January 11, 2012

Religious Life and Prayer

I had been baptized for only a couple of years when I went on my first directed retreat. As the retreat began, a venerable Jesuit with a big beard gave an opening talk. He made a comment about prayer and religious life that has always stuck with me. When he was a younger religious, he said, he worked very hard at many things. Unfortunately, he confessed, prayer wasn't one of them.

"I would tell myself that my work was my prayer. And it might have been true, had I been praying."

The comment really struck me at the time and I've remembered it ever since. Not that I've ever had the temptation to imagine that 'my work is my prayer'; I'm too lazy to be able to say that with a straight face. But the general idea still challenges; with prayer at the center, everything else can be drawn into the spirit of prayer and the sacrifice of our consecration of ourselves to God. Without prayer, everything else runs on resources that will fail us sooner or later, and probably sooner.

It might be surprising to hear, but it's possible and even easy for a religious to lose the spirit of prayer. Living under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament for years can make you take such a privilege and spiritual gift for granted. There's a tabernacle in this room, just like there's a TV or a refrigerator in another. Vainglory or maybe even the devil can trick one into the complacency of thinking that just because all the prayers one is obligated to say are said, then this is some kind of virtue. I think here of the famous exchange between Mother Teresa and Cardinal Comastri. The Cardinal related that Mother Teresa had asked him how much he prayed. Thinking it "near heroism" in the difficult days right after Vatican II, Father Comastri responded that he said Mass, prayed his whole Liturgy of the Hours, and said the rosary each day. Mother flatly told him that this wasn't enough, and that he needed to add an hour of adoration.

Eucharist and the whole daily cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours is the bare minimum of prayer for me as a religious priest. And yet I confess that there are days when I don't even live up to that, when I do not even ascend to the 'useless servitude' of doing what I have been commanded and what I have promised the Church I would do. My experience of myself is that if I am doing the minimum in this way, I am probably not even praying those prayers very well.

It's really one of the ironic realizations of the religious life. Everyone, to some degree, feels like his prayer life is inadequate and shaky. Some of this is how we are supposed to feel before the infinite goodness of God. But some of it is also our lukewarmness and the ambivalence that comes from our sins and mixed motivations. When we enter religious life we have this feeling that the new environment will help us in this regard; that an atmosphere of prayer will reinforce the flimsiness of our spiritual life as we have known it thus far. As usual, however, we fail to take the devil and the effects of original sin seriously, and we find out that in the religious life it can be even easier to lose the spirit of prayer that we desire. Then comes the real spiritual choice: blaming and bitterness on the one hand, or surrendering to this experience as God's call to accept a deeper responsibility for our own prayerfulness, that of the community, and that of the world.


Metaphysical Catholic said...

What a great laudable exchange:
to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth, to receive the hundred-fold in place of one, and to possess a blessed and eternal life.
-Saint Clare

Stellar posting, Brother.

Judy Kallmeyer said...

Oooooo! You hit a nerve today!!!! You describe me to a tee. I like the idea that my state is a challenge to enter more deeply into my prayer life. Thanks, Father! You are directing me even from afar. Sure you wish you were right here.