Know first that I write this because I need to hear it – because my prayer life has become pathetic, and I hope that publicly admonishing the very faults I have succumbed to will be the shot in the arm I need to take my own advice! So if I seem to speak here with a bit of forcefulness, it is because I know that is precisely what I myself need to receive.
That being said, perhaps some of you will also find, upon a sincere and Spirit-lead examination of your own life, that you have room to grow by eliminating the following faults. For how many of us really have the prayer life we are called to? Few, I wager. Those who do tend to get an “St.” before their name.
I speak often of the incredible urgency of our times, the unimaginable magnitude of what lies just ahead, and the unprecedented grace and mercy now being poured out if we are only open to it and appropriate it. Well, there is only really one response to such lessons:
Pray, pray, pray
(and don’t neglect to consider the specific and practical details about what hinders that)
- You either don’t know, or don’t think about, how important prayer is. Have you considered that there are actual people – perhaps even dear friends or family members – whose salvation hinges upon your prayer life? That there might be souls in hell for all eternity – even now – because you chose not to say your prayers? Have you considered what a deceased member of her order said in an appearance to St. Theresa of Avila — that she would gladly return to Earth and suffer until the end of time just to receive the increase of glory in Heaven that is gained by one single Hail Mary? I admit it is a terrible thought to consider the damnation of a soul as the indirect result of our slothfulness with prayer; a thought that I am quite tempted to explain away. But accept it we must, for we make God and Our Lady in her apparitions into liars if we claim that such a thing could not be. Either our prayer matters for salvation, or it does not, and the Almighty has eternally decreed the former. Being therefore certain of it, we cannot escape the fact that a dereliction of duty in this regard will inescapably result in the loss of souls.
- You haven’t bothered to come up with and implement practical ways to turn your daily necessary tasks into prayer. There is no way to heed St. Paul’s admonition to pray constantly without diligently doing this. I once had a beautiful insight into my father-in-law’s way of doing this when my (then fiance) had to water his plants when he was away; he didn’t know how much water to give each plant, he could only tell her “how many Hail Marys” each plant got – in other words, how many Hail Mary’s to say while pointing the hose at one. A dear priest friend of mine relayed how he used his irritation at a former roommate’s constant leaving of drawers and doors open as an opportunity to say a prayer as he was closing them for the souls in purgatory (after a time of doing this he would sometimes find drawers open in his room that no earthly human could have possibly caused) How are you doing this? Why not:
- Do a better job of offering up – for the salvation of souls and the deliverance of the holy souls in purgatory – every single, solitary suffering/irritation/dislike you experience throughout the day: no exceptions. No more complaining. God loves a cheerful giver.
- Do a better job of giving thanks to God for every good thing that happens to you (and every bad thing, in so far as it is a means to grow and part of His permissive Will)
- Try starting every drive with a Guardian Angel prayer, and get in the habit of right away picking up the Rosary beads and starting with the Creed (Keep a pair in the cupholder or around the rearview mirror; it’s a pain to reach into your pocket when you’re sitting down, buckled in.). Consider putting some holy thing on your dashboard as well; bumper stickers are great for someone behind you, but you need to keep yourself focused on God too!
- Get an audio Bible (there’s plenty of free ones, but I’d especially recommend the Truth and Life New Testament – http://truthandlifebible.com/) and listen to it while driving, while doing menial work, etc.
- Memorize the lyrics to a bunch of holy hymns that you most love: you’ll find yourself singing them all the time, thereby praying twice in whatever you are doing!
- Make sure to always have Rosary beads in your pocket and take them out whenever you are held up in anything.
- … these are just a few thoughts; consider how your day is divided up, and come up with your own ways.
