When Praying is Difficult

The longer I write the more I realize how much writing is like prayer. Writing is something that connects me with God and allows me to hear His voice. Like prayer, writing is a habit that has to be developed over time and like prayer sometimes it doesn’t come easily. Both actions are disciplines of the spirit and both can help us to grow in holiness. Being holy means being the person God intends you to be. Writing helps me to use a gift He gave me and to use it to glorify Him. Like prayer, writing requires preparation and work. Of course we’re not all called to be writers. Some are given much greater gifts. But all Christians are called to pray. In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t pray you aren’t a follower of Christ.  Prayer has to be at the center of our lives. Our faith is based on our relationship with Jesus and without prayer, we can’t know Him.

So if God made prayer so central to His plan for our salvation, why can it sometimes be so hard to pray?  After all, if He made our hearts in such a way that we yearn to know Him, you’d think prayer would come as naturally to us as breathing. Sometimes it does. Most of us are great at praying when we find ourselves in a jam. Up against the wall. At the end of our ropes. Between a rock and a hard place. Remember the old saying about there being no atheists in foxholes. When life–ours or someone we love–is on the line, we’re filled with the need to pray. Our words and pleas and promises to Him overflow and we talk with Him nonstop. That is, until the crisis passes. When the terror of the moment is over, many of us quickly revert to our non-prayerful ways. Perhaps a few of us will experience that crisis as an invitation to a continuing relationship with God. That brush with whatever terror we experienced (death, divorce, unemployment, war, homelessness, etc.) may have opened our hearts to hear Him and allowed Him to draw us close.  Most of us, however, are drawn to the Lord through the regular, everyday, even unexciting details of our daily lives. The Church, in her wisdom, has made most of our liturgical year into “ordinary” time. And while ordinary time refers to those numbered Sundays outside feast and penance, it’s a reminder to us that we can and should encounter God in the regular rhythms of our daily lives.

Consider a significant relationship in your life. Maybe it’s your spouse or a good friend or a sibling you’re especially close to. I’ll bet some of the most meaningful moments you’ve experienced with them are when you’re just enjoying an ordinary day in their presence. Deep love and intimacy are often revealed most clearly in everyday moments. Sharing a meal. Watching a sunset. Being comfortable and at ease in the silent company of a person you love and who loves you back. If that’s true in our human relationships, we can also see that in our prayer relationship with Jesus. The times we can feel most closely-engaged with Him in prayer can be in spontaneous and simple ways each day. The ordinary-ness of our daily prayers are no less valuable than those dramatic, emotionally-charges prayerful “highs” that are few and far between.

The saints tell us a lot about prayer. After all, being saints, we know that their relationship with Jesus bore great and eternal spiritual fruit. Look at St. Joseph of Cupertino. His prayer life was so extraordinary that he frequently levitated several feet off the floor during prayer. But few of us fly around the room during prayers. St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own century, Padre Pio both bore the stigmata or the wounds of Christ as they prayed. St. Isidore and St. Alphonse’s Liguori often appeared in two distant places at the same time while at prayer. But these are the exceptions.

Most saints were like most of us. Sometimes prayer came easily and made them feel close to God. But at other times prayer was a chore. Many of the saints experienced spiritual deserts where their prayer lives seemed pointless and felt as if God had left them alone. We know that Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta struggled with this. For many years she experienced a “dark night of the soul” in her prayer life. Yet no one doubts her spiritual greatness or the fruits of her vocation. This woman knew Jesus well.

We’re each unique creations. Each one of our journeys with Christ is a unique calling. Some of us may fly in ecstasy to Him but the majority of us won’t. We’ll come to know Him in the daily routines of our ordinary lives, sometimes in joyful exuberance and sometimes in peaceful silence. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t think you’re “doing it right.”  Ask the Holy Spirit to help you pray. And keep at it. Go to Mass and Confession. Fast. And don’t wait to start praying. The only way to get better at it is to pray.

