptismal commitment to follow Christ, we are still sinners. It is normal to feel somewhat lacklustre about Heaven. That ‘torpor’ described in Step #2 above is something that we all have to fight through. Yes, we do sometimes have periodic moments of brilliant love, enthusiasm, and joy. But we cannot normalize extraordinary experiences. Your favorite song has its high points and its low points; it simply can’t be at its climax the whole time. Not until the Resurrection, the Judgment, and our final glorification will we be able to see God face to face in perfect and unending bliss. Until then, we see as in a mirror, darkly.
That is why we have these steps, patterns, and approaches to prayer, after all – we are spiritually climbing Jacob’s ladder to heaven. The Spirit is building us up to be the Temple of His Glory. We are being sanctified, cleansed, and restored to the Image of Christ. Don’t expect to see the final product to be ready before the due date, but do keep your eye on the goal on the horizon!