James Clear’s Atomic Habits was the world’s best-selling book in 2021, which gives us some insight into one of the biggest trends in business writing today: habits. People everywhere need the structure and productivity habitual actions provide. Everyone benefits from good habits, and everyone also knows that bad habits can sink your ship.
What about prayer? Do habits apply there? You bet. Good prayer habits provide structure and productivity to a person’s spiritual life, and no serious person of prayer can do without them. Here are seven reliable prayer habits to help you strengthen your response to God’s call to prayer on a daily basis:
Silence: It is virtually impossible to pray with noise and distractions. This is why Jesus gave His disciples this little bit of advice: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:6). What I noted about simple prayer in my previous article (“Seven Characteristics of Effective Prayer”) is relevant here: even taking ten to fifteen minutes out of a busy schedule to pray in the blessed silence of your local church or adoration chapel is more powerful than trying to pray in an environment of commotion. A good prayer habit to develop: close the door.
Scripture: The Word of God should be the substance of our prayer life. While we cannot always hear the voice of God with our ears, we can always listen to His revealed Word in Scripture, which speaks to our hearts. Praying for a few minutes over a single line of Scripture that has meaning to us is usually of more value than other types of spiritual reading for an hour. A great prayer habit: always start with the Word.
Consistency: No bad habit is more common than inconsistency in prayer. If we just pray when we feel like it, there is very little value in prayer and a great likelihood we will just stop praying altogether! Every time St. Teresa of Avila would go to pray, she would set an hour glass on a table in the chapel so she would not shortchange God of the hour she promised to spend in prayer. Sometimes she would want to leave before her prayer hour was finished, and she would shake the hourglass to make it go faster! Teresa’s example points to the fact that the real value of prayer is not in the emotions but in the will. It almost doesn’t matter what form our prayer takes, as long as we pray consistently.
Adaptability: While we have to be consistent in our commitment to prayer, we also need to be realistic in how we fit it into our busy schedules. Adaptability is the key to maintaining a solid prayer life: that may mean cutting out TV at certain times of the day so we can open up a sacred space for prayer, or getting up a few moments before the rest of the household in order to have the quiet time necessary to pray. Realism, creativity, and adaptability are great habits to make sure we create time and space to pray.
Suffering: Suffering in itself is not prayer and, in fact, sometimes drives people away from God, which is why suffering must be transformed into a channel of grace for the sufferer. Suffering is sanctified by offering. When we unite our sufferings with the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, we convert the worst of the world’s ills into a great force of peace and holiness. God could have accomplished the salvation of the human race in any way He pleased, but He chose the suffering of His Son to save us, so we use His words on the Cross to express this perfect transformation of suffering into prayer: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Make that your prayer in moments of suffering.
Tradition: Have you ever heard the phrase, “No need to reinvent the wheel”? There is wisdom for prayer in that phrase. The Catholic Church provides us with an abundance of prayer resources from her centuries-old Tradition so that our prayer is not left up to chance or mere spontaneity. Classic devotions, the great spiritual traditions of religious orders, prayers of the saints, and liturgical prayer in particular, nurture the great habit of praying within the Tradition of the Church.
Mary: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have to learn prayer at the feet of Our Lady, the one who was closest to Jesus. She is the woman whose Immaculate Heart was steeped in prayer and who, as the Bible mentions, “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Asking Our Lady to show us how to pray is an essential prayer habit, which pays spiritual dividends like no other.
As we enter into Ordinary Time, we have new opportunities to renew our prayer lives. To do so requires developing good prayer habits: they bear great fruit in the life of the spirit.
[Note: Next week I’ll address a related topic, “Seven Awesome Catholic Devotions.”]