THERE is a growing focus on prayer in many parts of the Church, and this is most encouraging. But how does one pray, especially in our highly stressed and feverishly frantic modern society? In one sense this problem is not new.
Even in the ancient world, when the early Church was just emerging, people did feel the need to give special attention to prayer. When the number of believers was increasing, and the list of things to be done kept growing, the apostles (“the Twelve”) wisely told the church to select additional ministers to assist them. Their reasoning: so that “we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word”. (Acts 6:4).
The apostles knew the importance of giving attention to prayer. Today, in the midst of hurried and distracted lives, we need, all the more, to rediscover that ancient wisdom. The problem is that the way we have been trained to function in the modern world, the way we have learned to cope juggling the increasing pieces of information and tasks coming our way, hinders giving undivided attention to prayer.
We have learned to multitask all the time. At any given time, we are doing a number of things: meeting people, answering phone calls, reading brochures, checking emails, and watching the clock for the next appointment.
This may help us manage our harassed and rushed lifestyles, but the downside is that we may be rapidly forgetting how to give full attention to any one thing.
We cannot pray while multitasking. You cannot be on multitasking mode and hope to have any deep experience of prayer, as Trevor Lee has pointed out. It will be like the conversation of two people that is frequently interrupted by the ringing of the mobile phone, and worse, when they keep answering the phone. You cannot have a deep and engaging conversation this way.
Likewise, in prayer. We are in the season of Lent, a 40-day period in the church year that has been observed by the Church since its earliest days. Lent is a time to give undivided attention to things that matter. Traditionally, it has been a time set aside for some important spiritual disciplines – such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We now have an opportunity again to give special attention to these holy habits that face the threat of becoming submerged in a restless sea of busy and ultimately meaningless activities and pursuits.
A time to give attention Single-hearted prayer helps us to find our way back to God, or rather, it helps God to touch us deeply. We need to pray with the psalmist, “Give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.” (Ps. 86:11). An undivided heart is a gift from God, a gift that helps us to leave aside our clever multitasking selves, and pay total attention to God – His majestic glory, pure holiness, wise truth, compassionate mercy, transforming grace, eternal purposes, and righteous ways. With an undivided heart, we can set aside our obsessions with efficiency, success, management, techniques, and tools, and let God speak to us His word of truth and touch us with His Father’s love.
To go to God with an undivided heart and to pray a single-hearted and sincere prayer, is to show that there is othing, and no one, more important to us than the One who created us, died for us on the cross, and loves us with an undying love. Such undistracted prayer does not come easily for multitasking people. We do well to heed C. S. Lewis’ godly advice: The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.
Fasting is another Lenten spiritual discipline. This is an ancient discipline practised by our Lord Himself. Remember His 40 days of fasting and testing in the wilderness (Mt. 4:1-2)?
To fast is to remind ourselves that “man does not live on bread alone,” that we are sustained by something more than what this world offers. Fasting also helps us to probe what lies deep within us, for as physical hunger emerges, we also come face to face with the addictions in our lives. We face the things that drive us and dominate our lives.
These addictions are more than cravings for our favourite foods. They also have to do with other forms of bondage such as our addiction to speech, activities, applause, possessions, success, and the like. Living busy and distracted lives, and drowning in a flash flood of information and tools, means that we may know less and less of ourselves. Our lives may be like the false ceiling that is painted over and decorated. The superficial trappings of one’s life may look impressive. But does he know what is going on beyond the cardboard covers?
We cannot grow into holiness with a multitasking approach. We need a more focused approach, one that gives undivided attention to matters of the heart and soul, to the sinfulness within us, and the fingerprints of divine grace on the tainted texture of our souls. In this way, God is allowed to probe our hearts and examine us – so that we can be healed and made whole and holy (Ps. 17:3; 139:23-24).
Almsgiving, or helping the poor, is the third spiritual discipline emphasised during Lent. It helps us to pay attention to others near us, especially those in need. A distracted, busy, multitasking, and self-absorbed person has no time for others. If there is any interaction, it is only superficial. Jesus, however, shows us how to truly live – when He had time for real people, and had real human conversations, and deeply touched the lives of people, even when they were part of the crowd.
It is quite impossible to follow Jesus closely when we are multitasking and distracted by things that have no eternal significance except that they distract us from our true journeys. If we are to follow Jesus, we have to regularly pay close and undivided attention to that which is ultimately important. These have to do with relationships – with God, our neighbours, and ourselves. It is time to find singleheartedness and clarity amid the modern clutter of our hastily-lived lives.