Prayer for me has always been a struggle. I guess I’m not unusual. Like so many of us, I either fall asleep or my mind wanders off in a million different directions. And later, I seldom remember much.
What Works Is Better Than What Doesn’t…Who Knew?
When I first read of Ignatian prayer as described by Fr. James Martin in his popular book A Jesuit’s Guide to (Almost) Everything, I began to feel liberated to try other ways to have conversations with God…to pray. When later, I re-read Brother Lawrence’s letters and conversations I decided that however I manage to communicate with God…to feel His presence…is better than continuing with a method that isn’t working.
Maybe, at some later point in my growth, I’ll be evolved enough to pray more conventionally without losing focus. But for now, I opted to work with what works for me.
If my method bears similarity to an Ignatian Spiritual Examen, where you step through a series of prayerful reflections, there’s a reason…I lifted what I could remember from F. Martin’s description (without going back to the book and following it step by step…I admit to being kind of lazy about many things) and I just started right there where I was…mentally, physically, spiritually.
So, here goes…I feel like many are going to think this is just too…what, something?…too non-contemplative…too tehcno. [Editor Angel: Ok, enough procrastinating already!!]
Instead of a solely mental reflection, I type (keyboard) my thoughts as they occur to me into a computer file.
I’m wincing as I write this, anticipating everyone’s skepticism. I can feel your groans of dissent out there. But stay with me just for a minute.
Keyboarding Your Prayers
It’s true, I do start with some advantages. The main one possibly is that my loving mother insisted that I learn secretarial skills at a VERY early age…”in the unlikely and unfortunate event, dear, that you have to support yourself someday,” as she would say to me. (Say her words to yourself with just the softest southern accent and it’ll give you a more complete picture.)
Before leaving high school, I could type accurate copy at between 100 and 120 words per minute with my hands covered (so I couldn’t see the keyboard). When computer keyboards came along my speeds increased and when I’m keying my own thoughts I can fly, it seems, with my eyes closed.
But these skills aren’t necessary, one. And, two, they are learnable, like most everything else.
Choosing Your Computer Software
I use an Excel Workbook. Using the Table function in Microsoft Word or other writing software probably works too. But, I’m familiar with Excel and it has a more stable platform for large tabular files. As well, Excel allows me to file all my reflections and prayers by time period and add to the file, as much or as often as I want.
Technical Note: I copy and paste the date and column headings above each new day’s prayers. After updating the date and scrolling the page so that the column headings are as far up on the screen as possible, I put my cursor in cell A3 (right under “thank you for”) and freeze the sheet (go to Window on the main Excel ribbon and click “Freeze Panes” on the pull-down menu). This allows your headings to stay with you wherever you’re typing, rather than having to scroll up and down, to figure out which column you’re in.
Formatting Your File
My file looks like this:
I’ve named the Workbook file “Count Your Blessings-2014.” I have a similar file for 2013. And I’ll start a new one when we reach 2015.
Each month of the year is separated into its own worksheet. You can see that there are 12 worksheet tabs at the bottom of the page — January through December. You can have as many worksheet tabs as you want…or as few.
Formatting Your Monthly Prayer Categories
In the first row, first column (upper left corner), I’ve entered a reminder myself to begin by first asking God to join me and to bless our time together. As an aspiring Catholic (which is to say a cradle Anglican who’s trying to go home), I cross myself to further affix my efforts to my devotion for God.
I then tab over one cell and type in the current date.
On the next row down I enter my broad categories of prayer into successive columns.
1. Give Thanks
Although I started with the Ignatian Examen categories for reflection, I found that when I give thanks for some good thing that has happened during my day, I will eventually think of something in the same context about which I want to ask forgiveness (I’m growing into a Catholic stereotype…guilt in all things) — either I should have acted sooner or trusted God more fully or been less fearful.
2. Ask Forgiveness
So in my sequence of praying, it feels more comforting to move directly to ask for forgiveness. Granted this could be a function of my age and diminishing ability to remember anything longer than a few seconds. But, for me, it seems to be all of a piece.
3. Ask for God’s Help
Then upon asking forgiveness, I often end up considering how I want to change and to act better in the future. This then makes me want to move to a new category of prayer within the same subject to ask for God’s help in the future.
4. Ask for God’s Blessing
Finally, I often want to ask for His blessing of others…yet a fourth category on the same general topic.
