Prayer is common to all Christians, but we do not all pray alike. While our prayer differs because our lives and work differ, we need to ask what prayer looks like in the life of a a man or woman seeking to love God. In “Times of Private Prayer,” Blessed John Henry Newman asks and answers the vital questions of the what, when, and how of private prayer.
Private prayer is conversation with God and as such is a gift. Blessed Newman says we must begin by thinking of prayer as a duty, not only because it is, but because, in order to enter into the privileges of religion, it is necessary to experience its duties. How often, then, should we converse with our Lord? Of course Scripture tells us to “pray constantly” (1 Thes. 5:17), and so throughout our day we should be in conversation, perhaps making ejaculatory prayers (like “Lord, have mercy”) as St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, was fond of advising. But does this constant conversation, so typical of the saints, remove the need for set times of prayer?
By no means, Blessed Newman says. On the contrary, “we may be sure that, in most cases, those who do not pray at stated times in a more solemn and direct manner, will never pray well at other times.” Regular times of prayer restore our attention to spiritual matters so that the conversation may continue. Jesus Himself tells his disciples to “…go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret..” (Matt. 6:6). Besides this admonition, we need look no further than the saints and the prophets and the apostles, even our Lord Himself, for evidence of the need for set times of prayer. Newman recounts the Biblical references: Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray, St. Peter prays on the rooftop, Nathaniel under the fig tree, Daniel under the persecution of King Darius, and so on.
How often should we have these set times of regular prayer? Newman says all of us should pray at least twice a day. Some have more time and can devote even more time for prayer, but everyone can pray twice. And he gives a reason for the time of day for this regular prayer:
“We know in the common engagements of life,the importance of collecting and arranging our thoughts calmly and accurately before proceeding to any important business in order to the right performance of it; and so in that one really needful occupation: the care of our eternal interests, if we would have our minds composed, our desires subdued, and our tempers heavenly through the day; we must, before commencing the day’s employment, stand still awhile to look into ourselves…preparing ourselves for the trials and duties on which we are entering. A like reason may be assigned for evening prayer, viz., as affording us a time of looking back on the day past, and summing up (as it were) that account…of confessing sin, and of praying for forgiveness, of giving thanks for what we have done well, and for mercies received, of making good resolutions in reliance on the help of God, and of sealing up and setting sure the day past, at least as a stepping-stone of good for the morrow.”
If we needed any more reasons for regular prayer, Newman reminds us that it is “also a more direct means of gaining from God an answer to our requests.” It is Christ himself who tells us that God will reward us openly. Even though we do not comprehend how we can have such persuasion with God, Newman explains that in our regular times of prayer, when our petitions are ordered, our faith is more fixed and focused, and therefore stronger.
For all these reasons, we must defend these times of private prayer. “He who gives up regularity in prayer has lost a principal means of reminding himself that spiritual life is obedience to a Lawgiver, not a mere feeling or a taste,” Newman says. If we lose this commitment to regular prayer – and he is serious about this – “this is the path that leads to death.” From the loss of regular prayer comes the loss of commitment to regular church attendance, then belief in fixed moral laws. We must do everything we can to safeguard it. Even seemingly harmless changes in our life can become means of temptation – like the new schedule created by new work, or changes in our social life, or traveling.
As we approach these holy days before us, many of us will travel to visit family. Our routine will be disturbed and our habits of prayer will be challenged. Before this happens, we must take time to plan how to keep regular prayer despite these arrangements. Satan will not rest in planning to stop us. But the Lord who is with us throughout our day will give us the grace to overcome every obstacle to remaining by his side.