About a month ago, I begin working at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Not only was it a new job, it was a total career change. For about 9 years, I had been in the financial services industry working as a financial advisor. Although I enjoyed the opportunity, I decided it was the right time to make a change.
I expected the move to be a big change and a huge learning experience; however, other than that, I really didn’t know what to expect. I came in blind, open to wherever the new opportunity would take me. I anticipated that I would just figure it out as I went along but what I didn’t anticipate is the unexpected gift that is forming. Let me explain.
CUA shares a campus with The Basilica of The National Shrine of The Immaculate Conception. Whew, I know that’s a mouthful. Basically, the Shrine is the largest Catholic Church in the country and is an absolute treasure of the Church. In fact, on his famous visit to the U.S. last year, Pope Francis gave the canonization mass of Saint Junipero Serra on the grounds of the Shrine, which is essentially on the CUA campus as well. Really cool stuff.
Prior to starting at CUA, I wasn’t very familiar with The Shrine. On my first day of work, I realized that the Shrine is only a short 3 minute walk from my building. I quickly decided to do my best to visit and pray in it daily. Almost immediately, as I was wondering around the lower floor of the Shrine, I discovered the Crypt church and numerous Crypt chapels. What drew me instantly were my senses. They are visually beautiful, the incenses burning are very distinctive, and the acoustics are angelic.
Although it has only been a short time, my daily rosary routine in the Crypts of The Shrine has been powerfully fruitful. I have always struggled with knowing how to pray, what to pray for, and developing a routine. Thankfully, I have made bigger breakthroughs in the last few weeks, than I had in the last few years combined. This was totally unexpected, and I am optimistic that I can continue to build on this practice.
Maybe it’s the sensual appeal of The Shrine, maybe it’s working at CUA, or maybe it’s just a combination of timing and place. Whatever it is, I believe God is teaching me how to pray better, how to just relax into his presence. I am anything but a prayer guru nor do I intend for this post to be a comprehensive tutorial on prayer, I simply hope to share some of my recent experiences.
The first thing that has been helpful is to focus on my breathing. When I first start to pray, I am so self-absorbed and my mind is racing, ruminating over all the demands and anxieties of the day. Focusing on my breath, my inhale, exhale and the switchover between the two, has been amazing in helping me to relax, clear my mind and be present.
My goal here is to recognize God’s presence, to do my best to not think of anything and to trust God is there. I try to remember it is not about me grasping for God; rather, it’s about recognizing He is already there. As the Catechism teaches, God endlessly pursues us first and we need only to respond to His endless pursuit.
Another important practice that has helped is to not put so much importance on praying for what I need or want, at least not at first. In the past, my prayer was much more defined by my list of “asks” rather than trust and quality time. Now, I focus on trusting that God already knows what I need better than I can even articulate it. This has helped me to be less distracted and more peaceful during prayer, gazing more towards God instead of myself. If I do pray for anything specific, I typically wait until after my rosary is completed. Usually, doing this helps me to clearly prioritize specific intentions, and to identify the prayer within the prayer.
In a similar vein, as I am praying the rosary, as my mind pulls towards things that I think I need to ask for, I do my best to resist and to refocus myself back to my breathing. Coincidentally, usually by the third decade; instead, of having all these scattered and undeveloped “asks” of God, I can see more clearly what I need to pray for. I call this “the pray within the prayer.” For example, when I begin the rosary I might set out for help with all the obligations and responsibilities I sense that I need to fulfill. However, as I work myself through the rosary, I feel like rather than helping me to find a way to do everything, He gently reveals to me what matters most. What’s most important and what I am just spinning my wheels on. By the end of my time in prayer, I am typically focused on one thing for that day that I really need God’s help with.
In addition, to having a racing mind that endlessly seeks to distract me from prayer I also struggle with time. Either leading up to prayer or while I am praying, it is not uncommon for me to feel like I am just too busy with too many things going on to have time for pray. In the past, this impulse has caused me to either put off prayer altogether or to feel hurriedly distracted during prayer. More recently, I’ve worked on changing my distorted perception of time.
Even though I am busy (everyone is busy!), I have enough time for prayer. In fact, I don’t have enough time not to pray. A day, a year, my whole time on this earth is too short not to communicate regularly with God. I use to tell myself that I would develop a strong prayer routine when things slow down or when I have more time. What I now realize is that regular prayer time is a lot like saving money. If my savings strategy is to save whatever is left after all my bills and expenses are paid every month, I typically save very little or nothing at all. However, if I save first before a lot of my discretionary expenses, and build my budget around my savings goals, more gets saved. Prayer is similar, when I leave my prayer time up to chance, hoping I’ll have surplus time or energy, it typically doesn’t get done. I’m learning to give prayer priority time not surplus time. I’ve found that if I build it in as part of my routine, as a priority before other things, I am much more likely to get it done and to do it as best as I can.
When I am in prayer and I feel rushed, I try to remind myself that prayer determines time not the other way around. As Peter Kreeft writes in his article, Time, “We think time determines prayer, but prayer determines time. We think our lack of time is the cause of our lack of prayer, but our lack of prayer is the cause of our lack of time.” In my experience, this is true. As I have been developing a better prayer life, unexpectedly it seems like I have more time to get things done. After I walk out of The Shrine, sometimes it actually feels like time is slowing down. I know there is the same amount of time in the day as before; however, I believe God teaches me how to use it better when I spend part of my day with Him first.