- You make no effort to fast and otherwise mortify the flesh, and have become a spiritual cream puff. A lax or lenient approach to the spiritual life will never succeed: the fallen aspect of our nature, which hates prayer, makes sure we always have plenty excuses if it is not overcome by discipline. Please don’t think you have this base covered just because you have two small meals and one big meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. St. Josemaria Escriva said that the day you have eaten a meal without at some point during it mortifying the flesh by holding back from completely indulging the appetite is the day you have eaten like a pagan. St. Faustina said it is so important to undertake small sufferings willingly each day so that we are prepared for the big ones when they come. Of course only God’s grace will get us through difficulties, but grace also builds upon nature, and we are not thereby dispensed from doing our part. God understands, yes — He is well aware of the weakness of our flesh. He is also well aware of the strength of the spirit He has put in you; don’t presumptuously suppose He will be pleased by your refusing to exercise it.
Thanks to modernism, fasting from food is now considered a relic of “sadistic medieval Catholicism;” go to a typical talk on on the matter and you will likely hear that we need not bother with it — that “fasting” from other things will suffice. That is a lie. Fasting, in the most literal possible terms, is more direly needed today than ever before. Please do not dispense yourself from it. Do your part. Who knows, maybe you yourself suffer from a demon’s attacks who can, as Our Lord said, “only be driven out by prayer and fasting.”
Although the three go together; fasting is most properly seen as a sacrifice to God, whereas penance is purification for past sin, and mortification is preparation to avoid future sin. Ponder specific ways you can achieve these three. While some will say that mortification should only occur under the close supervision of a spiritual director, I strongly disagree. Many will take years to find a spiritual director, but mortification must not be put off for years. Try small but consistent mortifications (and tell no one, lest they merely become bragging points). Cold water, hard surfaces, and uncomfortable accessories are a few potential sources.
- You let your mind wander to worldly things when you aren’t actively engaged in a task. A priest I know once shared a beautiful teaching in a homily on the First Commandment: whatever you think of most, that might be your “god.” Walking, driving, waiting, etc.: what does your mind do? Think about your next meal? Plot out the details of your next career move? Fret about finances? Worry about chores and the ToDo list? Ponder your hobbies (sports/pets/trips/health articles/social media/researching interests/news/politics/TV/novels/etc.)? Those in between moments — those moments when you are not sufficiently engaged in your current endeavor to merit the complete attention of your mind — are Divine invitations to prayer, not opportunities to squander mental effort on vanity. Remember what St. Francis de Sales, that great Doctor of the Spiritual Life for Laity, said: that secular interests, even when good in themselves, are very harmful to the spiritual life if we have an attachment to them, and we know we have an attachment to them when we find ourselves thinking about them when not participating in them.
Or perhaps your problem is not only a wandering mind when not engaged in a task, but rather a wandering mind when you actually do pray. We all suffer from this to one degree or another; and so long as it is continually fought, it is not at all sinful. The real problem – and sin – arises when we find ourselves settling into and accepting a routine of distractions during prayer. This is worst at Church; when every sound of an opening door merits our glance to see who is late (which is not our business) and every person there is a cause for thinking of anything but the Sacred Mysteries. Distractions are like all other temptations; sinful in so far as we wilfully engage in them — opportunities for growth in so far as we fight against them.
Or perhaps, finally, instead of a wandering mind, you have a wandering mouth. This can be even worse. See James 3. We all know how bad gossip is, but simple idle, vain speech is also very destructive. St. Faustina said in her diary that a talkative soul cannot be sanctified. Does your mouth start running as soon as there is an ear to hear it? Do you giddily gab away without any regard for the fact that you will have to give an account for every idle word (Matthew 12:36) on the Day of Judgment? We must have fun, we must joke and laugh, yes. But our humor and playfulness must be built on a foundation of seriousness and silence; otherwise it is impossible to have a prayerful and recollected life.
