Heading the list of vacant sentiments is the supermarket sign-off, “Have a nice day.” In an era of diminished civility, pleasantries are welcome but meaningless when they become conventional clichés. We—and the president—routinely assure the bereaved, “You are in our prayers,” the most in comfort we can offer. We will pray for them. The question is, do we?
If we don’t, the reason may be insecurity rather than insincerity. Prayer intimidates more than the Commandments. At least with those, we know what or what not to do. When it comes to prayer, we are perplexed. We can pray words given us, but are stymied without programmed material. Accustomed to dialogue in daily life, we balk at what seems to be a monologue, a one-way street. Is anyone listening? We can’t be sure.
Serious pray-ers—and the roll call is long—report the opposite. They fill books testifying to a sense of contact and interaction. They speak not only of being heard but often being spoken to. Skeptics may rail at the Lord supposedly having said this, or Mary that. But those who pray, and stay the course, give convincing witness to perceived supernatural communication.
In terms of the spiritual, we are mainly on the take. We have the life and words of Christ, the sacraments, the ministering magisterium. What is our outgo from all this input? The answer is prayer, our personal response, our reach to the Lord. Good works while essential, are, after all, horizontal and in many ways easier. We see need and act. Prayer is interior, an intimate overture. Without it, there is barely a connection made; we are always in receipt, never the sender. This, not the other, is the one-way street, and it is of our making.
Our problem is that we confine prayer to specific times and place, communally at Mass or privately when periodic needs arise. We limit its potential when, in reality, prayer permits any posture or circumstance, brief expression or lengthy reflection. Frequent—if not unceasing—prayer acknowledges God participating in our lives, an inclusion born of gratitude and love, modest reciprocity for his awesome gifts of temporal and eternal life.
The paradigm for prayer maximizing God’s presence in everyday life is, to me, a priest friend for whom God is not a distant, sometime acquaintance but a constant companion even in mundane situations. He never turns the key in the ignition without making the Sign of the Cross, a simple gesture which at once affirms belief in the Trinity, and asks protection. His natural ease with this, as a normal practice, upsets our notion that prayer means us, on our knees, in a room, alone.
The varieties of prayer are endless, as this priest amply demonstrates—none more instructive, perhaps, than in a series of Holy Hours where, before the Blessed Sacrament, in a spontaneous stream of consciousness, he addressed the Lord as one would a parent. He ruminated, he questioned, he quarreled. Always respectful, he was never cheerless. He was serious, but not solemn. Those who heard him had the sense of listening in on a conversation. We could never again claim ignorance of how to offer unscripted prayer. For this priest, prayer is a habit. Regular reference to the Lord, to Mary, the saints, departed family and friends, infuses his waking hours. It inspires imitation.
Each of us needs, of course, to find our respective comfort zones. A day laced with aspirations comes easily to me, but I flunk as a team prayer. Communal prayer is appetizingly available every hour at my active parish church, but I am derailed by vocal mannerisms. Some rosary leaders qualify for Bob and Ray’s Slow Talkers of America, others invest phrases with a bit too much drama for my diet. I flee to the silence of a monastery chapel across the street. Paradoxically, silence can be disquieting to most of us, overstimulated as we are by sound and fury. But silence is a rich seedbed of prayer if we can learn to be still, and wait.
Isolation, on the other hand, is not requisite for prayer. I find sitting in the midst of four hundred people at thirty thousand feet a spectacular venue for prayer, providing as it does a heightened sense of vulnerability and mortality.
The “it” of “You can’t take it with you” does not include prayer. This powerful link between the visible and invisible worlds, begun here, can serve to our last breath and beyond. As he lay dying, I heard my father pray as he had all his life. Everything else gone, prayer remained. I am confident, as I am of little else, that as his life ebbed away his soul soared on the wings of prayer easing his end, accompanying him across that great divide. I only hope—and pray—when I make that journey to be similarly consoled.