Three Prayer Tips that will Improve Your Life
~ Jim McDermott, SJ, AMERICA Magazine
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 am not suggesting you need to take a knee and say or think of some set of words. It is about taking a moment to put yourself into a relationship with something bigger than us, however you understand that – God, our ancestors, the universe.
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. I promise that over time, they really can improve your life.
Tip # 1 Look at the stars, the sky and 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 someth`ing 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.
Tip # 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 a 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. Then do it all over 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 alternative 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 and savoring its aromas.
Tip # 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. 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.
This is a way to see those things as themselves and as what God wants us to have or see right now.
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’ intentions can be just as satisfying as No. 59 – “Always have dessert.”