Many spiritual teachers and theologians point out that for much of our lives we are spiritually asleep. Jesus urged his followers to stay awake, and be watchful. Mystics remind us of the sacrament of the present moment. Buddhists speak of the importance of mindfulness. The colloquial admonition that we should come to our senses is yet another way of pointing out that we human beings have a way of missing out on our own lives.
Setting aside certain times of each day for prayer is a time-honored way of returning to God, returning to what truly matters, returning to your life. God is always with us, always loving and encouraging and guiding us, but we are often far away. Before you know it, we are wondering where all the time went. The simple act of stopping at certain points in your day to be still and to turn your attention to God is one of the most powerful and profound things you can do in your life. It can return you to yourself, to your soul, where God is always present and always offering you everything you need.
One of the effects of this stopping and returning to God, if only for a moment, is that you start to see the people and situations in your life differently. You remember that your child has a big game that day, or your neighbor is supposed to hear from her doctor about a test, or the checkout person at the store is celebrating that he just got a promotion. It makes you more present not only to yourself and your true life, but more present to the people around you, as well.
Jesus urged his followers to “stay awake and be watchful”. Mystics remind us of “the sacrament of the present moment”. Buddhists speak of the importance of “mindfulness”. And the colloquial admonition that we should “come to our senses” is yet another way of pointing out that we human beings have a way of missing out on our own lives.
And interestingly, after stopping to pray like this every day, you start to realize that you are much more productive. My friend, Phyllis Tickle, says, “ I can’t explain it, but when I started setting the alarm on my little Casio wristwatch to go off at certain times of the day so that I could close my office door and be still with God for a moment, I ended up getting so much more done in my life”. It’s counterintuitive, that doing one more thing ends up giving you more time, but I believe her. Phyllis has had seven children, written over 30 books, and is one of the most popular lecturers in the nation. I trust her.
When she first started praying four times a day, Phyllis tried to keep it a secret. So, when her Casio beeped, she would just find an appropriate moment to slip out of a meeting. Sometimes, she would excuse herself to go to the ladies’ room. The point was just to stop for four or five minutes, and just about every activity in our day can be interrupted for that period of time.
The discipline of punctuating our days with set times of prayer is an ancient Christian tradition with roots in our Jewish heritage (“Seven times a day do I praise you”, Psalm 119:164). Our Book of Common Prayer has Daily Offices (offices, from the Latin word, officium, which means duty or service) for morning, noonday, evening, and finally Compline at bedtime.
Our circumstances and temperaments are all so different that there’s probably no one-size-fits-all way of going about this. And I think it’s really important not to start off trying to do too much. But many of you might find it helpful to start by setting aside four or five minutes once a day — in the morning over coffee, or at noon before lunch, or at some point in the evening after work. The world is not going to support you in this, so you’ll probably need to fail a few times. Don’t beat yourself up about it when you do, just keep returning to your practice of prayer, and see if, over time, it doesn’t become an important part of your life.
Gary Jones, Rector, Saint Stephens Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA