How to Start (and Sustain) a New Prayer Practice
Historically, I have never had much of a prayer practice. I was accustomed to reciting prayers at mealtimes and seeking God’s support for special intentions. But outside of that, I had never created a space for personal prayer in my life.
This year, I challenged myself to finally do just that. I began with a daily prayer journal practice for the duration of Lent, followed by a promise to write about that experience for Grotto. I managed to complete the practice — slightly to my own surprise. I even chose to adapt and continue the practice in the months since. Here are my best tips for those who feel called to begin a daily prayer practice but don’t know where to start. Believe me: If I can do it, so can you.
Know your “why”
Just like a marathon signup can motivate runners to train even when they don’t feel like it, an end goal will motivate you to continue praying on busy days. Contemplate which qualities you hope the prayer practice will bring you. More quiet? More connection to God? More gratitude? More patience? An answer regarding a difficult decision? Less busyness?
Then imagine how your life will be different once you possess those qualities. Keep that vision in mind as a motivation. Consider taking stock each week to track your practice and its impact on your life.
I greatly benefited from the various checkpoints in my Lenten journal to stay motivated. These checkpoints reminded me why I began the prayer practice and renewed my commitment to it.
Use an existing prayer or resource
I am glad that I chose a prayer journal template when I began my practice so that I did not have to think about what to write or pray. That freed up my energy to focus on the practice. For those who want to use a pre-existing resource, many options abound. The Ignatian Examen is a format that helps you reflect on the joys and challenges of the day — it’s one of my favorite prayers. I also love the “Patient Trust” prayer of Teilhard de Chardin, which I have used in the past to remind myself to “trust in the slow work of God.” You may also use an app such as Hallow for prayer and mindfulness. The internet has great resources for downloadable prayer journal templates, too.
Make it easy to choose your practice
It will be easier to choose your new prayer practice above other distractions if the materials you need are easy to access. Bookmark your favorite guided meditations or prayers in your internet browser so that they are ready when you need them. Print out a copy of a particular prayer and tape it to your bedroom wall or mirror. I kept the Lent journal and a pen on my bedside table throughout my time with the Lenten journal practice. That made it easy for me to complete the journal immediately after waking up, instead of reaching for my phone and getting distracted by messages.
Create outside accountability
Outside accountability can be a great support to solidify your practice. Take on a prayer practice of your choice with a friend. Set a calendar date with your spouse or spiritual director to discuss what you’ve gained from your prayer. Join a weekly prayer circle.
Outside accountability can be particularly helpful at the start of a new habit. You are likely, over time, to reach a point where the benefits of your prayer practice become motivation enough. This was the case with my experience. My promise to write an article about my Lenten journal experience helped me to stay accountable in the beginning. Once I got in the habit and started seeing results, those benefits became their own motivation.
Stay flexible and realistic
Finally, make sure that your prayer practice goals are flexible and realistic. Create a goal to pray a few times a week rather than every day, if that feels more realistic. Allow your practice to change over time. It is okay to scrap your original plan and replace it with something that works better.
Be open to trying out other types of prayer, too. For example, vary the time that you pray each day. Attempt other modes of prayer, such as a walking meditation, imaginative prayer, listening to reflective music, writing in a prayer journal, reciting a rosary, or reading a daily reflection prompt.
I, too, adjusted my practice once I reached the official end of my Lenten prayer exercise. I replaced the daily Lenten journaling with a daily gratitude journaling practice, which I’ve been able to sustain in the past few months. Above all, find a prayer practice that you connect with and enjoy doing.
Prayer, like any new habit, takes time to build. Be patient with yourself. It’s not about being perfect — it’s about enjoying the process of building a connection with God and deepening your spiritual life. Congrats on getting started! Have fun exploring what works for you.