Maybe an example is in order.
Let’s take something simple like giving thanks for my daughter’s new job.
First, in the far left cell, I give thanks as I recall all the wonderful graces and joy that we shared with her in hearing the good news of her job offer.
Second, I remember that along the way to learning of her job offer, I gave into impatience and frustration, making the wait for our daughter more stressful than it already was. So I tab to the right and type my prayer for forgiveness;
And third, I tab to the right again and pray that our Father help me be more patient in the future, or at a very minimum to keep my big mouth shut so I don’t make a stressful situation worse for others.
Fourth, when I reflect again on the joy and feelings of thankfulness for her new job, I tab to the right again to pray that Our Father blesses our daughter in her new position; to help strengthen her in patience, wisdom, energy and skill.
That’s all part of and on the same row as the first prayer for thanks.
Another technical aside: I select the whole worksheet and click on “wrap text” up in the formatting toolbar. This function can also be found under the Format/Cell/Alignment on the drop-down menu in Excel. Using this function causes the size of each cell to expand to accommodate any amount of text you might need. As you know by now, I can go on and on. Some of my cells are very big by the time I’m done.
After exhausting the first conversation about something for which I’m thankful, I move on to the next and the next after that. These can be long and detailed, or short and sweet. There’s very little about this method that is ‘a must-do,’ besides showing up.
It other situations I might want to first pray for someone who is suffering or ask a blessing for myself or for someone else, without it being associated with a prayer of thanks. It’s okay. There’s nothing about this method that is cast in stone — not the categories or prayers, not the sequence, or the layout.
The same thing could be accomplished in a handwritten journal. I’ve used them in the past for prayers. And for many, this is probably a more comfortable vehicle. Writing almost requires that we slow our thought processes and function in a more contemplative way. Too, there’s something comforting and almost sensual about the act of writing that I still enjoy.
There’s very little about this method that is ‘a must-do,’
besides showing up.
And yet, this process has its advantages. I have been typing …or keyboarding… for so many years that I barely have the patience anymore with writing (I won’t bother going into the gradual arthritis that makes my hands ache when I over use them).
My experience tells me our minds actually do process thoughts faster than we can write and it can be frustrating. When I type and can keep up better with my thoughts.
As well, I have a nice tidy (kind of), space-saving computer file, which means I don’t have to go find the journal (wherever it’s gone off to) when I want to add more or re-read something from the past.
There have been times that I needed so desperately to write down my thoughts about something, that I’d go to whatever piece of paper I could find. The final product of this mess would be scrapes of paper here and there, partially filled tablets of prayers, interspersed with shopping lists, recipes, to-do lists…you get the idea.
Not so with a computer file. At the end of the day this format allows me to have all my stuff all in one place, filed neatly by time period.
More important, though, is that, as I engage in actively documenting my prayers…my communications with God…I don’t go to asleep and my mind doesn’t wander.
I will often stop and shut my eyes and just reflect on what I’m saying, consider how I want to describe a particular situation…feel God’s presence with me. I’m pretty sure He doesn’t much care how I get the job done of communicating with Him.
In these times I have a sense of comfort or revelation or conviction about some issue of concern. I’ve felt Him offer answers to my prayers. A couple of times it has even felt as though He has literally taken over my hands, as He suggests answers and thoughts for me to consider.
After working for nearly 35 years on a computer (and in more recent decades with email) I have learned to ignore the distractions. I either turn my email off or I alter the send/receive function to only retrieve new mail every 15 to 30 minutes. This is a huge help. If I need to get mail more frequently, I can always retrieve it manually.
I’m sure there are other distractions — internet browsing, gaming, the stock market, whatever — these have never been much of an issue for me. If they are for you, there are surely some Lenten exercises that would be helpful for gaining control over those attractive nuisances.
You Be The Judge
This method has been an incredible aid to me. I avoided for months sitting down and describing it, using any number of excuses and denials — others might not like to keyboard, I argued; they may not approve; some may not find it helpful. But, I kept getting those prodding sensations saying, “sit down, tell others about this, quit procrastinating.”
Most may not benefit, but some may. Yours is not to question God’s direction; just do it.
So, on that basis, I offer it here for your consideration. You be the judge. Let me know what you think.
If you try it, let me know how it works for you, what changes you’d make for your time in prayerful computing.