(Sometime last year I posted a list of 55 Precepts for Christian Living by Fr. Thomas Hopko. I have seen the list circulated quite a bit since then and I recently came across the suggestion of journaling through each item on the list. I thought that was a wonderful suggestion and, as I considered doing it, I decided that I'd like to share some of my thoughts here.)
It seems to me that numbers 2 and 3 are tied together in a way:
2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
3. Have a keep-able rule of prayer done by discipline.
I think most of us are familiar with what it's like to impose things on ourselves that are more than we can actually bear, whether it be rules, expectations (both real and imagined), morality, responsibility or what have you. These self-imposed obligations have a tendency to become overwhelming and oppressive, leading to feelings of despair and helplessness. They can lead one into legalism and a false piety which can be dangerous steps down the path of pride.
So to say "pray as you can, not as you think you must", requires that I look closely at what is truly within my power and what is not. So often when I read about the lives of the Saints I imagine how wonderful it must be to be capable of such great feats of prayer as they are and I wish that I were in a place to emulate their lives more closely. However, the reality is that I am not in a situation in which I can spend hours at prayer. I have the responsibilities of a wife and homeschooling mom. I cannot shirk those duties in order to go pray just so that I can feel good about myself. That's pride, plain and simple. And it's foolish. I have been given responsibilities and I am called to fulfill them.
Since I do not have unlimited time for prayer I have to look at how much time I can actually set aside for prayer without wearing myself out with a long, drawn-out rule that makes me dread rather than welcome my prayer time.
The reality is that I am only able to do so much. There are a finite number of hours in each day and I can only fit into those hours what I am able to and no more. This actually ties right in to the third precept, "have a keep-able rule of prayer done by discipline". Because the hours in each day are limited, and because I have to make time for those things which are most important, it is necessary to be disciplined in all of my actions, including prayer.
It may sound like I am trying to find a way to box up my prayers and fit them neatly into a corner of the day so that I can check prayer off my list of things to do. I do not set aside x number of minutes for prayer and then go about the rest of the day without another thought for God (see post 1 in this series). But the discipline of having a time set aside for prayer is an essential thing, because if I don't make the time, then often it doesn't happen. Because the truth is that some times I simply don't feel like praying.
Sometimes I am distracted by other things.
Sometimes I am tired.
Sometimes I am angry.
Sometimes I am annoyed, or tired, or restless, or bored.
Sometimes I am not in the "mood" to pray. But if I can have the self-control it takes to dedicate a set time every day to prayer, then regardless of my current emotions I can still grow in my relationship with Christ. Because that's how relationships develop: they are built upon time spent together. It's really not possible to cultivate a deep relationship if one is not willing to dedicate the time it takes. What matters is that I set aside the time for prayer regardless of how I feel.
Sometimes the time spent together is wonderful and exhilarating. Other times it's more mundane and ho-hum. Sometimes it's difficult to be together, and other times it's wonderful. Sometimes it's comfortable, other times is very uncomfortable. But the feelings are not the important thing at all. What is important is that I keep the discipline and say the prayers.
I have to keep it real. I have to know my limits and accept them in order to work within them rather than against them. I must have a rule of prayer that I am able to keep regularly and without burning myself out and I must stick with it whether I feel like it or not.