When we join the Urban Abbey, we commit to following a Rule of Life that has four components: (1) Pray daily; (2) Study scripture; (3) Serve others; and (4) Show fellowship. Notice that while all four of these components of the Rule are important and integral parts of our life in the Abbey, only the first states specifically how often it should be done: pray daily. It doesn’t say “pray once a week in church,” or “pray when you remember to,” or even “pray if you feel like it.” It says pray daily.
In many ways, life in the Urban Abbey is much harder than it is for members of traditional spiritual communities that live together, since the personal discipline required to follow the Rule can be much greater. When we live in a community and all we have to do is roll out of bed and go to chapel at the appointed time, it is hard to not pray daily. Prayer simply happens in a monastery and the community member need only show up as the rhythm of regular, ongoing prayer goes on around them. We get a taste of how supportive this external schedule can be in our community meetings and retreats. At these community events, the Daily Office is used to structure our time together and provide prayer opportunities that busy Abbey members may not always be able to find space for in their daily lives.
And, yet, we have all committed to following the Rule of Life and the first part of this Rule says we will pray daily. What is a busy Abbey member to do? Don’t those people who thought up this Rule know that mornings are very busy and we have to get to work, get the kids to school, attend a very important meeting? And, yes, we understand that morning prayer is not specified – daily prayer can occur in the evening, but then there’s dinner, going to the gym, and more important meetings. Maybe even church committee meetings! Doesn’t that count?
Well, no, it doesn’t count. All of these activities are important and worthy of our time, but none will feed us the way daily prayer will. When we skip this most important of daily activities we deny ourselves the spiritual food that we need to sustain all our other important life activities. If you pray daily you will be amazed at how much more you have to give to your work, your kids and all those people you go to meetings with.
Several years ago, after I had a serious accident requiring major surgery (some of you remember this!) followed by a diagnosis of an unrelated but equally serious illness requiring daily medication, I came to my senses and realized I needed to start paying attention to my body. Daily. I had been an on-again, off-again yoga student for years and had heard one teacher after another say “You will never experience the power of yoga until you establish your own daily practice.” So, I decided that I would try.
I got up a half hour earlier each day, spread out my mat and sat there trying to remember how to do the poses. It was hard without my teacher nearby, so I got books, which I glanced at often, sometimes from an upside-down position, and I kept at it. Every day. I had heard that it takes 30 or 40 days before a repeated activity becomes a habit, so each day that I got out my mat and got down on the floor, I put a check mark on my calendar.
Then, one day, after several successful weeks, I slept through my alarm and in my hurry to get to work and some important meeting (that I now remember nothing about) I skipped my yoga practice. I felt off all day. I was distracted, annoyed by everybody and everything. I didn’t make the connection until I glanced at my calendar and saw the evidence of missing my daily practice: the coveted check mark was not there for that day. And I suddenly knew I’d been provided an important lesson in establishing a daily practice: do it every day and soon you will find you cannot live without it.
To establish a daily practice, we need to give ourselves a specific assignment, and it needs to be realistic. If you have only 5 minutes to give to prayer, try saying the Lord’s prayer or (my favorite) choose one of the “Daily Devotions” in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP, pp. 136-140; see online version http://vidicon.dandello.net/bocp/). And, remember: prayer can take many forms and it isn’t always necessary to pray with our lips, using words. An early morning walk or run might be your way of praying. Our own presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is featured on the Runners World website http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-369-374--12358-2-1-2,00.html describing her regular practice of running as a form of “body prayer.”
My own current practice involves (as you can surely guess by now) twenty minutes of yoga followed by either p. 137 in the BCP or one of a selection of prayers I’ve collected over the years and keep in an old tea box, but it also involves writing. I use a spiral notebook and I write to God. (This morning, I received this message as I wrote: “Teach them the importance of a daily practice.”) For me, a writer, it works. You may benefit from a different way of praying.
Praying daily doesn’t need to consume a lot of time, but what it does need is regular attention. You should pray every day and it may help you, as it did me, to keep track. You might try getting a package of sticky gold stars from the craft store and giving yourself one on your calendar for each day you say your prayers. We all loved getting those stars when we were kids, and you might be surprised how motivating they still are.
Find a daily practice that works for you and stick with it for 40 days. Every day you do your practice, give yourself a gold star or a check mark on your calendar. If, in 40 days, you feel no difference in your life, this may mean you need to change something about your practice. Find a prayer practice that feeds you. Your way of praying may be different from mine or the next person’s, but there will be one that works for you and you will find it. And when you do, your life will be improved in ways you would never have predicted.
Raima Larter, Abbess, Urban Abbey