Places to go, people to see, things to do. Life in 21st-century America is all about action, all about keeping busy. So how, in the midst of it all, do we do more than find time for God, but actually make time for God? How do we not just leave time for prayer, but make prayer our first priority each and every day?
Our Sunday Visitor recently put those questions to Bishop James Johnston of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo. Here’s what he had to say.
Our Sunday Visitor: What does the excuse that we’re too busy to pray say about our understanding of prayer?
Bishop James Johnston: When we say that, we’re saying other things in life are more valuable than prayer. I think that attitude is rooted in the American tendency to value activity over the interior life. It goes back to the old struggle between Martha and Mary. The Lord, of course, settled that debate, but Americans, by our nature, still tend to gravitate toward external actions. We’re all about doing and less about being, and prayer is very much about being. It’s about being with someone — the Lord.
OSV: Why is it important that we avoid that way of thinking and give God the time he asks for each day?
Bishop Johnston: Our lives are measured in time. So when we give someone our time, we’re giving them part of our lives. And that gift is what we were made for. God wants to give his divine life to us, and he wants us to give ourselves back to him. If we’re going to do that in eternity, in heaven, we need to get used to doing that in time. Also, remember what Jesus says: “I am the vine. You are the branches. Without me you can do nothing.” Prayer is the time when we allow the sap from the vine to flow into us. That’s crucial to our flourishing and growth as Christians.
OSV: How do we know how much time God wants us to spend with him?
Bishop Johnston: This may sound funny, but that’s something we resolve in prayer. God can help us with that question. It’s also a good idea to get the input of others. We all know someone at Church or work who has a healthy, sound, regular prayer life. Simply saying to them, “You have a busy life, tell me how you do it,” can be very helpful.
OSV: How do we guard our schedules so that our time with God never gets pushed to the back burner?
Bishop Johnston: If God is the most important part of our life, we begin with him rather than end with him. So many just give God the leftovers. We take care of all our other priorities, and if we have any time left we give it to God. But the Lord gives us everything — family, life, time — and calls us to give our best, our first fruits, back to him. So we need to first figure out when we’re going to spend time with God each day, then address other priorities after that.
OSV: When we give God the time for which he asks, how does that affect the rest of our time?
Bishop Johnston: Prayer, remember, is all about relationship. It’s an encounter with the Lord. And the Lord was famous for multiplication. We really are poor, especially when it comes to time. We don’t have a lot of it, but when we give Christ the little we have, it’s like the story of the loaves and fishes. We find ourselves with an abundance. We have more than we imagined. That’s because Christ changes us and helps us. He gives us strength and carries us, so that we find we’re no longer wrapped up in our frustrations and worries. That enables us to meet our responsibilities more completely.
OSV: What are some ways we can make more time for God?
Bishop Johnston: For one week, take an inventory of how you spend your day. Most people will be shocked at how much time they spend on things that aren’t crucial — checking email, looking for stories on the Internet, watching television. Focus on those times, times that have no obligation attached, and think how you can use them better. Can you pray a Rosary or take 15 minutes to read and pray over Scripture? Also, try praying some of the traditional prayers that mark the day, such as the Angelus at noon and 6. Those are little reminders to turn to God and give him our will as Mary did. A lot of these prayers can be done at convenient times, when we’re in the car and would otherwise just be listening to the radio.
A holy hour is also something that can be done when it’s most convenient. Taking an hour to pull away from the hectic pace of our lives and just be with Christ in a very privileged way can be very fruitful. And, of course, the more people can make it to daily Mass, the better. The Mass is the culmination of all the other prayers. It’s where our prayers should lead us.
OSV: Any other advice on making time for prayer?
Bishop Johnston: I recently heard another bishop say something that at first took me by surprise, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. He said, “When it comes to prayer, quality is not important, but quantity is.” Prayer, remember is a gift of our time, of ourselves, to God. And very often what we can give is quantity. We can give an hour or 15 minutes or a series of moments. What happens in those moments depends on his action, his grace. So we don’t need to worry about quality. We’re not the best judges of quality anyway. We just need to keep giving him our time and let him take care of the rest.