ONE of the functions of a spiritual director is to help an individual develop, review and maintain a rule of prayer. ‘Rule’ is perhaps too legalistic a term; it is sometimes more helpful to think in terms of patterns. It is increasingly the case that the pattern of modern work life and the demands of family life militate against regularity in any of the main Christian religious disciplines. An obvious example of this is the change in the use of Sunday in recent times. This has led to very individual patterns of worship; and some people have to be very ingenious in order to make their communion regularly!

It is an absolute essential for each person to be totally realistic before creating a pattern or rule for private prayer and public worship. It is an inevitable disaster when a person makes a commitment to attend daily mass ignoring the fact that two or three days a week domestic commitments will make it damn near impossible. The failures to match such worthy aspirations have a depressing effect arising from a sense of inadequacy and failure. All this is unnecessary. My advice is to start where one can.

There are, I think, a few minimum requirements for a person who is called to a life of Christian prayer. (Anyone reading this who senses a desire to do something about his or her prayer life is indeed experiencing a vocation prompted by the Holy Spirit). The first is to make a commitment to set aside at least fifteen consecutive minutes a day. Bishop Michael Ramsay thought that ten minutes of wilfully being in the presence of God was a good start – but I think that extra five minutes does make the difference between a time of prayer and a few ‘snatched’ minutes. Having made the commitment it is important to keep the whole time. It is sometimes the case that the last minute or the last few seconds are the really ‘fruitful’ time.

It is very difficult to say what time of the day is best for this prayer or quiet time. Most people do find that mornings are most helpful. But some people are owls rather than larks. Often different days of the week present different windows of opportunity. This is where it is helpful to talk over the practicalities of the day and the week. There is no use in being too precious about a pattern of prayer. It is important to take a full account of the different dynamics of work days and weekends, of family commitments or physical factors – particularly health issues.

It often helps to think of a prayer time as a job of work. This helps to be workmanlike about it. It demands forward planning, diaries or calendars, watches and alarm clocks. Having worked out a daily pattern it vital to have a good run at it (eight to ten weeks). It is a fact that a person who takes up the invitation to pray will experience new tensions in daily life and in relationships. Even the most tentative first steps in a regular, disciplined prayer life will have a felt effect in every area of life. It really does leaven the whole daily bread. It is as well to be warned that this is often the case. The offering of such a time to God is a great and generous act of faith. As James wrote, ‘if you draw nearer to God, he will draw nearer to you.’ This does not always make for an easy time, but it does make for a life fully lived rather than one of superficial existence.