Better Prayer Through Calculus

When I was learning calculus, back in the dark ages, I remember having great difficulty grasping the very basic concept of “the slope of a point.” It sounded completely illogical, then and now. After all, didn’t Euclid define a point as having location, but not dimension (no length, width, or size). Without at least length, how can it have slope, which describes a direction (up, down, left, right, angled…)?

Well, calculus and its sloping points turn out to have lots of valuable uses. (I’d list them now if I could remember any.)

But I do recall the procedure for demonstrating and determining the slope of a point. It involves gradually vanishing “limits”.  A limit (if I remember correctly, or even approximately) is the slope or angle of the smallest possible section of a graphed curve in the area of the point in question. You start with one inch on either side of the point, and measure the slope of that two-inch line between them. Then you repeat the process with half that distance, then keep halving it. Eventually, the series of those slope-measurements closes in on the slope of the particular point. Voila! Cool, no?

(Well, anyway, that’s how I remember it.  If I have gotten it wrong, I hope some helpful mathematician or engineer or calculist will write a comment straightening me out.  I’d hate to misinform my faithful readers.)

I said above that this all has many valuable uses, which I knew once long ago. But I have recently found a new one, for my prayer life.

Prayer takes place in time. We sing of the “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” We recite prescribed prayers (Ave, Our Father, Memorare, the Rosary, etc.); these prayers are of definite length in words spoken and therefore in time.  Monks and nuns pray at specific times throughout the day.

But this implies that the rest of our time is spent in non-prayer. Many of us seek to increase our time spent in prayer. Extending prayer time of course reduces our non-prayer time. But is there another way to increase prayer by converting non-prayer time into prayer time (NPT into PT, as it were)?

The calculus offers just this conversion, through reducing some prayers in length, seeking the minimum time.  Here is my example.

I tend to start all my prayers with thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to the Lord for my life full of His blessings. It just seems the natural place to start. If I had more complaints, it might be harder; but in my case, “Thank You, Lord” is most often my first thought. I run through my list of blessings: this day and moment, the time to finally seek Him, my loving wife, daughter and family, and the time to complete my slow-motion search for God.

My next thought is to beg His forgiveness for my lifetime of misusing His blessings in one sinful way after another. Then I ask for His guidance in the remaining time He is giving me. Then I ask His help for my loved ones suffering and in need of relief.

But this prayer, with so many blessings, can take quite a while. The calculus suggests that I shorten it, and I do. The end result surprised me when I first got to the final shortening, and said it out loud. “Thank You, Lord.” That was it.  My distilled essence of prayer (to mix chemical and mathematical metaphors.)

Amazingly, this “TYL” prayer only takes one second to pray.   This might seem like an easy out, a lazy man’s prayer, and a cheap grace. After all, it leaves out a lot: begging God’s mercy, seeking His guidance, and especially asking that He help those in need.

But what it lacks in completeness it makes up for (I hope) in frequency. I say it often: when I stop to admire a beautiful tree or flower in my garden, when I look into my lovely wife’s smiling face, when I hear beautiful music, or watch a colorful sunset.

And I find it becomes a habit even at less beautiful moments. When I groan from my aching joints as I rise from some difficult handyman job, I say “Thank you, Lord, that I can still do a job like this at my age.”

And the more I say my TYL prayer, the more blessings I notice.

It may sound strange (i.e., stupid) to say that shortening my prayers somehow increases my prayer time.  But I think it does.  Of course, I still say longer prayers in the morning and evening. (My blessings and my sins deserve detailed attention.)  But I also find the results of my TYL to be far longer-lasting than the prayer itself.   By thanking Him I remind myself that He walks with me always, and that I must remember to walk humbly with Him. I can sometimes  slip into a kind of prayerful attitude. It doesn’t last forever. But I hope that in time it will.

I have written elsewhere about this “Sacred Second” being remarkably similar to the length of my heartbeat.   I hope eventually to make my prayerful attitude as continual as my heartbeat, until that heart stops, and I can say TYL face-to-face.

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