Not long ago a young man who sees me for spiritual direction said his prayer life was unsatisfying. After asking what he meant, I asked the obvious question: “How often are you praying?”
In response, he sighed heavily, plunged his hand into his backpack, pulled out his smartphone, punched in a few keys, and showed me his calendar. It was packed with appointments. Then he stared at me with a grimace on his face.
“I can barely even find time to breathe,” he said sadly.
By far the main reason that people tell me that they don’t pray is “I’m too busy.” The second most common reason is that prayer seems dull.
By the way, some helpful responses to that second reason are: (A) As in any relationship, not every interaction with God can be a peak moment. (B) We’re meant to be tied to God, not to the fruits of prayer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, (C) Even if you don’t think something is “happening,” it certainly is; any time spent with God is transformative.
What about being busy? How can you pray if your calendar is packed, if driving the kids hither and yon has cancelled out any free time, or if your boss assumes that you’ll be reachable 24/7?
Remember it’s a relationship
One of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read is God and You: Prayer as a Personal Relationship, by William A. Barry. In that book Father Barry, a popular Jesuit spiritual writer, says that prayer can be fruitfully compared to a close friendship. Framing one’s relationship to God in those terms can be clarifying.
Essentially you ask yourself, “If I were talking about a relationship with a friend instead of God, what would I do?” In this case, you might ask yourself, “Even if I were busy, would I find time for a friend?” In other words, what kind of friendship would it be if you never made time for him or her?
We often say God is the most important, or one of the most important, relationships in our life. Is that true? If so, think about how much one-on-one time you spend on that relationship. Just thinking about prayer in this way helps us overcome the barrier of “I’m too busy.” It helps us to recognize our priorities, which can make us want to spend some time with God.
Take it easy
Often we have unrealistic expectations about how much time we will spend in prayer. Busy people usually like to get a lot “done.” So we frequently set goals that are out of line with what we are realistically able to do.
To be blunt, many people assume that if they’re not praying for an hour a day then it’s not worth it. Or they assume that if they’re not praying every single day there’s no point. “Why even bother?” they think.
So first, try being reasonable. Start with ten minutes in the morning or evening. Surely you can spare that for the Creator of the Universe! It needn’t be anything more than that, to begin with. You don’t run a marathon before you’ve run around the block.
Think about it, again, as a personal relationship. If a friend you hadn’t heard from in years called and said, “Hi! Can we talk for just ten minutes? I’d love to catch up!” wouldn’t you be grateful? Think of God welcoming your prayer like that. God will enjoy those ten minutes. Knowing that may help you to enjoy them too.
There’s no right or wrong, or better or worse, way to pray, as far as I’m concerned. Whatever works best for you is right and good.
Find creative ways you can fit into your busy life. If that means reading the Daily Mass readings for just a few minutes in the morning, try that. If it means doing some breathing exercises and reminding yourself that you’re in God’s presence during the workday, do that. If it means stopping into a church on the way home and saying a few Hail Marys do that. See what fits into your life right now.
There are as many ways of praying as there are people, so see what works for you.
Try the Examen
The easiest and quickest prayer I know is the examen, or “examination of conscience,” popularized by St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order. Basically, it’s a review of the day. You can do it at the end of the day (looking back over the day that just ended) or the middle of the day (looking back over the last 24 hours).
Here are the five steps:
- Presence: Remind yourself you’re in God’s presence.
- Gratitude: Call to mind whatever your grateful for from the previous 24 hours. Anything from a job well done, to a fun lunch with a friend, to a consoling phone call. Savor all those things and thank God.
- Review: Think about the day from start to finish, trying notice where God was. When did you experience God? What was your response?
- Sorrow: Recall moments when you didn’t respond to God’s invitation, or even sinned. Ask God for forgiveness or, if it’s a grave sin, consider seeking out the rite of reconciliation.
- Grace: Ask for God’s grace for the next day.
In time, the examen will show you the places where you were too busy to notice God, and will remind you that even in the busyness God is present.
Find God in all things
Even if you have zero time to pray—say, if you’re a new parent or are undergoing a crisis—try to find God in your daily life.
Sometimes it’s hard to find the private one-on-one time with God that characterizes prayer. Sometimes it’s plain impossible. (Sometimes of course we say it’s impossible, but it’s really just hard.)
So, see if you can find God in your newborn baby’s smile. In that comforting word from a friend. In that flower that catches your eye. If you absolutely have no time to pray, ask God to meet you along the way.
But keep that desire for more private time with God alive, so that when you find yourself less busy, you’ll be able to spend as much time with God as you – and God – would like.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America and author of several books including Jesus: A Pilgrimage and, most recently, Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus.