by Jeanette Amestoy Flood
Expecting to get by spiritually without prayer is like planting a sapling in your cellar and expecting it to survive without light or water. Prayer provides the sun and rain that our souls absolutely need to live and grow. Artificial light and watering by hand might work with a plant, but for the soul there is no real substitute for prayer. Of course, we try all kinds of substitutes entertainment, food, romance, vacations, etc. all good things, but merely gifts and no replacement for the Giver. The soul can’t thrive if it’s stored away in the basement of our being: it needs to be exposed to the Son.
As Saint John Chrysostom put it: “It is simply impossible to lead, without the aid of prayer, a virtuous life.”
Prayer = Love
Everything is a gift from God. Anything we try to give to our Creator, we find, is something that was His to begin with. The only thing that is truly ours is our free will though He gave us that too; the only thing we can give back to Him is the use of that will. And because He loves us so much, what He most wants of us is to freely return that love, to give Him ourselves.
The Lord, like most of us, spells love with the letters T-I-M-E. The best way to express our love is by spending time with Him in other words, by praying, conversing with Him. We become discouraged if prayer is hard, but actually our love is especially expressed in those prayer times that are difficult. Sometimes the best we can do is show up for prayer and try and try to pray. We won’t know until heaven just how pleased He was with our efforts.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced spiritual dryness (what Saint John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul,” a sense of detachment from God) for many years, yet she persevered in prayer, rising early each morning to begin her day with an hour of adoration. And how richly God blessed her for it! She may not have felt close to God during those prayer times, but He was surely working in her, for her life is a witness to His filling her with the abundant graces she needed to do what she did and the insights to lead her order.
Making Time for God
At the outset, the biggest hurdle is finding the time.
In fact, you can’t find the time to pray. The world, the flesh, and the devil will do everything possible to keep this time from you or fritter it away. You can’t “find” the time; you have to make the time. And in order to do that, you have to be convinced that you need prayer.
Somebody once said that the busier your day, the greater will be your need to pray. That is so counterintuitive for people living in a busy culture like ours. When I have a busy day, my inclination is to hit the floor running not kneeling.
But, in reality, that is foolish. It would be like dashing out the door to an important meeting across town, shouting over my shoulder, “I don’t have time to get in the car, strap myself in, turn it on, and all that. I’ve got to go now!” Sure, I could run down my driveway, and even get to the corner, before my husband could reach it by car. But he would very soon pass me by and leave me miles behind. (And just imagine what a sight I’d be, by the time I got there!) Praying first is like getting into God’s car and asking Him to take you where you need to go and get done what needs to be done which, come to think of it, He knows better than we do.
Work as Prayer
Sometimes you hear the idea of turning your work into a prayer. That could be a great idea or a defective one, depending on what you mean by it. Offering up your work and your play, joys, and sufferings as a prayer is commendable and beneficial. But limiting your prayer to work that is, offering your work as your only form of prayer is not such a good idea.
Think about the Gospel story of Martha and Mary. Jesus didn’t say to Martha: “What you’re doing is wrong. Stop it, and get in here.” But neither did He say to Mary: “Go help your sister, and that will be as good as listening to me.” He said that Mary had chosen the better part, not the only worthwhile part.
We all need to do some work. We are embodied spirits, not angels. We have to attend to our physical lives and taking care of others too. So yes, we should work, and as members of the Body of Christ, we can join our work to His and consecrate it, making it a prayer. Absolutely, that is a beautiful and worthwhile thing to do.
But we need to give God some undivided attention too. Likewise, talking to Him as we go about our business throughout the day is great. But it’s not enough.
This is true even if our work is directly for Him. Saint John of the Cross points out that those
… eaten up with activity and who imagine they are able to shake the world with their preaching and other outward works … would be much more useful to the Church and more pleasing to the Lord … if they devoted more time to prayer.... But without prayer, all they do amounts to nothing more than noise and uproar.… The truth is that he would be doing nothing, because no good work can be done without the power of God.
Trying to do God’s work without His help is insane, says spiritual writer Dom Chautard in The Soul of the Apostolate. It’s like saying: “My God, just do not raise any obstacle to my work, just keep out of my way, and I guarantee to produce the best results!” Rather, Chautard stresses, “The interior life is the condition on which the fruitfulness of active works depends.”
It’s good when a husband and wife fulfill their family responsibilities and talk about logistics and solving problems like the plumbing. But they need couple time too. They need to look at one another and talk about deeper things, reaffirm their love for one another, share what’s burdening them, share their joys. Be there for each other.
So also in our relationship with God, we need to spend one-on-one time with Him. He doesn’t need to hear our burdens and our joys, but He wants to. And we need to share them with Him. We also need to hear what He has to say. We have so much to learn. And it’s always nice to hear again His message of love and mercy.
This little exchange sums it up well:
Jack asked a monk, “Can I smoke a pipe while I’m praying?”
“Can I pray while I’m smoking a pipe?”
Yes, involve God in every moment of your day, whether you’re working or playing. But also set aside some time just for Him.
He deserves it. And we need it.
Living a Prayer
There is, on the other hand, a way to make one’s work a prayer that springs from a different spirit. Father James Alberione, founder of the Pauline Family of institutes, calls this vital prayer from vita, the Latin word for “life” meaning that one makes one’s whole life a prayer and offering to God. This is very different from off-handedly tossing Him a token prayer while relying on oneself and really worshipping one’s own activities. It includes work as a prayer but doesn’t limit prayer to work. It seeks, instead, to fulfill Saint Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.”
Brother Lawrence, in Practicing the Presence of God, advocated connecting with the ever-present God throughout the day by seeing His hand in everything, moment by moment. This seventeenth-century French monk saw each moment as presenting a duty to be done or a suffering to be endured. This can sound negative, but keep in mind that properly taking care of oneself is a duty too, and includes sleep, meals, exercise, recreation, etc. Pleasant duties and blessings also help one to see God’s Providence in everything and inspire gratitude.
Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an 18th-century Jesuit and spiritual director, describes essentially the same method in Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence. Caussade points out that encountering the Lord throughout the day in this way leads to the “joy of full surrender.”1
What to Pray
When people think of prayer, they often think of saying prayers or asking for something. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
While the need for spiritual nourishment is just as real as the physical, we don’t seem to be aware of it; we seem to have a poor appetite. We’re so focused on glutting our bodies that we’re starving our souls. Or sometimes we give ourselves spiritual junk food empty calories that leave us worse off than before. It’s a shame, because the Church offers a vast abundance of delicious, wholesome fare.
There are prayers for just about every personality, every need, every situation. The Church lays out a sumptuous banquet of prayers from which to choose, whether you’re hungry for eloquence, beauty, awe, forgiveness, strength, guidance, hope, comfort, community, inspiration, or simply help in connecting with the Lord. There are litanies, novenas, chaplets, devotions; Lauds, festivals of praise, Benediction, Taize; morning prayer, Angelus, Liturgy of the Hours, examen, night prayer; holy hours, pilgrimages, and processions, just to name a few.
With so many options, how does one choose?
First of all, one should try to cover the basics, such as beginning and ending the day with prayer. A morning offering is a great way to put God first in your life by putting Him first in your day. Looking back on the day, especially in the form of an examination of conscience, gives one a chance to see what went well and what didn’t, a chance to thank and a chance to repent. These two prayers make the One who is Alpha and Omega of the universe your own beginning and end too.
Next, it helps to have a balanced diet of prayer, nourishing the soul with a variety of types and forms. We need to make sure that our prayer is not made up of only petitions, for instance. There are four general types of prayer: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication (or “ACTS”). The first three are just as, if not more, necessary than the last: they remind us of Who God is and who we are and what we owe Him.
Forms of Prayer
Somewhat akin to the various food groups, there are also different forms of prayer vocal, mental, and liturgical2 each of which is critical in developing a healthy soul. Any or all of the four types can come into play in each form.
Vocal prayers are those that you read or recite from memory. The distinguishing mark of this form is that the prayer is already composed. Vocal prayers are often based on Scripture, such as the Hail Mary, and thus are inspired, or from the writings of saints or theologians. This is really advantageous when we don’t know what to say or don’t feel eloquent enough. In a time of crisis, vocal prayers can also comfort us, and bring God’s promises and faithfulness to mind.
Mental prayer is a form of personal prayer in which the words are our own. This is the difference between vocal and mental prayer. While you might expect vocal to mean “aloud” and mental to mean “silent,” both forms can be either silent or spoken. Mental prayer is a dialogue: one converses with God in one’s own words and, more importantly, listens to and reflects on what He has to say.
This form of prayer is the most vital to a soul’s growth and perseverance. In mental prayer (nowadays more commonly called “meditation”), it is much harder to merely go through the motions without engaging one’s heart, one’s mind, one’s true self. All prayer is conversation with God, but this in some ways is the most intimate, because here we speak from the heart, we ourselves speak; and we take the time to reflect on God and what He wants to say to us.
Liturgical prayer is the public worship of the Church. Based on the words of Scripture, the saints, and theologians, liturgical prayer is rich in meaning and beauty. Like vocal prayer, it helps us worship the Lord and pray to Him in ways we could not achieve on our own. Liturgical prayer is also corporate prayer. Together, we members of the Church form the body of Christ, so it is appropriate at times to pray that way, as a body. Doing so helps us to remember that each of us is not alone in our relationship with God, but that we are a family, His family.
The two most prevalent liturgical prayers are the Liturgy of the Hours (aka the Divine Office) and the Mass.
The Liturgy of the Hours has a long history in the Church, especially in her monastic tradition. Clergy and religious commit to daily recitation of these prayers, which are assigned to certain times or “hours” of the day.
The Second Vatican Council revised the Liturgy of the Hours, and encouraged public celebrations such as Vespers to be offered in churches. It also encouraged lay Catholics to pray at least some of the hours.
Much of the Liturgy of the Hours consists in reciting or chanting the Psalter. Praying and learning the psalms expands one’s ability to communicate with God, as they express every human emotion and can be applied to any human situation. In addition, there is a daily “Office of Readings” excerpts from Scripture, saints, and the Church Fathers which offers excellent material for personal meditation.
Even when one is physically alone, however, the Divine Office is considered a liturgical prayer because one is spiritually connected with all the other members of the Church praying the same prayers throughout the world that day.
The Mass is the best-known liturgical prayer. As the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice to the Father, is by far the most powerful prayer. Saints and theologians are lavish in its praise:
The celebration of Holy Mass is as valuable as the death of Jesus on the cross. Saint Thomas Aquinas
All good works cannot have the value of one Holy Mass, because they are the works of men, whereas the Holy Mass is the work of God. Saint John Vianney (the Curé of Ars)
The Mass is the most perfect form of prayer! Pope Paul VI
The value of the Mass can not be overstated. It’s much too precious to ration to Sundays only. If you want to make a difference in your life and in the world, get to Mass during the week as often as you can.
Not all prayers fit neatly into these three categories; there is some overlap. The Rosary, for example, is vocal prayer; yet done properly, it is also mental prayer, for one is meant to meditate on the mysteries. Also, it can be prayed alone, in a small group, or a large one.
Similarly, one of the wonderful things about the Divine Office and the Mass is that both provide an abundance of all four types of prayer (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication). These liturgical prayers also incorporate vocal prayers for the congregation and times of silence for mental prayer.
Partake in the Feast!
The soul needs sustenance just as much as the body. Remember, “man does not live on bread alone.” Mother Church offers us a bountiful repast there’s no excuse for withering away from malnourishment. Come to her table and partake in the feast! ¦
Jeanette Amestoy Flood, wife and mother of six, is a freelance writer and teacher. Her work has also appeared in Faith and Family, St. Austin Review, Franciscan Way, and OSV Weekly. She blogs at Where the Rubber Hits the Road: where-the-rubber-hits-the-road.blogspot.com.
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