8 ways to kickstart your prayer life in the new year
It’s Jan. 1 and you leap out of bed full of joy, eager to face a new year and a new life!
More likely, you wake up at noon, groggy from too much “eggnog,” shake the confetti from your hair and wonder how you ended up sleeping on the kitchen floor with a cardboard noisemaker for a pillow.
Happy New Year.
Whatever way you welcome 2022 — I’ve reached the age where I’m usually asleep when the ball falls in Times Square — you can’t help but face the fact that another milestone has been reached. There are 365 days ahead of you, with bright empty pages in your calendar waiting to be filled. This is a moment of possibility. You’ve started another circle around the sun. How will you spend it?
While a lot of us want to stick to that diet or dust off that treadmill — the one you got two Christmases ago and that now serves as a sturdy place to hang damp laundry — let’s be honest. By February, most resolutions are history. Our waistlines haven’t gotten smaller, and the box of donuts keeps reappearing every week in your grocery shopping cart.
But take heart! There are other options, other resolutions. And one of the most important is one we can easily overlook. Yet it’s so simple, so basic, so fundamental to our lives as Catholic Christians.
I’m talking about prayer.
Before you try to cut out the carbs and start counting those 10,000 steps, consider a few ways to jumpstart your prayer life. It’s easier than dieting, more convenient than exercise — you can do it anywhere! — and you might find yourself shedding unwanted indifference and building up muscles of faith.
If you want to use the new year to create a new you, prayer is a terrific way to start.
So here are a few ideas to get you going. These are practices that have enriched my own life — and I hope they’ll do the same for you. So let’s pour a fresh cup of coffee, take a deep breath and get started.
1. Practice gratitude
Begin every day with this simple idea: Thank God. You can never go wrong by embracing an “attitude of gratitude.” Blessed Solanus Casey, the Capuchin priest who ministered with such humility in New York and Detroit, used to offer this timeless advice: “Thank God ahead of time.” Every moment, every challenge, every opportunity, every speed bump on the road of life can be considered a gift. God has placed these in your path for a reason. Who knows what graces might be waiting for you? Thank him!
Remember the example of Martin Rinkart, the Lutheran deacon from a small village in Germany who somehow survived the Thirty Years War, which brought with it the plague and the heartbreak of having to bury thousands of innocent souls — including, tragically, his wife. Rinkart composed a short prayer for his children to say before they went to bed each night, and the words became the basis for one of the greatest Christian hymns, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Gratefulness helps us bear the heaviest cross.
When you awaken, whispering a simple prayer of gratitude for the time we have been given can change our approach to the day and make the impossible seem possible. After all, as someone once put it, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Seize the day with a firm, grateful grip!
At night, thank God for all he has brought you that day — the good, the bad and the ugly. Recognize that the greatest gift of all is life itself, and that life comes with both joys and sorrows. Being thankful for all of it can adjust our perspective.
As one minister put it, reflecting on the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving: “Perhaps the pilgrims weren’t thankful that they had survived a hard winter. Perhaps they survived a hard winter because they were thankful.”
Gratitude is an attitude that can change everything.
2. Pray the basics
Got a minute? Try these three little prayers. These are really the trifecta of Catholic prayers, among the first we ever learn: The Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be. Take a minute — it doesn’t take much more than that — to offer these three prayers as you start your day. If you can’t make it to daily Mass or can’t carve out time to do a Rosary, or if you find yourself getting lost in the ribbons of the Liturgy of the Hours, these three prayers can be the simple, solid building blocks of your day. You can even return to them often if you have a free minute while you’re waiting for a bus or an elevator or that phone call someone promised to return.
Feeling anxious, unsettled or worried? Here’s another prayer, with just five words: “Jesus, I trust in you.” All of these individually might not sound like much. But, trust me (and trust God!), they can change your perspective and lighten your load.
3. Pray for those around you
Slip into your sneakers and set out on a “prayer walk.” I first learned about this way of praying a few months ago. It’s common in some Protestant circles and, frankly, I think it’s a wonderful practice worth adopting. The basic idea: to pray for those you walk past, those you meet, those strangers living and working in buildings you encounter in your daily journey.
