Dear Father John, I am a busy executive and struggle to make time for prayer. What should I do? I do want to improve my prayer life but I just struggle with time.
The desire to improve your prayer life is a sign of God’s presence and action in your soul. Be grateful for it and rest assured that God, “who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion…” (Phil 1:6). In other words, as you make the effort, God will guide you (he already is). Trust in that. Then consider four other points:
1. Beware of Perfectionism: Sometimes our desire for perfection is the enemy of progress. For instance, in the spiritual enthusiasm following a good retreat, we can often make unrealistic resolutions, e.g. “I am going to spend a full hour every day in meditative prayer,” or “I am going to pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours before I go to work.” Over-achievers especially struggle with this tendency. Instead of being satisfied with a moderate work out three times a week they feel they are not living up to their potential unless they cram in six hour-long workouts every week – as if they were still training for elite track meets instead of raising a family and running a business. With that attitude, they never get regular exercise at all; their unrealistic ideal of perfection keeps them from the basic maintenance work out that they really need. So, ask yourself: am I being unrealistic in my expectations for what constitutes a healthy amount of time for prayer, considering my life-situation?
2. Consistency, Consistency, Consistency: Work on quality and regularity rather than quantity. It is probably realistic to take ten minutes a day to speak heart-to-heart with Christ. Choose the same ten-minute slot each day, as best you can. Then add in another daily prayer commitment – maybe a decade of the Rosary on the drive home, or a 2-minute stop at the statue of Mary in the Parish parking lot before you pull into your driveway, or five minutes thanking God for the blessings of the day before you go to sleep (this is a beautiful prayer to pray together with your spouse). Along with your daily prayer commitment, have another one each week – a holy hour (or a holy half-hour), a family Rosary on Saturday evening, arriving 15 minutes early for Sunday Mass, one extra Mass each week (maybe during your lunch hour on Thursday)… Then add something extra for each liturgical season: a family visit to a nearby Marian shrine in the Easter Season, a morning of reflection during Advent, a retreat during Lent… Once you have identified reasonable commitments, do your best to stick to them. Keep track of you how do, and at the end of each month, adjust them – adding or subtracting commitments, increasing or decreasing time, as necessary. Remember, these are commitments you are making to Christ, and he knows your schedule, so if you’re simply making a decent effort to stay united to him, you will be growing and he will be pleased. It’s an ongoing thing.
3. Find Good Resources: One of the biggest obstacles to growth in prayer is not knowing what to do once we actually get to our prayer time. Busy people need a good resource to help focus their attention on Christ. The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer was designed to be exactly that, a resource to help busy, active people go deeper in their prayer life. My own Order produces daily meditation guides distributed by email. Keep looking for material that helps you connect quickly and deeply with Christ, and that fits into your scheduled prayer commitments. Ask around, try different things… Prayer is like walking: we all follow the same basic principles when we do it, but we each do so in a very personalized way.
4. Work as Worship: Turn your work into prayer. Remember that the goal of our prayer is to know, love, and follow Christ better and better. There is not meant to be a Maginot Line separating our prayer and our life activities. As the Catechism says, “we pray as we live, because we live as we pray” (#2752). Pursue excellence at work as a way of glorifying God and helping your neighbors; treat your peers and employees as Christ would treat them; make all that you do an offering to God; live virtue in the midst of temptations as a way of “glorifying God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20)… Striving to make all your work, hobbies, family responsibilities, and relationships into the “aroma of Christ for God” (2 Corinthians 2:15) is in itself a prayer pleasing to God. It helps live more and more in Christ’s presence, bringing prayer and life closer together (though it never eliminates the need to dedicate time exclusively to God in prayer).
Much more could be said, but the key thing is just to keep trying to improve. Don’t think you’ll find the perfect formula – there is no such thing. It’s a question of constancy and perseverance in our efforts, all the while trusting that God is always guiding us.