We are not, by choice or ideology, a culture set against solitude, interiority, and prayer. Nor are we, in my opinion, more malicious, pagan, or afraid of interiority than past ages. Where we differ from the past is not so much in badness as in busyness. Most days, we don’t pray simply because we don’t quite get around to it. Perhaps the best metaphor to describe our hurried and distracted lives is that of a car wash.
When you pull up to a car wash, you are instructed to leave your motor running, to take your hands off the steering wheel, and to keep your foot off the brake.The idea is that the machine itself will guide you through. For most of us, that’s just what our typical day does to us. We have smartphones and radios that stimulate us before we are fully awake. Many of us are texting friends, checking Facebook and e-mail, watching the news, or listening to music or talk radio before we even shower or eat breakfast. The drive to work follows the same pattern: Stimulated and preoccupied, we listen to the radio, talk on our cell phones, and plan the day’s agenda. We return home to television, conversation, activities, and preoccupations of all kinds. Eventually, we go to bed, where perhaps we read or watch a bit more TV. Finally, we fall asleep.
When, in all of this, did we take time to think, to pray, to wonder, to be restful, to be grateful for life, for love, for health, for God? Moreover, prayer is not easy because we are greedy for experience. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen said this well: “I want to pray,” he once said, “but I also don’t want to miss out on anything—television, movies, socializing with friends, drinking in the world.” Because we don’t want to miss out on any experience, prayer is truly a discipline.
When we sit or kneel in prayer, our natural craving for experience feels starved and begins to protest. Ironically, most of us crave solitude. As our lives grow more pressured, as we grow more tired, and as we begin to talk more about burnout, we fantasize about solitude. We imagine it as a peaceful, quiet place, where we are walking by a lake, watching a sunset, or smoking a pipe in a rocker by the fireplace. But even here, many times we make solitude yet another activity, something we do.
Solitude, however, is a form of awareness. It’s a way of being present and perceptive within all of life. It’s having a dimension of reflectiveness in our daily lives that brings with it a sense of gratitude, appreciation, peacefulness, enjoyment, and prayer. It’s the sense, within ordinary life, that life is precious, sacred, and enough. How do we foster solitude? How do we get a handle on life so it doesn’t just suck us through? How do we begin to lay a foundation for prayer in our lives?
The first step is to “put out into the deep” by remaining quietly in God’s presence in solitude, in silence, in prayer. If it is your first time doing this, set aside fifteen minutes for prayer. In time, you might be able to manage thirty minutes.
Remember: Your heart is made to rest in God. If St. Augustine is right, and he is, then you can count on your restlessness to lead you into deeper prayer—the kind of prayer that leads to profound transformation, the kind of prayer that will not leave you empty-handed.
Prayer has a huge ebb and flow. When we try to pray, sometimes we walk on water, and sometimes we sink like a stone. Sometimes we have a deep sense of God’s reality, and sometimes we can’t even imagine that God exists. Sometimes we have deep feelings about God’s goodness and love, and sometimes we feel only boredom and distraction. Sometimes our eyes fill with tears and we wish we could stay in our prayer place forever, and sometimes our eyes wander furtively to our wristwatches to see how much time we still need to spend in prayer.
We nurse a naïve fantasy both about what constitutes prayer and how we might sustain ourselves in it. What often lies at the center of this misguided notion is the belief that prayer is always meant to be interesting, warm, bringing spiritual insight, and giving the sense that we are actually praying.
Classical writers in spirituality assure us that, though this is often true during our early prayer lives when we are in the honeymoon stage of our spiritual growth, it becomes less and less true the deeper we advance in prayer and spirituality. But that doesn’t mean we are regressing in prayer. It often means the opposite.Here’s an analogy that might encourage you when you are struggling with boredom and the sense that nothing meaningful is happening.
Imagine you have an aged mother who is confined to a retirement home. You’re the dutiful child and, every night after work, for one hour, you stop and spend time with her, helping her with her evening meal, sharing the events of the day, and simply being with her as her daughter or son.
I doubt that, save for a rare occasion, you will have many deeply emotive or even interesting conversations with her. On the surface your visits will seem mostly routine and dry. Most times you will be talking about trivial, everyday things. “The kids are fine.” “Steve dropped in last week.” “Mom, your food really is bland. How can you stand all that Jell-O?” “No, we didn’t get much rain, just a sprinkle.”
Given that you’re busy and preoccupied with many pressures in your own life, it is natural that you will sneak the occasional glance at your watch. But if you persevere in these regular visits with your mother, month after month, year after year, among everyone in the whole world, you will grow to know your mother the most deeply, and she will grow to know you the most deeply.
That’s because at a deep level of relationship, the real connection between us takes place below the surface of our conversations. We begin to know each other through simple presence. Prayer is the same. If we pray faithfully every day, year in and year out, we can expect little excitement, lots of boredom, and regular temptations to look at the clock. But a bond and an intimacy will be growing under the surface: a deep, growing bond with our God.