It feels like a terrible thing I’m about to say, but here goes: I often have a very hard time with prayer.
I wish I didn’t. I wish I had a heart like St. Therese or John Paul the Great or St. Francis de Sales, but right now I don’t. I’ve been struggling greatly with discouragement and futility and a lack-luster, ho-hum spirit. Combine that with the busyness of homeschooling, childcare, housework, and other responsibilities and it’s a recipe for defeat.
Why is it such a struggle? Everything in me wants to be closer to Jesus. There’s nothing in my heart that wants to reject Jesus and choose the world instead. Yet I continually seem to be clawing my way up the mountain loaded down with frustration and doubt instead of walking steadily along the path of trust and devotion.
I love Jesus. There is no doubt about that. He is my Wonderful, merciful Savior. I will not let Him go. That much I know for sure. So why doesn’t that translate into a vibrant, rich, colorful, fulfilling prayer life? What’s wrong with me?
What’s wrong is that I’m me and not the idealized, perfected image of me that I want to be. I have many weaknesses to overcome. If I am ever to do that, I need help. And Jesus, being ever wise and helpful, gives me what I need – struggle.
The struggle is a gift because the most important thing I need to learn is simply to be faithful. To commandeer Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It.” Like strengthening a muscle through repeated exercises, my heart needs some strength training, and some days the weight is heavier than others. There are those sweet times when prayer is joyful and rewarding and inspiring, but then there’s times when it’s like schlepping through thick mud and it feels utterly pointless.
It is a test of my faithfulness. It’s the weight of perseverance. It will strengthen me if I carry it. I don’t have to run with it, only walk. But if I truly want to grow in devotion and holiness, I am obligated to struggle. There’s no assurance that I won’t fall or fail miserably – quite the opposite. Sure as the sun will rise, I will fall. I’ll screw up. It doesn’t matter. I’m obligated to struggle anyway.
Devotion is proven during the hard times; the flat, stale, monotonous times. It’s easy to fall in love, but staying in love requires great effort. God has heard me say I want to love Him more, and He obliges my request by giving me ample opportunities to prove it. It’s up to me to push my weak heart to resist the complacency and excuses and distractions and come to Him in prayer.
I recently read “The Sustaining Power of Ritual: Emotions, Celebration, Boredom” by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser and it was a good dose of encouragement. He begins like this: “Never travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long trip there are bound to be some boring stretches.”
He writes in a reassuring way about the purpose of ritual and habit in our spiritual lives. Everything is not exciting, brimming with emotion and romance all the time. That does not automatically mean there’s something wrong. There is something important to be said for routine and duty.
“Duty and commitment without heart will not ultimately sustain themselves. However, with that being admitted, it is important to recognize and name the fact that any relationship in love, family, church or prayer can only sustain itself over a long period of time through ritual and routine. Ritual sustains the heart, not vice versa.”
“Anyone who prays only when she can affectively bring along her heart and soul will not sustain prayer for long. But the habit of prayer, the ritual, simple fidelity to the act, showing up to do it irrespective of feelings and mood, can sustain prayer for a lifetime and reign in the roaming of the head and heart.”
Jesus knows what meager, pitiful things I have to give Him even on my best days. It’s not Jesus who tells me I must prepare an extravagant banquet for Him every time I pray, but the enemy of my soul. That way he can persuade me to skip prayer when I am feeling stressed or disinterested or unmotivated. It’s pointless to pray when your heart isn’t in it, he lies. Why bother?
Well, I need to bother because it’s the only way to resist the liar. It is never pointless to pray and Satan knows it. And whether I say, “Amen” and feel any better for the time I spent in prayer or not is beside the point. I’m building spiritual muscle and training my will. I’m showing the Lord in my small way that I’m not a fair-weather friend but a sincere follower.
The good news is that as Catholics we have a rich storehouse of prayers at our disposal to help train our weak prayer muscles. The Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, the Angelus, etc., are all tailor-made for developing a sustaining ritual of prayer throughout the day. There’s also no shortage of wonderful devotional books with daily readings to jump-start your prayer and focus your heart in the right place. My favorite right now is the In Conversation with God series by Francis Fernandez. (It’s easy to find on Amazon and most Catholic bookstores.)
Whether the prayers spill out of a full heart and roll off the tongue or whether it feels like schlepping through mud or as dull as watching paint dry, it’s all good. The hardest part may be just showing up and doing it. It takes repetition, time, determination, and humility. It’s a struggle I don’t think is going to go away anytime soon. But fidelity through the hard times is the evidence of love; faithfulness when it’s easier to give up is the mark of devotion.
So there is only one thing to do – pray. If it doesn’t come easily, pray all the more. And be assured that by doing so your heart will be strengthened, your faith increased whether you can immediately perceive it or not. The struggle is not there to frustrate you or discourage you but to condition your soul for the battle.
Just do it. And remember you’re not alone. I’m schlepping right along with you.