- You over-emphasize your freedom to choose a prayer regimen that fits you, and de-emphasize the clear and specific calls of Heaven and holy people to all. If I had a dime for every time I hear someone go on about how all that really matters is what prayers and spiritual practices you feel drawn to, I’d be rich. Now, while the spiritual axiom “pray how you can, not how you can’t” certainly holds true, and we do enjoy great flexibility in determining our spiritual life… that is only half of the story. On the other side is the clear call for all Catholics to (and for all believers, really) — for one example — pray the Rosary every day (issued, just to name a few, by Our Lady at Fatima, Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Francis). If you aren’t ready to kneel on a hard floor in front of the Blessed Sacrament for 20 minutes in perfect stillness and silence while you pray your Rosary, that’s fine: pray it on a walk, pray it while driving, pray it sitting around the living room with Family or friends. Just pray it. It is also an enormous stretch to say that a Catholic should only pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, do the First Saturday and First Friday devotion, carry a miraculous medal, and other such things “if he feels drawn to them.” They have been clearly mandated by heaven.
But there is a diabolical lie floating around Catholic circles today that says that “since Private Revelation is never a matter of Faith, there can never be any moral obligation to heed it; it’s entirely a matter of preference and you should respond however you feel like.” Dear friends, reacting to anything “however you feel like” is a recipe for disaster in this fallen world. Now, of course we never put Divine Faith in any Private Revelation, no matter how profound, approved, or seemingly certain. That does not mean we can never have any obligation in the matter — you and God both know what invitations He has extended to your heart , and on Judgment Day your eternal destiny will be determined by how you responded to Divine Invitations; not just by whether you have Faith in the Deposit of Faith (which would essentially be the Protestant Salvation by Faith Alone heresy).
Consider also the Divine Office; although not like the Rosary in the aspect of it being strongly urged to be recited by all by Heaven, it is indeed required of all clergy and religious — and for good reason. The Psalms will always be on the tip of your tongue throughout the day if you pick up this habit. It is an incredibly beautiful and powerful prayer; if you don’t have a Breviary, try DivineOffice.org.
- You don’t daily think about the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven. It’s so easy to forget (especially if we don’t think about the last several words of the Hail Mary as we say it) what this life is all about. But it is in thinking (meditating, really) on what it’s all about – the Four Last Things – that we grow in hope, and it is in the greatness of hope that we find the strength to grow in the spiritual life. No one really fights ferociously (and that is what the spiritual life is) for what he does not yearn for, and no one yearns for that which he rarely thinks of. Images of Judgment Day used to be common; now they are sadly sparse, but don’t let that stop you from meditating on it. Especially while falling asleep at night, you should ponder how death — that thing you see every day on the news but seems so distant — will come to you soon, and how after that every thought, word, and deed of your life will be judged in the presence of all Creation so that you may afterwards go to your eternal reward or your eternal punishment.
It is also very important to meditate on heaven in a way that benefits you. Do not let theological technicalities steal from you the joy of thinking about your eternal homeland. What I mean is, if thinking of heaven as never-ending time gives you more joy than trying to think of what on earth the “eternal now” is supposed to mean, then stick with meditating on heaven as never-ending time! (It is first of all not strictly speaking correct to say, as one often hears, “in heaven there is no time.”) If you are thrilled by considering heaven as a paradise where you will enjoy eternal life and fellowship with the saints amidst perfect physical beauty and happiness, then do so! (for indeed heaven involves that). Do not let the fact that Heaven is most accurately described as the Beatific Vision — the direct visions of God’s essence without medium — make you think that all you can honestly do is try to ponder what that is. Even St. Faustina was told not to try to grasp God’s essence, but to focus rather on His attributes. Heaven is a real community, where we will really talk, laugh, sing, and enjoy countless blessings amidst unspeakable beauty.
We likewise must consider Death and Judgment in a way we can relate to. Death is easy to consider; press gently on your trachea and you will be immediately reminded how fragile your physical existence is. Judgment Day must likewise be considered, wherever we are now sitting, as having all of heaven and earth surrounding us, listening to God’s just judgment on the choices we are making. And we must not leave out hell. Again, do not let words like “hell isn’t really a place at all, nor is there fire. It’s just separation from God,” placate you. Real fire is the closest thing your limited mind can grasp to hell; and it will be there. Above all do not be tranquilized by the deceitful nonsense you hear in some circles today that we can “reasonably hope” that hell will be empty of humans. Many are there now, and many more will go there; this is attested to by Our Lord in Scripture, the Sensus Fidelium, all of Sacred Tradition, and all of the approved apparitions of Our Lady.
