By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment…But we cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times.
– Catechism of the Catholic Church 
“So, I just FOIL this, even though it has derivatives?” the student in my office said puzzled aloud. I assured her that the mnemonic she learned in high school for multiplying polynomials – first, outer, inner, last – would serve her just as well in this more sophisticated setting.
The class I am teaching this fall, physical chemistry, is thought by many students to be the make or break moment of their chemistry major.
It’s not the complicated math or the intricate details of molecular structure that they struggle with, it’s figuring out how to think like a mathematician and a chemist at the same time – to balance the real and the practical against the theoretical and philosophical. It’s easier to hold onto and keep track of what they know when it’s captured in small packets – a handy collection of mnemonics and maxims, like FOIL and “Do as you ‘oughta,’ add acid to water.”
I’m sympathetic. I, too, am trying to reconcile the practical with the transcendent. How can I make sure the cat gets fed, those forms for taking the SAT are filled out and office hours get held while still praying at all times – or even at specific times? The breadth of things requiring my attention some days makes me long for mnemonics of my own, straightforward signposts to direct me back to where I should be – animated by prayer, not my to-do list.
Recently Jesuit scholastic Joseph Koczera’s blog pointed me to 10 maxims on prayer [http://tinyurl.com/24wdqe6], sifted from the ageless wisdom of the Church by another blogger on the far side of the world. Wei Hsein’s pithy yet pointed list [http://tinyurl.com/2cdm367] starts with “The essentials: pray in the morning and before you go to bed.” It ends with the reminder from the Catechism that my prayer life grows best from seeds intentionally planted in my calendar, not scattered haphazardly as I careen through my day: “We cannot pray ‘at all times’ if we do not pray at specific times.”
Like one of my students allowed a few precious notes on a three by five card for an exam, I pondered what maxims on prayer I might choose for my crib sheet. What am I most at risk of forgetting?
Be at home with prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s advice is a good prod, “Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the inmost self.” I dwell in God and God in me, this is where to start.
Don’t try to carry on two conversations at the same time. St. Augustine, writing to the widow Proba, who had asked for his advice about prayer, reminded her that “multiplied words are one thing, long-continued warmth of desire is another.” I can lecture to my students about quantum mechanics (or my teens about unfinished household chores) and simultaneously let my heart wordlessly express its desire to be with God.
Simply listen. Mary Oliver’s poem “Praying” eloquently argues for leaving elaborate words behind, “this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice can speak.” Enough said.
Though I need no reminder to give voice to the psalms, my favorite maxim is Wei Hsien’s paraphrase of the desert father Evagrius: “Pray the Psalms aloud; it makes the demons tremble.”
Perhaps the psalms can even tame the math that so bedevils my students?
When I go toward you
It is with my whole life.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Book of a Monastic Life,” I, 51
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.