We must remember God more often than we draw breath.
- St. Gregory Nazianzus
This statement sets out the goal of anyone who is serious about the life of prayer, of anyone who aspires to live in union with Jesus Christ.
Yet, this is a seemingly impossible goal. The cares of the world press in. There are meetings to attend, tasks to perform, meals to prepare, children to get ready for school. How can anyone seriously talk about remembering God "more often than we draw breath"? This might be possible for monks, but surely not for people in "the real world."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Gregory's statement and then immediately adds, "We cannot pray 'at all times' if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it" (no. 2697).
Some people will say, "Pshaw! My work is my prayer. My life is my prayer. I do not, indeed, I cannot, pray at specific times."
Unfortunately, if people answer in this manner, it is often a sign that they do not pray at all, that the life of faith has gone dead in them.
Imagine a husband saying he cannot spend time alone with his wife to chat and reflect about the day. Imagine him saying that he expresses his love for her in all the time he spends at the office and all the time he spends watching TV. He'd better start finding more time to spend with her and her alone or they soon won't have a relationship.
So it is with God. A Christian is one who loves God. And if that love is real and growing then that Christian will be spending special time alone with God, regularly and frequently. To say one can nurture a love relationship with God by thinking about God only while washing diapers or reading the morning newspaper is to reduce faith to lip service.
Of course, there will be occasions when it is difficult to have regular times of prayer. In times of upheaval, such as coping with the arrival of a new baby, the death of a loved one or a move to a new town or city, one's regular schedule is liable to get seriously disrupted.
However, these times of upheaval can, in themselves, be sources for prayer as long as they are relatively short. For prayer is not just an expression of our love for God, it is an expression of our total helplessness without God.
Upheaval can lead us to experience that helplessness with greater intensity. Although we are not kneeling before the tabernacle, our hearts may be kneeling and crying out, "God, deal with this because I cannot." That is genuine prayer.
If one comes out of that time of upheaval more dependent on God and having avoided bitterness and despair then these times have been important points of Christian formation. They have become a well from which one can draw water when life is more settled.
But if I am always over-busy then something has gone awry. I am not dependent on God. I have a problem with idolatry. In some way, I am trying to control God or to make God dependent on me.
Regular and frequent prayer to the God who is beyond all knowing is the antidote to this disease. Prayer is the way to restore reverence for the mystery of God. Prayer is the path out of deadness of soul and into the new life which is filled with awe and wonder.
We always need to keep our lamps full of oil. For we do not know when major upheavals will occur in our lives and we will need a full lamp to keep the fire burning.
St. Basil, a close friend of St. Gregory, is properly seen as the father of eastern monasticism. Basil did not view the life of the monk as a special call. He saw it as the normal way of living out one's baptismal commitment through prayer and work in community. Under Basil's rule, the monks gathered seven times a day (and once at night) for prayer. This was their way of hallowing every hour of the day. It was their way of preparing to "remember God more often than we draw breath."
Our modern way is to work far more than we pray, even though we have labor-saving devices undreamt of in Basil's day. Yet, is our work any more fruitful than that of fourth century monks? In the world's short-sighted view, it is. We erect great monuments to ourselves and produce much of economic value. But all of this will soon be blown away like chaff in the mind.
Some of our work may remain. It will be the work that is solidly rooted in prayer, rooted in the love of God and in the love of neighbor which flows from that first love.
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