June 9, 2009

How Much Should I Pray?

One of my first spiritual directors gave me some advice that I have always struggled with, but in a good and productive way. I asked him how much time I ought to devote to prayer in a day or a week. He said, "More than you want, but less than you think you should."

We should pray more than we want to.

If you're anything like me, you protest right away. But I want to pray all the time! I want to pray always as the Scriptures command! So how could I pray more than I want to? This apparent problem is important for our spiritual self-awareness. Do we want to pray always, or do we want to want to pray always? There's a big difference. To take a simpler example, we may say that we want to eat apples instead of candy, or drink water instead of gin, but it's really that we wish we wanted to change, not that we want to.

Any person who tries to get serious about a prayerful life knows this conflict. We want to be the sort of person who is utterly committed to prayer, but we soon find that this isn't who we really are. Sometimes we feel like praying and sometimes we don't. To keep our rule of prayer and to pray earnestly and intentionally precisely when we don't feel like it is critical to our spiritual growth. This our invitation into the "night of sense." To pray through our dryness of lack of delight in prayer purifies our motivation and offers us the great gift of not becoming attached to the consolations that are meant to help beginners get going.

We should pray less than we think we should

Every serious religious person has a kind of image of herself as the saint she wants to be. This is a good and holy desire, and helps us to strive to go beyond ourselves as we are. Sometimes, though, this gets to be an obstacle when what we really want to worship is the idea of ourselves as a holy person rather than the living God. When this gets really bad someone walks about, missal or breviary bulging with holy cards, in a self-satisfied stupor covered by a kind of affected humility that even a child can tell is fake. He is not in love with God, but with religion and the idea of himself as a servant of God. The religious self can be a powerful idol, and one the devil is happy to encourage.

If we are honest, we will hardly have to try at praying less than we think we should; anyone with even meager self-awareness will realize that he is not living up to his own expectations for devout prayer and religious practice. Instead of letting this produce a self-involved discouragement, this experience of not be able to pray as we ought should invite us to the humility that depends only on God. "The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings." (Romans 8:26)

This is the big "Aha! moment" with prayer, but also one of its hardest challenges: it is not something we do at all. It is not our activity or project. It is the life of the Blessed Trinity come to live within us, the prayer of the Spirit that has made a home in our spirit through our communion with the humanity of Christ. To realize this is a great liberation, for we only have to consent rather than do anything, and we have no credit in it, and thus no occasion for vanity.

11 comments:

pennyante said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful post, Fr. Charles...

I often write down my thoughts and the other day, I wrote the very quote you gave about the Spirit helping us because we do not know how to pray as we ought.

I realize that even though our prayer time may seem dry, we continue to pray. Mother Teresa had those years of darkness when nothing she prayed or experienced of God broke through the darkness. But she never stopped praying...

We need that same trust...

Inillotempore said...

Sometimes, though, this gets to be an obstacle when what we really want to worship is the idea of ourselves as a holy person rather than the living God. When this gets really bad someone walks about, missal or breviary bulging with holy cards, in a self-satisfied stupor covered by a kind of affected humility that even a child can tell is fake. He is not in love with God, but with religion and the idea of himself as a servant of God.

Every bully that has critiqued my motives or called me "judgemental" because of my love for the TLM comes to mind here. My wife, when first exposed to the EF said "I think you use God as an excuse to worship your religion". This hurt me greatly, I earnestly pray that this is not the case (or if it is to deliver me from this state). Yes, of course there is pride in attending a Liturgy done well -- or in raising your children with orthodox beliefs. It's the pride that you describe above that is the same kind as the enemy's tool. Note: My wife has since accepted the EF and we're grateful to have a TLM community nearby.

KAM said...

Lately I find myself sometimes trying to find the time in a really busy day for the prayers I think I ought to be doing, and, when the time isn't there and then is gone, I feel, well, like I messed up, I missed something important or I let someone down. Your post helped me to remember that it's not really the prayers per se, but the love and connection to our God behind the prayer, so to speak that may be more important.

Brother Charles said...

Penny: It made such a difference for me when I read Mother Theresa's letters.

KAM: It's so true...I definitely feel it when I miss morning meditation for instance...just less focused and productive during the day, more susceptible to anxiety and acedia, etc.

Brother Charles said...

inillotempore: Thanks for the comment, because you remind me of a critical distinction I have to include...we must be devoted to our religion, of course, because we believe in the Incarnation and sacramentality of grace. Thus we always pray "through Christ our Lord," the Christ who is visible in Holy Mass and speaks in the prayer of the Church.

When someone is thus devoted, he will sometimes be accused of the pitfall I mention by the bullies, as you say, by those who do know the difference between the idolization of religion and the worship of God through religion.

pennyante said...

Fr. Charles said: "Penny: It made such a difference for me when I read Mother Theresa's letters."

I commented on another of your posts about how difficult it was for me to relate to the saints. Well, all those years that we heard about M. Theresa and all her works with the poorest of the poor, I always thought to myself: "She is so far beyond me that I can't even get near her holiness" and so I chose to ignore her for the most part.

Well, when the book of her letters came out, "Come be my Light", I happened to read a review of it. My interest perked up and I ordered the book and read it. What an eye opener! I actually could relate a tiny bit to the darkness she lived in. So now, I call her "friend"...

Brother Charles said...

Penny: I was so intrigued by the reception of her book. For some it seemed to scandalize them, and for some in the world even suggest that God didn't exist.

But for those who pray, we knew something of her experience right away, and her sanctity and love of God.

Julia said...

I am very pleased to have discovered your blog, Father, linked from Adoro te Devote.

This is an interesting post, Father. It's a topic that I have been planning on talking to my SD about. I will keep your thoughts in mind.

Lee Strong said...

How true.

Too little.

Too hurried.

I spend more time on this computer or watching the Mets than I do in prayer: Where is my heart?

Barb, sfo said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

With your permission I would love to share this with my SFO fraternity. I think it would spark a wonderful discussion.

Brother Charles said...

So as my brothers and sisters pray for me, feel free to share!