“I pray because I’m helpless.”    —C. S. Lewis

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The Aroma of Christ

They were Jesus’ closest friends.  Mary, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus lived in the village of Bethany, not far from Jerusalem.  They’re mentioned several times in the Gospels and Jesus loved the time He spent in their home.  Bethany was a refuge for Him that allowed Him some time away from the crowds where He could quietly enjoy His dearest friends and closest disciples.  So it wasn’t surprising that He would want to be with them on that particular Saturday evening just before the Passover feast.  He knew that it would be the last Sabbath of His human life and He wanted to spend it with His friends.  As the day ends, they’re enjoying the intimacy of a family meal, reclining together as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus serve as their hosts for the evening.

 

Our eyes follow Mary as she offers food and drink to Jesus and His Apostles.  She knows them all well by now, giving each one their favorite morsels and making sure everyone has all that they need.  Mary’s presence in the Gospels is central on only three occasions and in each one she’s seen sitting at the Lord’s feet.  We remember when her sister Martha becomes angry because Mary doesn’t help serve Christ and His friends on an earlier visit.  While Martha cooks, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to Him speak (Luke 10:38-42).  Next, Mary is crying in sorrow before Christ at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:32), and tonight, as she brings a special offering to Christ (John 12:1-8).  Tomorrow, Jesus will leave them to ride into Jerusalem as the crowds wave their palm fronds shouting, “Hosanna!”  But tonight, they are at home, enjoying each other’s company.  As dinner ends and everyone talks and relaxes together, Mary slips out of the room.  When she returns, she’s carrying a small pint jar of a costly perfume.  Worth a year’s wages, the perfume called “nard” was used in Jewish homes in times of celebration, marriage, and to anoint the dead.  Tonight Mary would unknowingly use it for all three of these purposes.

 

As she kneels before her Savior, Mary lets loose her long hair and anoints Jesus’ head and feet with the costly mixture.  It’s an intimate and tender moment of extravagant love.  Imagine it unfolding between them.  Smell the rich, delicious fragrance of the perfume running down over His shining hair.  It envelopes His Body with its delightful aroma.  His flowing tunic is soon drenched with its pungency.  Wherever Jesus goes over the next week, the perfume will go with Him.  The fragrance of that love will cling to Him into the Passover; into the Garden of Gethsemane; into Herod’s hall; into Pilate’s courtyard; even into the cruel hands of the men who cast lots for His robes.  Just as Jesus had foretold that evening, Mary’s gift of love would be remembered throughout time.  With every lash of the scourge on His back, Mary’s gift was remembered.  With each nail driven in His flesh, her love was felt.  The sweet fragrance of her extravagant gift stayed with Christ as He hung on the Cross and poured out His own gift of life for our salvation. One gift of extravagant love followed by the ultimate extravagance of Love Himself, dying for you and for me. Mary teaches us the disciple’s way; how to serve others, love others and adore Jesus. Don’t hold back, don’t count the cost.  Be with Him.  Do for Him and for all those He loves.  Don’t just give a little of yourself—give everything.  Give your most precious gifts.  The Lord sees them and loves you for them.  Pour out your love for Him wherever and whenever you can.  Let your very life be that precious fragrance our Lord breathed in that night at Mary’s house in Bethany.  And pray that you’ll hear the same incredible words she heard Him say about her:  “She has done a beautiful thing to Me.” (Mark 14:6)

 

“For we are the aroma of Christ….”

    –II Corinthians 2:15

The Power of Kindness

Whenever I saw her, usually very early in my workday, she was always smiling. Short and stout, probably in her sixties, her toothless grin greeted me several mornings a month. She never wanted much from me and I didn’t even know her name. But her patient, happy smile always touched me. One morning she came in with a paper folder clasped in her hands, her smile even broader than usual. “I remembered to bring it this morning,” she said, and held the folder out to me. “Oh, thank you,” I replied, having no idea what she was talking about. She watched me expectantly as I took the folder from her. “May I look inside it now?” I asked, not knowing what to expect—a letter? a drawing? an old newspaper clipping? Her quick nod told me she wanted me to open it. What I pulled out was a photograph of her, a recent one. Full-color and a little fuzzy it showed her in a dark blue dress, her long brown hair pulled back and her broad sunken smile looking back at me. Startled, all I could say was, “Oh, your eyes are so beautiful!” And they were. Deep blue and clear, they bored into me and for the first time I realized that she was pretty. Despite her age and poverty and lack of teeth, she had a certain beauty about her. I told her thank you and she hugged me and left the office, her mission accomplished. I slipped the photo back into its folder and went back to work. Later that morning I mentioned the woman to a coworker and showed her the picture. “Oh yes, I know her!” she exclaimed and she told me the woman’s story.

