prayer

On Prayer, Post-Conversion

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Developing prayer habits, while challenging, draws God into all aspects of our lives. 

Since my conversion, I’ve had a lot of awkward moments at the dinner table. It’s not that I’ve been having awkward conversations about my decision to leave atheism and be received into the Catholic Church. It’s that my friends keep pausing and looking inquisitively me at meals, and then saying, “Should I wait for you to say grace?” If I’m not reminded by others, I usually remember that Christians pray sometime before eating about halfway through my meal.

I know what to say and do at Mass; I’ve been attending since two years prior to my conversion, as a deal with my then-boyfriend. I went to Mass with him, and he went to ballroom dance class with me. But I’ve been less prepared for life after the Ite, missa est that closes the Mass.

When I started adapting my life to make room for God, I took to scheduling in religion the way that I’d schedule a dinner with a friend, or a movie night. I made sure to leave discrete blocks of time to do religion, whether it was going to Daily Mass at the church down the block or trying to pray the Morning and Evening Office on my subway commute to work.

But it’s been hard to remember to say grace at meals, because, when I’m eating, I’m not in a setting that I recognize as religious. The restaurant I’ve met my friend at may be dimly lit, but there are no smells and bells to signal an opportunity to be sanctified. It’s easy to try to infuse new habits with religion, but hard to hold on to the presence of God when I’m immersed in an old environment, where I have a long habit of just not thinking of Him. But all those new habits are in the service of inviting God in everywhere, even the times and places I’ve treated as secular.

The trouble is, when I’m eating on my own, the beginning of the meal tends not to be strongly marked enough for it to occur to me to pray. As I drift in and out of the kitchen to assemble a dinner for one, I’m usually only half present, holding a book for whatever parts I can get away with using only one hand. It’s hard to make space in my schedule for prayer, when I already haven’t left any slack time for eating.

After all, most of my schedule is subordinate to my short-term needs. My bedtime usually falls somewhere in a three hour window (though my waking stays pretty stable—the last option that will get me to work on time). As a result, I’ve had a terrible time coming up with a discipline for Fridays.

All Catholics in the United States are supposed to have some form of penance on Fridays, the most common of which is abstaining from meat. But that default was of little help to me, since I don’t eat meat on any days of the week already. And, as I tried out other practices, I kept running into the problem that my Fridays were too variable to keep the disciplines I was trying practical.

I had worked out something of a prayer routine before my baptism, but, two months later, I moved to California for a job, and promptly lost my routines for Divine Office and the Rosary when my schedule changed. Suddenly my commute was too short for Morning Office, and I didn’t know where to stick prayer when I didn’t have dead time to fill. Not to mention, working at a start-up played merry hob with my hours. It wasn’t that I was working a truly unreasonable number of hours, but that the hours fell at such unpredictable times it was hard to set up any non-work routines.

I was, ironically, working as a cognitive science teacher and curriculum developer, so, while I was struggling with a prayer routine, I was designing and teaching classes on heuristics and habits. I tried to draw from the material I was teaching to find a way back into regular prayer.

I started by trying to find a religious equivalent of trigger —> action schema for installing habits that I was teaching. I decided that, every time I thought about prayer, in any context (“When should I pray?”, “I suck for not praying!”, “A character in a book prayed.”), I would say a Hail Mary. It was short and specific enough to be actionable, and had the advantage of turning my worrying about praying into a cue to pray, instead of recrimination.

I tried to worry less about whether I was in a position to do my best prayer. God isn’t supposed to be kept waiting in an antechamber, while I prepare myself to be my best. If that’s how I manage prayer, then I’m implicitly saying that God is only welcome in the organized parts of my life, and it’s for me, not Him, to patch us the disorganized sections. Still, I had, more than once, picked up my phone to open the Breviary app, and then put it down because I was too tired or too preoccupied to do justice to dialogue with God. But, after I resolved to stop making the great the enemy of the good, I did more prayer, even if it was often less successful.

As a result, I slightly scandalized an Orthodox friend when I mentioned that I sometimes fall asleep while saying the Rosary. “How on earth do you manage that?” she asked. “What are you doing while you’re praying?” I replied that, in these cases, I’m usually lying in bed, tucked into the covers, right before falling asleep. She was incredulous.

But I think I’ve benefited from trying not to make excuses that I’m too tired or busy to pray. It’s certainly the case that I might be too tired to pray well, but I’ve got enough strength to open the line. And there’s something of the programmer in me that likes the idea of falling asleep during prayer. If I haven’t closed the parenthesis, the loop must still be running until I wake up and have the chance to pick it up again.

When I fall asleep while praying, it almost seems like sleep is something happening between moments of prayer, instead of squeezing prayer into moments between sleeping and working and reading. The more that I find ways to inject even short prayers into the day, the more it feels like prayer is undergirding everything else that’s happening in my day, the primer for the canvas of my day.

Part of the goal of prayer, as I understand it, is to keep drawing my attention back to God and to His attention on me. The more God is inbreaking on my attention, the more the pattern of my life naturally adjusts in response. If I’ve just paused for a quick Glory Be, when I turn back to my work, I’m more likely to pause and decide whether I really need to click on the Buzzfeed link that’s just turned up in my feed. If I notice I don’t want to pray because the juxtaposition between a Hail Mary and whatever I was just doing is too jarring, maybe I’ll avoid that activity next time it presents itself.

Prayer has the power to sanctify every part of my life, as long as I give it the opportunity to put down roots and grow. As I’ve been cultivating my prayer life, I’ve worried less about finding the right prayer rule, or finally manage to go a whole week saying grace at every dinner. Instead, I’m trying to leave a little crack, everywhere I have the opportunity, so that the light can get through.

Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco works as a news writer at FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012. Arriving at Amen, her first book, will be published in Spring 2015.