As one website puts it: “A prayer walk is pretty simple, in that it brings together two wonderful things — walking and praying. A prayer walk is just being intentional about your exercising and your prayer time so that you can cover your community in prayer. Interceding on behalf of the neighborhood.” All you really need is a pair of comfortable shoes and an open heart. Need to take out the dog (or, maybe, a restless child)? Head out the door and you’re on your way.
Want more? Bring a Bible verse or, if you want, a prayer journal or even a prayer request list. Make this walk your lectio. Let your imagination roam as you pass every building. Pray for the families on the block, the men emptying the garbage, the unseen nurses tending for the elderly or the sick. Pray for the workers who built the houses, or who poured the concrete or who trim the lawns. Pray for the unseen families that are hurting, wounded, struggling with illness or debt inside the places you pass. You might bring along a chaplet or a set of rosary beads, offering one prayer for a different intention as you make your way through the world.
If walking is difficult, or just not possible, you can try a “prayer drive” in your car — just remember to keep your eyes on the road! — and you can even do this from the comfort of your own home. The real point is to cover your community in prayer and connect with the wider world.
4. Pray the Liturgy of the Hours
Feeling ambitious? Start praying the Liturgy of the Hours. This can be daunting; just ask any seminarian, deacon candidate or religious who is getting started with this venerable “prayer of the Church.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes it this way:
“The Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office or the Work of God (Opus Dei), is the daily prayer of the Church, marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer. The Hours are a meditative dialogue on the mystery of Christ, using Scripture and prayer. At times the dialogue is between the Church or individual soul and God; at times it is a dialogue among the members of the Church; and at times it is even between the Church and the world. The Divine Office ‘is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ himself together with his Body addresses to the Father.'”
All of that just means these are a collection of prayers — primarily the psalms — structured to be prayed at particular times of the day, often amid a group (as in a monastery or convent). It’s published in a four-volume set, tied to the liturgical seasons, and in a one-volume “Christian Prayer” that offers Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. A short guide is published each year to help you find the right pages and prayer. Amazon has all of these easily available.
But if you want an easy way to get into it, the Liturgy of the Hours can be as close as your cell phone. There are apps available that organize everything for you — I like to use iBreviary — and they can make it almost effortless. You can have a breviary in your pocket. All you need to do is take the time. You can thoughtfully pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each in about 15 minutes. It really is a beautiful way to “sanctify the day” and give focus and structure to your life. Try it!
5. Read spiritual books
Crack open a good book — like, say, The Good Book. As Father Mike Schmitz reminded the world, you can read the Bible in a year. (Check out his phenomenally popular podcast, “The Bible in a Year,” to learn how). Or you can do it on your own. A quick Google search reveals literally millions of entries that offer study guides for reading the Bible in 12 months, and you’ll find multiple versions and books geared specifically to Catholics.
Looking for something less, well, scriptural? No home should be without Butler’s “Lives of the Saints.” This classic collection has been around for decades and you will find many versions of it on Amazon available from different publishers (and at wildly differing price points.) Alban Butler was an 18th century English priest who took it upon himself to collect and write brief biographies of major saints in the Church and organize them according to date. The result is an enduring classic that has been edited, tweaked, refined and revised numerous times. Don’t have enough shelf room for four volumes? Or looking for a less expensive option? Much of the material is now available online; there are also e-reader versions available that are more contemporary (and more affordable.)
You might also try letting the saints speak for themselves. Some of the Church’s greatest saints were also pretty great writers, and they left behind a wonderful library of inspiring words. Saints such as Augustine (“Confessions,” “The City of God”), Francis de Sales (“Introduction to the Devout Life”), Thérèse of Lisieux (“Story of a Soul”) and Pope St. John XXIII (“The Journal of a Soul”) offer insights and ideas that can stir the imagination and uplift the heart. Don’t just read them; pray them!
|Dive into the classics|
|This year, dive into the wealth of knowledge provided by the saints on prayer and living the Christian life by picking up one of the classics. Check out the list of titles in our special Noll Classics collection — curated for the modern reader by Our Sunday Visitor in the spirit of our founder, Archbishop John Francis Noll.|
6. Pray the Way of the Cross
Follow the Way of the Cross. It’s not just something for Lent. This beautiful and enduring devotion is most popularly prayed during Lent, when our minds and hearts turn to the Passion of Christ. But who says you only have to do it before Good Friday? The journey to Calvary is one for all time, for all circumstances and for all people. It is for anyone who has walked the difficult road of life, stumbled, fallen, gotten back up, and faced setbacks and pain and suffering.