Born into a large family, they lived in the hard mountain poverty of the South, the kind not yet softened by more recent government assistance programs. Farming and logging made for a poor living, but they were no different in that from most of their neighbors. Their differences were much more sinister. From her earliest years, “Sue” had suffered her father’s horrific sexual abuses. Her brothers and sisters and their mother were also victimized. While the community seemed to know what her father was doing, no one stepped in to stop it. Years of abuse and poverty had shaped Sue’s life, surely. Yet what I knew of her, what she was always showing me was her disarming smile. I mentioned this to my coworker and her response stunned me. Thoughtfully, she replied, “You’re probably the best thing in her life.” What? A few minutes a week spent in casual conversation? How could that mean so much to someone? Could that even be possible?

Of course it could be. None of us knows the power that simple kindness can have to heal a wounded soul. A smile, a soft word, a few moments of simple conversation—this can be great love to someone who lives in wounded isolation, in an invisible prison of hurts, abandonments, or history. Being Christ to others happens every day. In what can seem like very small things, we can reveal His very great love for all of us. Sue has taught me to be more mindful of every opportunity God places in my path each day as a chance to live the Gospel and to never take for granted His call to love my neighbor. And Sue’s constant, life-affirming smiles heal me, too. Now, more than ever since I know her love has blossomed despite her life circumstances. We are both Christ to one another and I thank God for allowing me to know her in my small way.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
—St. Teresa of Calcutta

A Very Difficult Prayer

Vatican City is a tiny country located within the city of Rome. It has its own police, its own court system, its own post office. The government of the Vatican has many departments that are responsible for its administration. It even has a Secretary of State. One of the most famous men who have held this post was Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val who served Pope Pius X. He was born in London in 1865 and his father was the Spanish ambassador. He received an excellent education, spoke several languages and, as a priest, rose quickly through the ranks of Church power and influence. Pope Pius X named him Cardinal in 1903, when Rafael was only 38 years old. But aside from all his many talents and diplomatic skills, the young Cardinal was known for his faith and his holiness. In fact, most Catholics might not know that one of their favorite prayers was written by him. It’s called the “Litany of Humility” and it’s one of the most beautiful and most difficult prayers I’ve ever prayed.

It’s difficult because humility is a call to martyrdom. It means dying to self and that’s the hardest thing in the world to do. It’s impossible without the Holy Spirit. To begin with, being humble doesn’t mean being timid or insecure or spineless. Humility isn’t low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. It doesn’t mean withdrawing from the challenges of life or being a pushover. Humility is seeing yourself honestly and realizing that you are not God. We know that everything we have is a gift from God and apart from Him, we are nothing. Humility makes us grateful. We give thanks to The Lord for everything, including our suffering. Humility knows that God is in control of everything, at every moment, and our surrender to His will gives Him glory.

When we put the needs and wants of other people before our own, it pleases God. When love is how we live, humility is in our hearts. Humility is serving others, obedience to our Maker and contentment in God’s plan for my life. He loves me completely and I belong completely to Him. I don’t have to “do” anything to impress Him. Humility goes against the ways of the world. This prayer, written by a Secretary of State, calls me to live in humility and to experience the peace of Christ in my heart. I hope it will do the same for you.

The Litany of Humility
—by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val

“O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being caluminiated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I, set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I, unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Amen.”

The three greatest virtues of Christianity: humility, humility, humility.”
—St. Augustine