- You have no daily plan of life. Instead, what you do next at any given moment (strict duties such as work and school aside) is determined by what you feel like doing at that moment. No one is sanctified by this type of a lifestyle. First of all, this only breeds idleness — the demons were forced to reveal to St. Faustina that it is the idle souls who are easiest for them to snatch — even if we fool ourselves into thinking we are getting things done by comfortably puttering around from one little ToDo to the next – after which we are always ready to tell people how busy we are, and insist that we just don’t have time for a more serious prayer life. Sit down in front of the Blessed Sacrament, ask Him for guidance, plot out your daily routine, and include serious chunks of time for prayer. Consider especially giving prayer the pride of place in your day (e.g. a good deal in the morning, instead of just putting it off until before bed), and being sure to put aside time for it when you know you need it most (a Rosary walk during lunch can be the perfect remedy to a stressful workplace environment). Share your plan with a spouse, sibling, parent, or roommate, and have him or her hold you to it. Once your days have structure you will find your spiritual life taking off; those spiritually good things you have meant to do for years or decades will all of a sudden start happening every day, and you will lay your head on your pillow at night content with how you spent that day.
- You do not strive manfully to stir up fervor in your prayer and truly pray from the heart. While aridity and lack of feeling in prayer can certainly be an instrument of Divine Providence to aid in the growth of the highest virtues (and much is written on this elsewhere – most recently especially with respect to Bl. Mother Teresa’s life), it should never be pursued for its own sake or simply accepted as if it were an intrinsic good. It is not an intrinsic good; it is an evil just like cancer, which also can be a means of spiritual growth, but which no sane person would ever try to get or try to keep. There is so much you can do to help stir up fervor in your heart — you are failing yourself and God if you do not at least try. Sometimes a little pain is needed (see point #3 on mortification for that). Sometimes a good meditation on the reality of souls falling into hell and the fact that you can stop that (see point #1). Sometimes the beauty of Creation can do it and what you need is solo, silent time in nature. Sometimes (and, in fact, this should be all the time) you need to reach out to someone who is suffering, walk with him, and feel his pain. Sometimes you need to go pray on the front lines: outside an abortion clinic, in a hospice, at a nursing home, etc. Sometimes you need a retreat. Sometimes you need a pilgrimage (you likely live within a reasonable drive of a good number of holy places, mind you). Individual remedies may or may not work, but at least try.
Now one of the easiest and most common ways to ensure that you are most definitely not praying fervently, from the heart, is by rushing through your prayers. In one alleged apparition, Our Lady said “hurried prayers do not reach Heaven.” Conversely, one of the easiest ways to strive to pray from the heart is by slowing down. Speak the words slowly enough to savor them; to enjoy reciting them; to meditate upon what they mean as you pray them; to affix your intention to live by them. If they pray a marathon (ultra-fast, pause-less) Rosary before Mass at your Church, then do your prayerful preparation for Mass in silence by yourself; or perhaps gently ask the leader if it might be okay to try and slow down the pace a bit. This applies especially to the Divine Office as well; Morning Prayer can be 10-15 minutes of a burden (because whatever is rushed feels burdensome), or 15-20 minutes of a beautiful, joyful undertaking that you look forward to upon hearing your alarm clock ring.