Christ’s walk to his execution is truly universal. That is proven by the many variations that have been published and popularized, geared to different points of view and interpretations. A quick online search reveals that there is a Way of the Cross for Mary, for St. Joseph, for children, for couples. It really does speak to everyone. (Last year, in fact, I composed a Way of the Cross for deacons.) And what you can gain from this way of prayer is immeasurable. Taking 15 or 20 minutes to follow in the footsteps of Christ and meditate on his suffering and death can give perspective and focus to our lives.
7. Befriend the saints
Get a new saint to be your friend. Writer, speaker, comedian and atheist-turned-Catholic Jen Fulwiler several years ago developed a nifty online saint generator. Just click on the link, and up pops the random name of a saint whom you can make your personal patron for the new year. Don’t like the saint selected? Just pick another one. The generator is generous!
The software gives you the bare-bone basics of the saint — including his or her feast day and “patronage” — but you can take that and discover more (hey, check out Butler’s “Lives of the Saints”!) and make that person your companion for the days ahead.
I tried it a couple weeks back, and up popped St. Wenceslas. I don’t think his selection was an accident. Wenceslas is celebrated in song for his generosity “on the feast of Stephen” (that Stephen, deacon and martyr); he’s the patron of Bohemia (my family is from Slovakia); and his feast day is Sept. 28, the day after my wife’s birthday. I look forward to getting to know him better and calling on him for advice and intercession. Maybe he has something to teach me.
8. Pray unceasingly.
No, I’m not kidding. I wrote about this in “The Busy Person’s Guide to Prayer” (Word Among Us Press, $14.95), and it’s something that can be transformative. Adopting the spiritual practice of Brother Lawrence, who wrote “The Practice of the Presence of God,” (and who found God amid pots and pans in a monastery kitchen), I encourage you to seek to be aware of God’s presence everywhere, in all things (as the Jesuits might say).
Brother Lawrence wrote: “I possess God as peacefully in the commotion of my kitchen, where often people are asking me for different things at the same time, as I do when kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament.”
If he could do it, so can we. As I put it in my book: “Want to ‘pray without ceasing’? Begin by making every act, every gesture, every task a form of prayer. Give it to God. Offer it at the sink, in the garage, on the bus, in the garden, in the cubicle behind a pile of papers waiting to be filed. Any work, offered with love to the Lord, can be a prayer, if we intend it to be. Really. Answering the phone, tending the garden, typing a term paper, balancing a checkbook, changing a diaper, bandaging a wound — all this and more is part of God’s infinitely wondrous and imperfect world. We don’t have to just do them. We can pray them.”
I can’t think of a better way to welcome a new year than to be aware of God’s wondrous presence in the world and in our lives.
These are just a few ways to help make 2022 not just a new year but a new start. The pages are blank, the opportunities are limitless. This is a chance for each of us to begin again. A little extra prayer can only help.
Can I hear an “Amen”?
|10 more spiritual resolutions|
|In a recent Openers column, assistant editor Ava Lalor reflected on the most common New Year’s resolutions and gave them a spiritual twist. Here are some suggestions.
1. Exercise not because you want to hit a superficial number on the scale but because you are body and soul. Make changes that honor your body the way God desires you to.
2. Lose the weight of your sins by going to confession frequently. Aim for once a month or every six weeks.
3. Organize your prayer life. Look at your schedule for each day the night before and plan for when you are going to spend some time — even five minutes — with the Lord.
4. Try different forms of prayer such as reading Scripture, journaling, adoration, daily Mass, imaginative prayer, the Rosary, etc.
5. Spend less money on yourself, and focus more on living generously by giving to others this year.
6. Quit a bad habit that is keeping you from holiness. Whatever it is, ask God for the grace to move away from it and make a plan.
7. Travel to see Christ in Eucharistic adoration or daily Mass more frequently.
8. Read more spiritual classics (see other sidebar above).
9. Celebrate Sundays, holy days and saint feast days with extra fervor this year. Each month, look at the calendar and choose one or more days to celebrate.
10. Live life with heaven in mind. See each day as an opportunity to get to know Christ more through your daily moments.