If you want to grow in prayer, work on virtue

We all have ups and downs in our prayer life. Sometimes we see obvious growth. Other times we might miss a day of prayer, then another, and find ourselves having to re-establish the habit. More often, however, we plateau. How can we keep growing in prayer?
St. Teresa of Avila, declared a doctor of the church for her teaching on prayer, addressed this question many times. Her answer might surprise us. Growth in prayer is closely connected with growth in virtue. If we recall that prayer is the means to intimacy with Christ, its connection with virtue makes more sense. We cannot grow in intimacy with someone we constantly oppose. Of course, very few people would establish a habit of prayer if they are constantly opposing God. But we typically hold back from him in many ways.
Here are some suggestions for growing in virtue that can also boost your prayer life:
1. Receive the sacrament of reconciliation once a month (or more). Frequent confession reminds us of our weaknesses and gives us the grace to overcome temptation.
2. Make a daily examination of conscience. We want to monitor our progress on the days between our monthly confessions to stay motivated.
3. Avoid the near occasion of sin. We promise to do this with every Act of Contrition, but do we really think it through? Start considering what leads you to sin. Is it late nights in front of the TV, going out with a certain group of friends, or surfing the net? Minimize these occasions of sin as much as you can.
4. Practice humility. In the book of her “Life,” St. Teresa calls humility the bread that goes with every kind of food. In other words, it must accompany all the virtues and all growth in prayer.
5. Do your duty well. Are you a married person? Serve your spouse and children. Do you work full time? Be a model employee. God works through our vocations and positions in life to bring us closer to himself.
6. Make little sacrifices. Choose one thing a day that you enjoy and give it up out of love for Christ. Start with something small, like drinking water instead of coffee. Making sacrifices trains our will to seek God over earthly pleasures. Then when temptation comes, we are better able to triumph.
St. Teresa writes in “Interior Castle,” “All that the beginner in prayer has to do – and you must not forget this, for it is very important – is to labor and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity with the will of God. As I shall say later, you may be quite sure that this comprises the very greatest perfection which can be attained on the spiritual road.”
Growth in prayer does not depend on just the 30 minutes a day we spend exclusively with God. As we let go of sin, we make space for God in our lives. We show that his desires are important to us. We respond to the grace he is offering us through our daily prayer practice. We take a step toward God. We can trust him to reciprocate, by drawing nearer to us.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of The Contemplative Rosary just released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.
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