By Jim Forest We live in what may be the busiest, noisiest, and most distracted society in human history, factors which make prayer much harder. Here are a few suggestions that come from my own experiences of coping with noise, busy-ness, and interruptions while trying to become more prayerful. Perhaps one or two may be helpful to you.
A less tidy life: "It's too much for me. I always feel at my wit's end, exhausted, irritable, and don't even want to pray." This is what a woman with a large family told Dorothy Day about her effort to maintain an immaculate, well-ordered house, meet everyone's needs, while at the same time taking in homeless people. She asked in desperation, "What can I do?" Dorothy's response was simple: "Lower your standards." We will not be asked at the Last Judgment how tidy we were. Not that it doesn't matter, but it matters less than we usually think. It may be that no one is more to blame than ourselves for our being exhausted and feeling we don't have enough time for really important things. Minimal rather than maximal tidiness might be good not only for our prayer life but for a more responsive, attentive life in general.
Move the TV: In this time of acute sensitivity to various addictions, among the addictions least mentioned is television watching. Many homes center on the TV. In our own home there have been years of stuggle about television—countless arguments with our kids about what they watch, and a more hidden struggle for Nancy and me about putting the brakes on our own watching. A corner was turned for us a year ago last Christmas when we moved the TV out of the living room. Now the kids, the main viewers, watch TV in our bedroom, and Nancy and I watch what we want to as well, but all of us watch much less than we did when the TV was in the living room. Our living room is a different place: quieter and more restful. All of us do more reading than we did a couple of years ago, and there is more conversation (and less argument) in the house. It has made the house easier to pray in.
Prayer during chores: Still there are dishes to wash, floors to clean, and many other repetitive chores. Experiment with simple prayers while doing what is often regarded as boring activity. I still treasure the advice I once got from Thay Nhat Hanh: "Wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus." Tacked to the window above our kitchen sink is this reminder from Brother Lawrence: "The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament."
The little way: Here is one of my favorite quotations from Dorothy Day: "Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience, and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens in these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very litde way." Prayerful people are capable of taking the present moment so much to heart that they don't even realize they have let go of those preoccupations that often make the people and objects around them seem ghostlike. Our prayer life has much to do with what we do with the details of life, the in-between moments. It has to do with the spirit in which we listen to others and see them, and the way we respond to interruptions and unexpected events.
Jim Forest, former General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, is Director of Peace News Service and author of books on Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and others. He lives in the Netherlands.