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The perfect time to take a spiritual inventory

Ear of Heart

My most recent Life Lines column, running in Catholic New York and The Catholic Spirit this month: 

I don’t know about you, but I tend to approach my prayer life – my spiritual habits or “skills” – from an unrealistic place. While I easily recognize the need to practice or work out in order to keep up my basic guitar skills or my jogging endurance, I expect to settle down to prayer and reap immediate rewards with little or no effort. Or I allow myself to fall into a prayer rut that ends up leaving me on autopilot, until the words I say have about as much meaning and feeling behind them as reading a recipe out loud.

In many ways, prayer skills are no different than other skills. They require practice – even when we don’t feel like practicing, even when it seems like absolutely nothing is happening. They require commitment and a willingness to push the envelope and explore new territory now and then. If you were to jog the same path listening to the same music day after day, there’s a good chance you’d get sick of the routine and quit or come to see it more as chore than respite. And so it is with prayer.

Every once in a while we need to take stock of our prayer life, look at what’s working and what’s not, and Advent is the perfect time for that kind of spiritual inventory. We’re at the start of a new Church year, in the midst of a season that shines light into the darkness of our souls and allows us to see where the clutter is piling up.

This Advent, I challenge you to take some time away from the high tech gadgets that vie for your attention, away from your work and long “To Do” lists, away from the holiday frenzy, and reflect on where your prayer life has taken you over the past year and where you’d like to go in the months ahead.

I spent the better part of the last year writing two books on spirituality. Although I felt my prayer life strengthening and expanding during the process, as soon as I stepped away from the prayer practices related to my books, my struggles began anew. I grew frustrated with the lack of connection I felt during prayer. I began to convince myself that I was simply too busy to pray, in much the same way I convince myself I’m too busy to exercise.

But those busy times of life are exactly when we need more prayer not less, so I’m taking a page from my own book and trying to weave prayer into everyday moments — from the bowl of oatmeal eaten in silence that has become my call to prayer each morning to the computer gong that sounds on the hour and prompts me to say the Jesus Prayer to the spiritual music that turns my minivan kid taxi into meditation on wheels every afternoon.

That kind of prayer actually does produce the immediate gratification I crave. My shoulders can be tensed up almost to my ears, but when that hourly bell chimes, everything stops for just ten seconds, and that briefest pause in God’s presence has the power to redirect my day, or at least my hour. Short bursts of prayer woven throughout the day lead to a desire for the more substantial kind of prayer that requires us to step away from our responsibilities and seek God alone. It’s a beautiful rhythm, a balance and a flow that feeds and refreshes our soul

So often we think of prayer as something we do for God, but prayer is just as much something we do for ourselves. By bringing the divine into the mundane moments of our lives we create a new way of thinking, a new way of being. Regular prayer leads to calm amid life’s chaos, interior silence despite exterior noise, and who couldn’t use a little more of that?

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