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Jim McDermottJanuary 11, 2022
Photo by Klemen Vrankar on Unsplash

This week, “The Guardian” released a list of “100 ways to slightly improve your life without really trying.”It is excellent. Among my personal favorites are No. 55, “Learn the name of ten trees”; No. 30, “Be polite to rude strangers—it’s oddly thrilling”; and No. 100, “For instant cheer, wear yellow.”

At the same time, when I got to the end of the list, part of me wondered: Why isn’t there some version of “Take two minutes to pray/meditate” on this list?

I know, of course the priest is pushing for prayer. Not everyone believes in Jesus, Father, or in God. Save your “Say the rosary” recruitment drive for Sunday Mass.

I know, of course the priest is pushing for prayer. Not everyone believes in Jesus, Father, or in God. Save your “Say the Rosary” recruitment drive for Sunday Mass.

But I’m not suggesting you need to take a knee and say or think some set of words. It is about taking a moment to put yourself into relationship with something bigger than us, however you understand that—God, our ancestors, the universe.

Even within the Catholic Church, a priest or nun talking about prayer is usually a good way to lose the attention of your congregation. For a lot of people, it either sounds like some arcane skill that requires decades of training (and no life) and therefore is not something they could ever experience themselves; or they think they are being told to say the prayers they learned as a kid, which are fine as far as they go but not exactly life-changing.

This is a major problem for Catholics. Our faith is grounded in the disciples’ lived experience of a God who has come into their lives and loves them. We just finished celebrating the reality that God so wants to be in relationship with us that he chose to become one of us. To the extent that “prayer” has come to suggest instead some kind of Doctor Strange-type hocus pocus or worse, an empty exercise, we as a community have definitely lost our way. It is like we are sitting next to a well dying of thirst but not realizing we can take a drink.

Each of these practices can be done in two to five minutes and require no religious background. And I promise that over time, they really can improve your life.

In fact, there are a lot of meaningful ways of praying, no matter your spiritual background or experience, and they don’t all require a lot of effort. Here are three methods you might try. Each can be done in two to five minutes and require no religious background. And I promise that over time, they really can improve your life.

1) Look at the stars, the sky, the ocean. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, used to love to just sit and look at the stars. It doesn’t sound like a terribly pious or religious activity, but when you look out on something truly vast, it changes your perspective on everything. Not only do big issues start to seem a little smaller, but you are confronted with the fact that we ourselves are just a tiny piece of a much bigger reality.

That can be scary in a way; no matter how much I would like it to be otherwise, I am not in control here! But learning that can also be an invitation to let go and simply be a part of this astonishing infinite universe that God has created. I don’t have to be in control, I can just be. And that is a blessed relief.

Looking at the stars doesn’t sound like a terribly pious or religious activity, but when you look out on something truly vast, it changes your perspective on everything.

2) Savor the present as the present it is. Sometimes people quip that a meal or evening spent together was so good that “it was like a religious experience.” But in fact when we take the time to live in the moment and pay attention to what’s happening to us, it really can be a kind of religious experience.

In his book of creative spiritual exercises,Wellsprings, the spiritual writer Anthony DeMello, S.J., suggests a great practice to help us do this. Sit down somewhere, he says, take a breath, close your eyes and then just listen to the world around you. Hear the sounds that have been surrounding you all this time, probably mostly without you noticing them. Drink them in.

Then, after a minute or so, open your eyes, and now savor what you see before you. Maybe it is the streaks of light on the wall or a picture on your mantel that you haven’t really looked at in a long time or it is the way the snow flops up against your window. Whatever it is, once again just try to sit there and enjoy it.

When we take the time to live in the moment and pay attention to what’s happening to us, it really can be a kind of religious experience.

Then do it all again—close your eyes and listen; open your eyes and look. It is amazing how much just doing that can make you feel more grounded and aware of even the most ordinary parts of your life as a gift.

A fun alternate version is to do this over a meal. When you close your eyes, instead of listening, spend a minute just tasting the food in your mouth or smelling its aromas.

3) Let the universe show itself to you. So much of what we call “prayer” in the Catholic Church involves some kind of talking. I say my prayers every night; I pray to God asking for help with X, Y or Z. It is an activity we do that involves us communicating.

But there’s a whole other way of thinking about prayer that is rather about giving God or the universe the chance to communicate with us, to tell us something. That might sound like supernatural priesthood mumbo jumbo, but I’m not talking about visions or God whispering “Take a dance class” in our ears. It is more about “actively being,” which is to say stepping back from the hustle and bustle of our lives for a few moments to simply sit quietly, eyes open, breathing slowly and see what thoughts, memories or experiences come to us.

There’s a whole other way of thinking about prayer that is rather about giving God or the universe the chance to communicate with us, to tell us something.

A lot of advisors on prayer and meditation see the things that enter our minds during prayer as distractions to be pushed away, like a child tugging at our hem while we’re working. We love them, but can we have a moment to ourselves?

But another way of proceeding is to see those things as themselves what God wants us to have or see right now. They are like pretty little planets revolving around us that we did not even know were there. And sitting in that space of just being, we don’t have to engage with those thoughts, either to evaluate why they’re occurring or figure out how to resolve them. We can simply watch and relish them.

I tend to think most of us really are praying a lot more than we think, just not in the ways we were taught as kids. Becoming our own spiritual persons is a lot about letting some of those old definitions fall away like an old husk of self. A few moments’ intention can be just as satisfying as “Always have dessert” (No. 59).

More: Prayer

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