This election might have you praying for a swift death, or indeed the destruction of all life on Earth. I get that. I really, really get that. The campaign drives me insane, too. And when it does, I've found something to restore my sanity. I pray.
Now, I've always prayed. But recently, I've become more serious and deliberate about it. And it's changed my life.
I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, perhaps the oldest liturgical practice of the Catholic Church after Mass and the sacraments. Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles record the Apostles observing the Jewish custom of praying at the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day, the practice from which the Hours sprung. Although the Hours are associated with religious orders and priests, who all pray them, every Catholic can, and indeed is encouraged to, pray them. The Hours have been woven into the fabric of Catholic spirituality for centuries. In the Middle Ages, wealthy patrons ordered richly illustrated and embroidered Books of Hours, which are truly artistic masterpieces.
As the name suggests, the Hours split the day into blocks of several hours, each punctuated by a set of prayers. The Hours include hymns, Bible readings, and various prayers. But their heart, since their Jewish origins, have always been the Psalms.
There's no need to lead a monastic life to pray the Hours. I have them all on an app on my phone, and there is another app that pings me when I wake up, every three hours thereafter, and then when I go to bed. Praying each time takes but a few minutes. It's probably only half an hour over the day. In a way, it feels like "more" since it is woven throughout the day. But at the same time it is less demanding, since I never need the sort of 20-minute block that's hard to find when you have a job and a family. Paradoxically for a practice almost 2,000 years old, the Hours fit perfectly within the cracks of a hectic, modern life.
Countless people are anxious to feel profound experiences through prayer, or worry that their prayer experience is "dry" or feels pointless. It is indeed possible to have spiritual experiences through prayer, the great masters tell us, but that is not what matters. Instead, prayer should be pursued simply for itself, as an offering to God. And the way to know whether your prayer "works" is if it makes you more like Jesus or not.
I don't think I've ever "felt anything" while praying the Hours. But I have noticed that, slowly but surely, they are changing me.
The Hours seem to "sanctify the day." Because they are woven throughout the day, these frequent breaks do indeed give my everyday life a patina of holiness. Very often the Hours will feel like running commentary on what I'm experiencing at the moment. Indeed, they are meant to. A hymn for the noontime prayer will start with a line like, "The sun is high in the sky," anchoring me in the here and now and making me feel connected to creation and the universe. Prayer starts to feel more like a companion to everyday life, an added dimension to everything I do, rather than this block squeezed at some point in my day — in bed, on the subway — and disconnected from the rest of what I do.
"Pray without ceasing," the Apostle Paul admonishes his charges. With the Hours, I get closer to accomplishing that.
The Hours are also a great way to experience the Bible. The Bible is not so much a book as a library, a disparate collection of very different kinds of texts: history, myth, drama, poetry, letters, and more. But all these parts refer to each other, expand on each other, riff on each other, repeat each other. There's nothing wrong with reading the Bible like a book, but that was not how the first Christians experienced it. Instead, they experienced it liturgically, with those passages being like musical phrases that the liturgy wove together into a symphony. "The New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is hidden in the New," the great Christian teacher Augustine of Hippo once wrote. It's only by putting the right texts from one bit of the Bible next to the right texts from other bits of the Bible that we truly grasp their significance. That is what liturgical forms of prayer like the Mass and the Hours do.
But the most powerful thing about the Hours are the Psalms. These are passionate poems that speak to the most powerful emotions we can feel, from ecstatic joy to utter abandonment, terror, and despair. Whatever you're feeling, no matter how ugly or beautiful, the Psalmist has been there, and is there with you.
Like all great poetry, the Psalms work on several levels at once, and absorbing these levels is how we grow into Christian spirituality. Many Psalms, for example, talk about warfare, and even rejoicing in the death and destruction of one's enemies, something that, actually, Christianity doesn't encourage. But that's the point: These are metaphors about spiritual warfare, and the struggle against evil and sin. Portraying those in graphic, evocative language, which is meant to shock, works a bit like a Zen koan is supposed to do: By presenting cognitive dissonance, it shocks the mind out of its complacency and into a higher state. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than your pious certainties, the Psalms keep telling me.
What does that all work out to? Well, I can report that praying the Hours every day has not only made me feel closer to God, but also more peaceful and, I believe, ever so slightly more charitable on a day-to-day basis. Think that's not much? I think that's huge. There are no magic tricks or Get-Holy-Quick schemes. True spiritual growth takes a lifetime of discipline and halting self-surrender.
And a final point about the power of prayer. In the Catholic Church, one of the patron saints of missionaries is Saint Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite who almost never left her village and spent almost all her life as a reclusive nun, someone who never directly evangelized and who lived a life seemingly contrary to the life of a missionary. So why did the Church pick her as the patron saint of missionaries? Because she prayed for them.
To be a Christian is to believe that prayer can change the world — indeed, that it's the only thing that can. Look around at all the destruction, all the avoidable trauma, whether around us or on the front pages. What we need aren't better policies or humanitarian schemes, as important as those are. What we need is for all of us to be open to, and closer, to the divine spark within all of us, and to recognize it in each other. If a "career" as a political columnist has convinced me of anything, it's that politics can't save us. Prayer, on the other hand...