- You choose to exempt yourself from pursuing the very highest levels of the spiritual life; even though God excludes from this no one who seeks it. Sayings like “oh, I am not holy enough for that” or “I could never attain to such a union with God as that saint had,” or “I’ll just plan on doing some time in purgatory” are worldliness masquerading as humility; for they generally entail an unwillingness to be rid of those things that advancement in the spiritual life might deprive you of. Meditation, contemplation, spiritual marriage, and Living in the Divine Will (more to be written on that, on this blog, later) — these are not reserved for a few monks and nuns. Do not be tepid in what you ask for: magnanimity is a virtue, and asking little of God disappoints the Almighty. He has infinite power; let Him use it. Let Him draw you up into the very heights of the heavenly realms even now while on Earth. All that is needed is the removal of the pebble of your own will so that you may live in His will. But first off you must not only have vocal prayer — Hail Mary’s, Our Fathers, etc. You must also simply converse with Him as with a friend. Make visits to the Blessed Sacrament alone, and speak out loud to Him what is on your mind. Then try to listen. Then think about Him and His Earthly life — use your imagination just like a child daydreaming about a fairy tale (except you will be “daydreaming” about truth) — and about all those mysteries of Faith you recite with such yearning in the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Bask in the glory of these realities hidden from you only by a very temporary, very thin, veil — and you have contemplation. Live the fruits of this and you have sainthood. (A reader sent me her excellent introduction to Mental Prayer, which I’ve posted here)
- You participate in spiritually dangerous behaviors that are – currently unbeknownst to you – causing or exacerbating your struggles with prayer. Modern mainstream culture is utterly teaming with incredibly dangerous spiritual elements. Does this surprise you? Why? Dear friends, we live in a nation that murders ¼ of its unborn children; did you expect the culture that goes along with that to be spiritually benign? As a Christian it is essential not to be paranoid, cynical, or pessimistic, but it is equally essential to not think that sticking your head into the sand is a virtue. You can scarcely go outside, turn on the TV (which you shouldn’t be doing anyway!), open a magazine, watch a movie, or turn on the radio without being inundated with pornography (even if it is somewhat clothed and therefore not called that) or incredibly psychologically manipulative advertisements to make you crave mammon above all (even if you think you’re not affected). Yoga – that is, intrinsically pagan worship by the open admission of those who are its experts and promoters – is now commonly practiced even in schools and churches. Sorcery and the Occult has been made “cool” and attractive; “harmless fun!” – as if the intrinsic grave evil of magic (see the Catechism paragraph 2117) were merely a morally indifferent subject matter for fiction, like spaceships – for our youth through Harry Potter, the Twilight Series, and many other books/movies/shows. The New Age Movement, with its countless fronts and insidious initiatives, has infiltrated media, medicine, education, schools, churches with its pantheistic false god of energy/vibrations/life-force/universe/positive-thinking/ whatever-else-they’ll-call-it-tomorrow. This is only a miniscule portion of mainstream modern evils often accepted by Catholics; if you are not already being extremely discerning in what you let in to your life from mainstream culture, then you almost certainly have many elements of it that need to go – now – if you want to have the prayer life you are called to.
- Your home is a shrine to your family members, comfort, and entertainment, instead of being a shrine to God. I am firmly convinced that one reason for so much workplace depression is that employees must spend their days mired in ugliness: tube fluorescent lights, industrial nylon carpeting or linoleum floors, drop ceilings, plastic veneer desks, terrible music playing (with advertisements), etc. Similarly, one whose home environment is geared towards the world instead of God will have a difficult time making God the center of his life. Now I am not insisting that your home literally be as decked-out with holy things as an actual shrine; but God should still be its primary orientation and its most pervasive theme. Is your family altar the center of your living room, or is it the television? Do you have more pictures on your walls and fridge of family members or of holy things? Do you put up posters and other trappings of vanities that you are already tempted to think too much of without the constant reminder on your walls (for example, sports teams propaganda)? Are you so attached to your stuff that your house is perpetually cluttered, thereby ensuring that your mind is also cluttered? Do you have chips and candy all around to encourage gluttony and constant snacking, or is the food neatly tucked away only to be taken out during meal time? Do you meticulously ensure that you have the most comfortable furniture to facilitate dozing off whenever you please (cf Proverbs 6:10-11), or rather is diligence and discipline encouraged by your home arrangement?
- The Eucharist is not the source and summit of your life — and your prayer life, especially. I have written elsewhere that striving to grow in the spiritual life but neglecting being a daily Communicant and doing everything possible to appropriate the grace from that is like trying to get an A in a class, but skipping the tests and just trying to do your best on the homework. Nothing can possibly come close to the power of your prayers when God Himself is literally, really, physically (yes — physically; don’t believe those who say the Eucharist is only a real “sacramental presence” but not a real *physical* presence of Christ) inside you for the 15 minutes after you receive Him in the Eucharist. If receiving Jesus in the Eucharist is the center of your life, you have absolutely nothing to fear. While I am most definitely not accusing anyone of sin for not being a daily Mass goer, I cannot help but fear it would be quite difficult to really have receiving Him as the center of your life if it is not a daily thing; if it is only a weekly thing. “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Eucharistic adoration should also play a central role in your prayer life. St. John Paul II once expressed his desire that every parish have a perpetual adoration chapel; how could he say that without implicitly requesting that every Catholic do at least one hour of adoration a week? At least an hour of this a day would be best, but do strive for at least one a week. Nocturnal adoration is especially grace-filled; for the greater the sacrifice, the greater the love. You may think it would be too hard for you to get up in the middle of the night to spend an hour with Our Lord, but please do not think anyone currently doing it finds it easy (I am sure, however, they do find it grace-filled); and odds are your local perpetual adoration chapel direly needs nocturnal adorers.
13. Your prayer is not combined with works of mercy. I give thanks to God for Pope Francis, who has finally put a definitive, Magisterial end (in Evangelii Gaudium paragraph 201 “No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. “) to the notion that one can simply choose to exempt himself from serving the poor because his preference is apologetics, or liturgy, or theology, or to just pray for intentions, or associate with and serve solely the more well off. The spiritual life is a three-legged stool; supported by prayer, fasting (in other words, penance, sacrifice, asceticism, and mortification of flesh in general), and almsgiving (in both the giving of money directly and the giving of time in works of mercy) — and this stool cannot be stable if it is missing one of its legs. Pray and sidewalk counsel outside a Planned Parenthood. Pray a Rosary with nursing home patients. Visit the homebound or hospital-bound. Engage in conversation with (and offer to take out to eat) those who ask you for money on the city streets. Work with poor urban youth (volunteer tutoring/mentoring/teaching/coaching/etc.) who have no positive role models and are on a fast track for drugs and prison. Remember not to exempt yourself from these either just because you have kids you take care of, or a job that involves taking care of people. As good, beautiful, and necessary as those are; they are not works of mercy – they are works of justice – and we all need works of mercy. Remember also that you don’t even need to spend thousands of dollars on a mission trip to Africa; just step out your door with a willing heart. Consider our Holy Father’s plea to Argentinians not to spend thousands to fly out to his installment as Pope, but to spend it on the poor. If you want some motivation, watch Beyond the Gates (which I wrote a post about a few months ago); but dare not say to yourself “well, if only I were around in the midst of a genocide, I would shelter those being sought by the murderers!” Perhaps the plight of the unborn, the ill, the nursing-home-bound, the imprisoned, the poor urban youth, the addicted, etc., in your own home city, will be the topic of some movie a generation from now, and then you will be the one about whom they say “if only I were in his situation, I would have done something.”
Now do not be anxious if your prayer life seems far from what it ought to be, and if it seems that there are so many insurmountable obstacles in your path. That is discouragement; and it is discouragement itself that is a greater obstacle to holiness than any of the thirteen points I have listed above. Sanctification consists entirely in getting out of the Holy Spirit’s way; and mysteriously even that is His own work. Therefore trust and be at peace, but do not cease to strive.
In conclusion, permit me to leave you with the words of better men than myself: